A Battle Fought Before.

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In recent months there has been a plethora of housing action campaigns established, all wishing to raise awareness around the issue of working class housing (or the lack of it) in Ireland today.  Donal Fallon takes us back to the crowbar brigades and squatting tactics of the 1960s’ Dublin Housing Action Campaign.

The 1960s witnessed very real agitation on the issue of housing, with the establishment of the Dublin Housing Action Committee and similar organisations in other Irish cities. Many of the key players involved in this movement were important figures in revolutionary political circles at the time, and the housing campaigns of the 1960s utilised direct action tactics which often succeeded in grabbing the headlines and the attention of authorities.

By the early 1960s, despite some substantial suburban construction projects in the decades prior such as those in Cabra and Ballyfermot, a significant number of people in inner-city Dublin were still living in outdated and dangerous tenement accommodation.

Two tenements collapsed within weeks of one another in June 1963, with two elderly Dubliners and two schoolchildren losing their lives. Images of a collapsed tenement on Bolton Street shocked the public on June 2nd, and by the end of the month the media were reporting that since the disaster “156 houses have been evacuated because they were in a dangerous condition. This has necessitated the rehousing of 520 families.” Families were housed in the old living quarters of Dublin Fire Brigade stations or moved temporarily into suburban Dublin, while the city even considered utilising prefabs to deal with the crisis. By no means were such horrors confined to Dublin, and indeed north of the border housing rights and access to a decent standard of accommodation for all was a central motivating issue for the Civil Rights movement there.

In May 1967, the Dublin Housing Action Committee was born, the brainchild of left-republican activists, and as Tara Keenan-Thomson has written in her study of women in Irish street politics historically “the main personalities in the group were Máirín de Burca, a young socialist (…) who had returned to Sinn Féin after it had shown signs of contemplating social action, and Prionsias de Rossa, another young republican socialist”. In addition to this Sinn Féin element, the movement also drew in members from a wide spectrum of leftist parties and community groups. Among its key demands were “The repair of dwellings by Dublin Corporation where landlords refuse to do so” and the immediate “declaration of a housing emergency” in the city.

Direct militant action against evictions ensured plenty of ink went on covering the DHAC in the national press, and on January 16th 1968 The Irish Times were reporting that “scuffles at the scene of two evictions in Dublin yesterday between a large force of Gardaí and members of the Dublin Housing Action Committee resulted in 23 arrests.” For authorities, there was a real fear that the DHAC could serve as a recruitment tool for republicans, moving from ‘the national question’ to social ones. The DHAC also provided support to those squatting housing in the city, for example in the summer of 1969 when three families occupied a Georgian home at Hume Street near Stephen’s Green. The remnants of the eighteenth century city of the rich, Georgian homes formed an unusual setting for 1960s class struggle.

This activity was not confined to Dublin either. In Cork, housing action campaigners occupied the City Hall in protest against poor housing for the working class in the city, while squatting tactics were also utilised by campaigners in Derry, in a decade of real campaigning in the northern city.

The arrest of the Secretary of the Dublin group, Dennis Dennehy, led to a high-profile demonstration at the Mansion House in January of 1969. Dennehy, a member of the Irish Communist Organisation, had gone on hunger strike at Mountjoy Prison. An event organised by the state to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the sitting of Dáil Éireann at the Mansion House was interrupted by Joseph Clarke, a veteran republican who had taken part in the Easter Rising and who supported the Dublin Housing Action Committee, wishing to draw attention to Dennehy’s actions. During Dennehy’s imprisonment Gardaí clashed with a very sizable number of protesters on O’Connell Bridge, something the Irish Independent labelled (perhaps over-enthusiastically!) the ‘Battle of O’Connell Bridge’.

Among those who took a role in the Housing Action Committee was Michael O’Riordain, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and a leading figure in the history of communism in Ireland. Another participant in many activities was Margaret Gaj, a feminist originally from Glasgow who owned a popular restaurant and hangout named Gaj’s on Baggot Street. In a 2011 obituary, Rosita Sweetman noted that “trade unionists, aristocrats, lawyers, bank robbers, prostitutes, students, artists, prisoners, civil-rights activists and Women’s Libbers all rubbed shoulders around the scrubbed hardwood tables.”

What brought about the demise of the DHAC and similar campaigns? Tom Murray has noted that by the early 1970s “Dublin Corporation’s ‘crowbar brigades’ were ejecting people daily without recourse to the law. These evictions came as the DHAC was fracturing under the pressures of its own internal politics.” Certainly, for many activists within the movement who had come from the republican-left, the eruption of violence in the north played no small role in the decline in housing related activism.

Illustration By Luke Fallon.

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