Hume Street marked turning point


At four o'clock on the first Sunday morning in June, 29 years ago, a crowd of demolition men broke into four Georgian houses in Hume Street, off St Stephen's Green in Dublin, beat the four people they found inside, demolished the roofs and wrecked the interiors.

The act galvanised Dubliners and politicians. At 4 p.m. that afternoon, 1,000 people attended a protest meeting addressed by such politicians as Dr Garret FitzGerald TD, Senator Mary Bourke (later Mary Robinson), Dr Noel Browne TD and Justin Keating TD.

In effect, though, the battle was over and Green Property Company, which owned the houses, had won. Yet, the battle of Hume Street marked a turning point in the attitude of people towards the behaviour of developers. The story began in 1966, when Dublin Corporation granted planning permission to Green Property Company for an office block on the site of four houses in Hume Street. The company then bought four more houses. However, the street was listed for preservation in the first Dublin draft development plan the next year. The company applied for permission to develop a site comprising all its houses and this was refused. In 1969, following an appeal, the Minister for Local Government, Kevin Boland, granted permission to rebuild.

Demolition began in December - and ended almost immediately when a group of students occupied the houses.

The event caught the imagination of the public, politicians and the media. Over the next six months, recalls Deirdre Kelly, one of the leaders of the occupation, "we used to have school parties coming in, people came from Belfast and places like that to visit us. We spent a lot of time showing people around".

People were becoming increasingly angry at the destruction of Georgian Dublin and such events as the demolition of houses by the ESB for its headquarters in Lower Fitzwilliam Street had fuelled that anger. The occupation of Hume Street tapped into the same anger.

Such was the public sympathy for the occupiers that even Charlie Haughey famously sent them a Christmas hamper.

The events of Sunday, June 7th, when agents of K Security and demolition men entered the houses as Gardai stood by and did nothing, brought not only massive protest but intervention by the Fianna Fail Minister for Finance, George Colley.

He got an agreement from Green Property Company that it would re-apply for planning permission and would do nothing more until that was obtained. Finally, the company got the go-ahead to develop the site so long as it reproduced the facades of the original houses.

This, Ms Kelly believes, was a very negative outcome of the occupation. "Suddenly, developers said to themselves if we build facades it doesn't matter what's behind them. It led to some awful reproductions, in Harcourt Street and Lower Leeson Street, for instance."

She believes this also led to the fashion for suburban houses with odd little Georgian bits tacked on to them. "It set back modern housing completely," she says.

On the other hand, she says, it gave the lie to those who dismissed conservationists by characterising them as the remnants of an elite Anglo-Irish artistocracy - as Kevin Boland had by referring to "belted earls". From then on, conservation was everybody's business - and though the destruction of Dublin was by no means at an end, developers and speculators could no longer take it for granted that it was open season on the city's architectural past.