From pitched battles with Gardaí to partnership with Dublin City Council, Terry Fagan, of the North Inner City Folklore Project, discusses Dublin’s long history of housing struggle in with Peg Lesson.
I’m walking along Foley St, formerly Montgomery St from which the infamous Monto derived its name, to the ground floor flat that was once the home of Terry Fagan’s mother, Margaret. The story of how she came to spend her final years living here exemplifies a long, often physical, exchange between the working poor of the inner city and the then Dublin Corporation.
Terry was born in Corporation Buildings. The red-brick flat complex, built in 1906, was one of a series of initiatives undertaken to elevate a severe housing crisis bought on by years of economic stagnation and neglect. These apartments, measuring four meters by five, housed a family each. Typical large Irish families, cramped together in one room, four rooms to a hall and 390 halls in the complex. Terry remembers: “You could only fit one bed in them. There was about 12 in our family, so basically we used to keep a mattresses under the bed so at night time the bits of furniture that we had were pushed back and we slept there.”
The area supplied much of the labour for the dock-yards and surrounding industries. It wasn’t easy, but the challenges forged a unique identity with its own way of doing things.
However for Terry “the area started to change around the late 1960s. Dublin was changing, the docks were going. There was a decline. When containerisation came in it changed things. Prior to that most of the dockers done manual work. The cargo had to be hand-loaded from the hull of the ship but the containers changed that, you used a crane to pick it onto a lorry and away. So people were laid off. As well as the dock you had the timber- and coal-yards that the younger men would work in and some of the women would work in the factories. So it was all kinda tied into the docks and when that changed everything changed.”
Although financially times were changing, a poor community was getting poorer, the population was still growing. Over-crowding was becoming an increasing issue. Newly-weds and young families were having to live with their parents, while the private landlords just didn’t want to know if you’d kids. The only other option, in holy Ireland, was single sex hostels which split up families. At the same time people were moving out of the inner city, and when that happened the Corporation would gut the fittings, take out the windowpanes and put up galvanised sheeting.
In the late 1960s a crisis for one of Terry’s friends lead his gang of mates to the obvious conclusion:
“One of the guys had a row within the family, so him and herself were out and didn’t know where to go. We said hang on a second there are empty places here, lets take one of them. So we started to pull down the shutters, take down the steel and open up the room and the whole lot. At that time Dublin Corporation would remove the sinks and things like that. But we were able to get them back, retain them back, ‘cos they kept them in a storage yard. So we went into the yard and we got a few sinks and things back up. In fairness some of the Corporation workers helped us, the ordinary Joe soaps, they would help…we got blokes to help plumb back in the sinks and we fixed up the windows and people started to move in.”
The phenomena wasn’t confined to the Foley St area but was occurring across the city throughout the late 60s and early 70s.
This was before the Forcible Entry and Occupation Act, 1971 which criminalised anyone found squatting in a building that had been broken into, whether you broke the squat or not. But for Terry that didn’t make a difference, this was between the north inner city community and the Corpo, the cops didn’t often get involved and usually only as back up during contentious evictions.
“When the Corporation would come up into a place you would have all the neighbours coming out and they would feel intimated with all the families standing in the doorways looking at them, and then they would bring the cops along. But the cops would just stand by. The cops didn’t really take issue until the 80s, and then that was different.”
The difference that Terry identified were changes to the way the Corpo planned the city to be settled, and it had a direct effect on his own family and their community. The Corporation flats were demolished in 1973. Terry who had squatted one of them when he first got married was rehoused in Sheriff St and his mum Margaret in Foley St.
“She moved for them and she moved into Foley St flats, and she said to me the last place I’ll ever move out of is Foley St.”
Unfortunately five years later the Corporation had different plans. The trend in urban planning was towards large, purpose-built estates on the outskirts of the city, effectively de-tenanting the inner city and leaving it ripe for redevelopment. From the late 70s services had been slowly withdrawn from the area. It was getting depressed and run down – many people wanted out.
Margaret Fagan wasn’t having it. She had been born in the Old Monto, she had played in its streets and reared her family there. She had her neighbours around her, her local shops and pubs. If things were bad she could call across the balcony and a lifetime of networks and supports would be there.
Terry remembers that time:
“She said ‘I’m not moving out’. The services were withdrawn from Foley St but she still would not give in. She used to go down to a local factory and get buckets of water and carry them up the stairs, like in the old tenements, do her washing…they wanted to rehouse her in Ballymun, which for a woman born and reared in the inner city was too far out. She said ‘I want to stay around my own community, this is were I was born'”.
The re-housing options that the Corporation offered Margaret were poorly serviced with infrastructure and public transport. Some people moved says Terry:,
“Some of them moved ‘cos they were sick and tired and worn down. Some of them moved out to the housing estates were there was no infrastructure in place, they went out there with their kids, there were no shops nearby, there were not bus routes established in it. They found these new houses that they got were closed hall doors. In the inner city you could come out on the balcony, or stand at your door and talk to your neighbour but in these new housing estates it was totally different. Nobody stood at the doors. So you went into your house and that was it. The houses weren’t designed for the people who were moving into them. In these new houses, you were broken away from your friends, you don’t know who you are living next to.”
In 1980, Margaret wasn’t alone in trying to exercise control over her future. Foley St, Sean MacDermott St, Gardiner St and Summerhill were still tenements, some with a single outside toilet and tap for a five-storey building, these were the living conditions of the 19th century, not the 1980s. People did want to be re-housed but they didn’t want to move to be forcibly removed to the outskirts of the city.
As Terry points out: “We knew for a fact that what was happening was that the community was being destroyed and torn apart…but my mother and other people, stood strong. So we came up with a policy – the only way we were going to get proper housing and be relocated where we want is if we form an action committee.”
The action committee relied upon the stoic ability of the close-knit community to self-organise. Calls were put out via word of mouth, prams appeared alongside home-made placards.
“To get rehoused we actually blocked off all the streets. We blocked Talbot St. That bought us into conflict with the law…there was fighting with police, it was absolutely fierce”‘
The resistance eventually lead to the famous ‘Gregory Deal’, 1982, which saw the then Taoiseach-in-waiting, Charlie Haughey promised millions of investment in the inner city to get his grubby paws on power.
Although Margaret eventually won the right to be rehoused locally it had changed. The earlier policies which had encouraged depopulation and the only partial rehousing of those who wanted to stay effected the network of businesses which once provisioned the flats and tenements, and another element of the community was destroyed. Terry felt that his mum, “missed the shops and pubs that had went. She died of a broken heart, cos the neighbours were all scattered. You might give them better houses but you destroy the heart of the community.
As we finish talking I ask Terry how he and the people he squatted with feel about it all forty years later?
“They would always recognise that you were a squatter. I’d ask would you tell the kids what you were at? And they would be like, the kids wouldn’t be interested. Some of them tell them how they started, how they got their house was through squatting and direct action. That is kinda folklore in the area. They count themselves as champions, they are proud of it. It was an area that always stood up for its rights…you felt you were doing something useful. There was no playgrounds, not like you have today. The streets were the playgrounds. Thankfully today with Dublin City Council it’s a different ball-game. They come in and consult with people and bring them on-board. That partnership thing is there and it works, it works around here.”