Orla Murphy, the ex-manager of Shebeen Chic and some of its workers tell Rashers Tierney a traditional tale of evictions, pub lock-ins and usurper landlords.
Dripping in Christmas lights, the court-yard cafe in the Powers Court Centre isn’t exactly the first place I thought I’d find myself talking to someone about a workplace occupation. Full of boutiques and bang right behind rabble enemy lines on South William Street, it’s one of the country’s most up-market shopping hubs.
Piped modern piano jazz twinkles in the air and to my left a middle aged American woman is ranting profusely to her friends about how corporations are treated as individuals. It’s the chemical giant Monsanto that gets her goat up and she sings the praises of the occupy movement. An unexpected moment of dissent in a cafe that looks like it belongs in a Sunday Independent supplement.
It’s easy to split Dublin up into either soulless background scenes for Fade St or down to earth joints – sometimes the water between the two gets muddied. So, no wonder my surprise at what happened in Shebeen. It was another unique moment of dissent, occurring in a bar I’d cynically wrote off as using a down-on-its-luck aesthetic which belied a reality jam packed with cash happy hipster refugees.
Over a coffee Orla Murphy tells me how wrong I am. Its visual style was a result of the tenant Jay Bourke, a well known venue and restaurant owner, having no money for a full fit out. “Everything was put together on a really small budget.You can make a really beautiful thing with imagination. It caught the mood of the people. People were tired of going to big bars ,with plush settings, and people didn’t have that kind of money anymore.”
The crux of their story is this: after a poor years trading their rent was negotiated to €100,000 and then a few months later it was brought back up to €156,000. In October 2010, the landlords, Kenneally McAuliffe, took Bourke to the High Court over rent payments, with Bourke being asked to pay €49,000 in outstanding rent. The staff found themselves stuck in the middle.
“At the original rent of €156,000 it would have been impossible to make that building work – we were the first premise to come along and make a success of it. There were four restaurants there, and they all failed during the boom and we came along and made a success of it in the recession.” For Orla, Shebeen was more like an art collective, an exemplar in how bars should be run after the boom. It had comedy, trad, cinema screenings, and band nights. Any staff I talked to chimed with her claims about what a joy it was to work there. The bar man Brian O’Neill told me:
“I’ve worked in many cities across the world, I’ve never worked in bar that had such a great atmosphere – the staff was all close knit, we all looked out for each other. We were all friends. There was a great communal atmosphere in there.” When the eviction notice was served the staff mounted a very unusual lock-in, refusing to vacate the premises and keeping it running for 6 weeks. Their demands to keep it running as a viable establishment fell on deaf ears and their 21 jobs became collateral damage in a vicious scrap between Jay Bourke and the landlords. Brian, another Shebeen head told me:
“It’s personal between them now, they really just dislike each other on a personal level and the landlord wanted him gone. We made three different proposals, which Orla and all of us came together on. We were going to do a co-op. Basically, Jay Bourke was going to sell the company to us for one euro, but we’d take on all debts and whatever. Our lease was supposed to be up on the 31st of January next year, so we wanted to just see us through til then.”
The prevailing spirit of collectivity in Shebeen helped seed the idea of occupying and keeping the bar going. They had support from UNITE, and a gaggle of TDs. As Andrew Behan put it. “It’s just the kind of place Shebeen is, we all contributed – we all designed the bar, made the bar – it was all our own ideas so you feel more of a connection. So that’s why we’d do anything to save it. It was just completely wrong, there was very very little notice given.”
When the bailiff eventually turfed them out, Brian and the rest had to deal with another proper horror show twist. “They opened up two days later which was a blatant two fingers in your face to us, the staff and using the same company name, which we intend to open up another Shebeen Chic. It’s total copyright infringement. They were trying to steal our stock, as well as all our equipment.”
Dublin’s village like tendencies saw the social networks bolt into action, urging people to boycott fake Shebeen. Having been the hub of a thriving cultural and social scene, their call found a huge resonance across the city. She tells me how she passed one night recently.
“I put it on Facebook – ‘there is three people in there now’ and someone said ‘they must have got lost!’ I just think that word is spreading, we had a great trade in there and lots of bands and lots of entertainment, and that word spreads among people and I’d be keen to get word out to boycott fake Shebeen, because they are trying to build a business on greed and dishonesty.”
The Shebeen staff are disgusted at being pushed onto the dole queues, and seeing the heart ripped out of a thriving little scene because of a dispute with a landlord they had no control over. It doesn’t stop there. Orla points out Fine Gael and Labour have reneged on an election manifesto promises to allow downward reviews of rent for existing businesses.
“No one could have foreseen back in 2008 how life was going to be in 2011. A lot of them have become like rent slaves to landlords, so landlords are trying to hold on to these crazy revenues that the traders can’t afford anymore. People are becoming rent slaves. The legislation needs to be pushed through as soon as possible, otherwise we are going to be left with really boring, humdrum high streets.”
The dispossessed staff are now left wandering the city. They have hopes of finding a new home for their Shebeen. The real one. In the mean time, they’ve given us a powerful reminder of how the 19th Century tactic of boycotting can be applied today.