Dublin’s squatters: ‘Empty houses are a waste’
They occupy vacant buildings, forage for discarded food, and use ‘squat knocks’
Daragh from Dublin, a squatter outside some boarded-up houses in Phibsborough, Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson
“It’s free space under your feet. You feel like you’re in your own living room, no matter where you go.”
This is how David – the squatters I spoke to for this article asked that I use only first names – describes what it feels like to squat. An avid painter, squatting gives him time to pursue his artistic interests, and opens up the city so he feels at home no matter where he is.
Though David has been squatting in his house for over two years now, others don’t fare quite so well. Recently, a squat in Balnagowan House, off Mobhi Road in Glasnevin, was occupied for less than two weeks before the squatters were evicted.
Quiet and seemingly frozen in time, the six or so squatters who moved in breathed new life into the place
Having visited the squat during those weeks, I can report that it was wonderful to sit on the large balcony out the back in the summer heat and watch a family of foxes frolic in the garden. Built as one of Ireland’s first Art Deco properties between 1929 and 1931, the house had been vacant since 2005.
Quiet and seemingly frozen in time, the six or so squatters who moved in breathed new life into the place.
Paintings filled the walls, and the squatters wrote snippets of poems or song lyrics alongside the already existing graffiti contributed by local youths. Credited to Leonard Cohen, one piece of text faced the foxes and read: You go your way / I’ll go your way too.
There was a steady stream of visitors to the squat’s doors, although every knock brought a level of tension until it became clear exactly who was outside.
The squatters left and went on their way, and though the building was boarded up, a few signs of their squatting remains. Those in the know will recognise a tiny drawing on a box outside the house: a broken arrow through a circle, the international symbol of squatters.
Both David and Darragh squat near Phibsborough, Dublin 7, and while they do it for different reasons, the two share a common thread in that squatting allows for the pursuit of their ideals. It also leaves them free from the pressure of meeting rent payments or satisfying the needs of a landowner.
He ended up in the house due to 'happenstance', he says
Though squatting in Dublin is rarely in the news, old squats such as Squat City in Grangegorman and the Barricade Inn enjoyed degrees of public popularity and notoriety. Grangegorman, in particular, holds a nostalgia amongst squatters in the city, as almost everyone in the community retains some link to the space. Both places, however, have since closed.
David lives in a residential house where his striking paintings (many depicting the Grangegorman squat) cover the walls. He ended up in the house due to “happenstance”, he says.
He says his paintings take a long time to complete, and that he wouldn’t be able to paint if he wasn’t living in a squat. He feels it would be impossible to work a job, “try to be paying rent and everything else, and be trying to paint”.
Though this kind of approach to life is unconventional, for David, squatting gives him freedom “to pursue what I believe in, and to do work that I think is good work”.
While squatting brings with it instability and the constant threat of eviction, these negatives are outweighed by the peace of mind David has found in himself: “There’s an even bigger sense of security in your own skill set and the soles of your own feet. You’re just comfortable in your own skin.”
Darragh, who is self-employed, says he squats because he “can’t afford the high rates of rent to move out and go on the private property market”.
He checks for signs of abandonment such as piles of mail in doorways
And in a sentiment shared by many squatters he is appalled by what he says are “empty houses going to waste”. Given the numbers of vacant buildings, Darragh notes that “squatting often presents itself as an obvious – albeit temporary – solution to some people’s housing difficulties.”
Making positive use of abandoned buildings is something he feels should be done in response to the housing crisis. While this doesn’t necessarily entail squatting, Darragh would like squatting to be used “as an opportunity to access existing housing.”
Squatters can be evicted at any time and of course will not reap the rewards of any work they have put into the home
From a squatter’s perspective, various attempts are made to ensure that targeted properties are actually vacant. According to Darragh this can include researching deeds, using Google aerial view and physical inspections. In addition he says he checks for signs of abandonment such as piles of mail in doorways, overgrown gardens, or taping keyholes in order to check whether they’ve been used or not.
