The small society

Big ideas needn’t come from above. People work best from the bottom up

Sat, Oct 26, 2013, 01:00

“For us it was about free speech,” says Sian Crowley, one of the 30 or so members of the loose collective who run the space. “And it was really interesting. He brought all these older people who would never normally be in the space.”

Occupying a former printing works on Belvidere Court, Seomra Spraoi is modelled on anarchist-run autonomous social centres across Europe. It was founded during the anti-capitalist fervour of the early 2000s by campaigners associated with the former Magpie squat on Leeson Street. (None of the original founders is still involved.)

It was established as a collectively run noncommercial space at a time when being noncommercial was considered downright unpatriotic. Despite some anarchist symbols on the walls, they resist political labelling. Crowley’s friend Conor Murphy says they’re “vaguely leftish”.

An average week sees Seomra Spraoi hosting two cafe nights (payment is on a give-what-you-can-afford basis), a bakery, a very popular bike workshop, which is filling up as we talk – “a friend called the bike workshop a gateway drug to more radical politics,” says Murphy – language lessons, film screenings, political debates and lectures.

During meetings they use a system of hand signals, popularised by the Occupy movement, to gauge opinion, and they progress only by consensus. “We’ve only voted once,” says Murphy, “and that was over whether we’d allow milk. There are a lot of vegans involved.”

Working by consensus can be frustrating, but Crowley and Murphy both recognise the survival of the space as a success in itself. Seomra Spraoi is a place where people can plug into culture and activism and live out some of their political ideals. They’d like to see more spaces like this. Not that they think it’s a model that could operate for four million people. “They’d kill each other!” says Murphy, chuckling.

Cloughjordan ecovillage
In the late 1990s a number of people gathered in Dublin to discuss a new way of living. They put out a call through the Irish Farmers Journal for a site on which to build a community, and a delegation came from Cloughjordan, in Co Tipperary, to meet them. In 2001 they bought a site there, and the first houses were built in 2009.

Now there’s a farm, the largest bank of solar panels in Ireland, which powers the village’s heating system, and a “green enterprise centre” built with the help of North Tipperary County Council. There is a worldwide network of similar ecovillages, but this was the first in Ireland.

About 135 people live there, including Peadar Kirby, professor emeritus of international politics and public policy at the University of Limerick. He was initially a bit resistant to his wife’s desire to move there.

“I worried about the balance between the public and the private. Would I find people calling into me at all times of the day and night? Would my house be seen as a sort of public place? Those fears have been completely unfounded. It is a lively community – last night we had an 80-year-old North American indigenous elder who came to tell stories – but we all have the private space of our own houses.”

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Róisín Meets...Dawn O'Porter