“There are a lot of resources spent on actually opening up a place and trying to establish it as a squat.”
Squatters can be evicted at any time and of course will not reap the rewards of any work they have put into the home. While some squats, like David’s, have lasted years, some may last just a night or two.
‘Skipping’, the act of taking food and other items from rubbish bins, is an activity many squatters engage in as many supermarkets throw out perfectly good food. One squatter noted how they skipped a load of caviar, and David says he once found a €50 piece of steak.
Describing the variety of spots around the city to skip, David says sometimes he’ll come across rubbish bags left in alleyways that will be full of “that-day’s soup, or that-day’s sandwiches, or that-day’s bread”.
With supermarkets, he says “it’s literally like they poured the shelves of packaged food into the bins”.
David and his friends will sift through what’s available, check dates of food, and “if there’s a lot of one thing, we’ll let people know, or try take a lot of it and spread it around instead of us having a bag of ginger”.
Apart from the “unbelievable” steak, he has found a lot of flowers: “I love taking flowers out of bins. They’re always throwing flowers out.”
Surrounding residents seem largely positive about the squatters
Before it was closed down by gardaí in August 2016, Squat City in Grangegorman was home to around 30 squatters across three houses and numerous warehouses. There were open days so the public had times to visit and help in the community garden, poetry nights named Words in the Warehouse, and the International Squatters’ Convergence was held there in 2014.
Surrounding residents seem largely positive about the squatters. One long-term resident of the area, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the squatters “were viewed with more amusement than fear”. While residents may not have understood the squatters, “they made good neighbours,” who largely kept to themselves.
Having been to events in the squat, the resident says they were well-organised, and the squatters “were doing something that had a cultural side to it. The parties certainly didn’t cause trouble in the area, which you might have expected”.
Pirooz Daneshmandi, another long-term resident and a founding member of the Grangegorman Residents Alliance, says that while he feels it is difficult to justify squatting, it’s “also difficult to justify abandoned property”. To him, the squatters made use of derelict space that was an eyesore.
“I certainly didn’t notice any negative impact,” he says. “If anything, it would have been more positive than negative. They were trying to grow their own food, and they were presumably providing accommodation or housing for a few people, which is better than being on the street.”
When the squat eventually ended for good, the loss to Pirooz was that “we went back again to a situation where there was an empty derelict space”.
The site is now being developed by Global Student Accommodation.
Squatting is not recognised in Irish law – see panel – and carries with it a variety of negative associations; that people live in squalor, or that squats are filthy and derelict. Though this does happen occasionally, at the end of the day squats are people’s homes. Squatters, like anyone else, want a comfortable home.
You can never really relax, or at least you find it hard to relax, even when you leave the place
However, “there’s always that apprehension that you could be gone next week,” Darragh says. He describes the necessity of “squat knocks”, which are specific knocks squatters know each other by at the door.
“When it’s your regular knocks – bang, bang, bang – that’ll freak you out.”
Insecurity is the one constant of squat living, regardless of how long a building has been occupied. As David says, squatting carries with it the idea that everything is temporary.
“One of the guys described it as running downhill. You’re just always going, always on the go. You can never really relax, or at least you find it hard to relax, even when you leave the place.
“And I still get that feeling in this house: will it still be there when I get back?”
Squatter’s rights: The long legal road to recognition
Adverse possession, otherwise known as squatter’s rights, allows a third party to claim a right over land or property registered in someone else’s name on the basis that they have occupied it continuously for more than 12 years. The period of time is reduced to six years if the owner of the building/land has died and it has not been inherited by someone else.
To obtain squatter’s rights, a detailed affidavit must be sent to the Property Registration Authority. This must present indisputable evidence that the squatter is now entitled to the property.
Occupiers who have a signed rental agreement with the owner at some stage cannot make a claim for squatter’s title.
However, breaking into a house is a criminal offence as is trespassing on a property with the intention of damaging the property or stealing items from the property.