Squatters bring life to old buildings
An anarchist collective in Dublin city centre has transformed an abandoned 19th century building into a social centre hosting gigs, screenings and workshops
Once a mansion: the three houses at 76-78 Parnell Street where an anarchist collective are squatting
‘The current occupants seem to be doing a better job at keeping the pigeons out than the authorities,’ Graham Hickey, conservation research officer the Dublin Civic Trust. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Most of the time, you might pass the three Regency style merchant houses at the O’Connell St end of Parnell St East and think they are just another group of abandoned buildings in Dublin’s city centre.
However, when the doors are opened three times a week by the residents and volunteers of the Barricade Inn Squatted Anarchist Social Centre, it’s a very different story. The ground floor and first floor of these three terraced early 19th century buildings are home to a hive of activities from gigs to film screenings to bike workshops and yoga sessions.
The ground floor is given over to a vegan café (open on Mondays and Saturdays) and a “radical” library with chairs from skips and neatly shelved socialist/anarchist pamphlets and books. Practical squatting workshops are held on demand on Wednesday evenings.
The first floor has a computer room, a screen printing room, a free “shop” – stocked with clothes and shoes – and meeting rooms. The next two floors accommodate up to 10 squatters and up to 10 local and international guests in dormitories.
Ironically, the houses once operated as Neary’s Hotel but now, visitors are reminded through graffiti to “Resist the Police” because they are “Murderers in Uniform”. Other messages express solidarity with Ungdomshuset, a squat under threat in Copenhagen. To the rear, a three-storey flat-roofed extension for kitchens and bathrooms is in ruins – with just the exterior walls extending from the ground floor right up to the inadequately repaired roof.
The floors on each level have rotted and fallen in. The house has central heating of sorts and remains connected to both water and electricity supplies – but no bills have been paid. On my second visit there, one of the squatters agrees to be interviewed. Robert O’Reilly (28), who is originally from Bray, says, “I lived in a punk house with friends in Killiney. We paid a cheap rent and played music and held concerts there. I lived in the Grangegorman squat [which was closed by gardaí last May] before I moved here in March.
“I was working as a stage hand and lighting technician when I first started squatting but now I prefer to just be here. I don’t claim any benefits and I live on ‘skip food’, mainly food that is thrown out by supermarkets because of damaged packaging.”
But is it safe to live in a squat so close to the city centre? “Yeah, I think it’s safe to live here. The gardaí know we’re here. We get hassled by drunk people sometimes. But, usually, we humour them and talk them out of the space. Very few of the residents here drink and the ones that do don’t drink that much. It makes decision-making easier.”
O’Reilly is a self-taught bike mechanic and runs bike workshops in the centre. Like everything else in the building, it is run on an ad hoc basis. People turn up with their bikes and use the tools to repair them, asking for help if they need it.
“We’re an anarchist collective – anti-authority and anti-capitalism. For me, the space is about creating an environment of resistance that can sustain itself. People here get involved in water protests, abortion rights, the workers’ solidarity movement and housing issues. The meeting rooms are available for activists.”
As we chat, two young women come down the stairs from a yoga class, leaving money in the donation box before they leave. “We run this place on a horizontal [non-hierarchical] basis. The donations we receive from people using rooms go back into running projects.”
O’Reilly admits that people often ask him why should they pay rent while he doesn’t. To which he replies, “you should squat too. There are plenty of empty buildings, more than enough for people’s needs. Squatting is not recognised in Irish law [see panel] and it would take a Civil Court judge to prove that someone has more rights to live here than us. The owner of the building died 10 years ago,” says O’Reilly. (Efforts were made to make contact with the current owner of the building for this article, but to our knowledge he is living abroad.)
At the practical squatting workshops, the collective at the Barricade Inn give advice to any prospective squatters on how to locate, enter and secure a building, how to talk to the owners and the gardaí, how to access water and electricity services.
O’Reilly reckons that there are currently about six squats in Dublin, one in Cork and at least one in Galway city. He believes that there is some public support for squatting. “In Grangegorman, the school and the neighbours were happy to have us there. It’s not just about the money. It’s about the empty buildings and homelessness.”
Three Georgian houses: Once a mansion
Graham Hickey, conservation research officer, the Dublin Civic Trust: “The three houses at 76-78 Parnell Street are an important group of Georgian houses that have miraculously managed to survive the extensive redevelopment around them. They show in stark terms what too often happens to old brick buildings in Dublin that receive an inappropriate coat of render and bad shop fronts.
“Suddenly, they look like industrial units, in spite of being otherwise intact. Incredibly, the grand middle house retains a fabulous mid-18th century staircase, with carved timber tread-ends and chunky balustrade, as well as finely proportioned rooms and good plasterwork.
“It seems this house and the adjacent number 76 originally comprised one enormous mansion in the first half of the 1700s, before being subdivided in the late Georgian period.
“The skinny house at number 78 is a little charmer and is the last standalone house of its kind in Dublin. This slim house type with elegant Wyatt windows and pretty shallow roofs were a Regency period solution to replacing narrow ‘Dutch Billy’ houses or infilling awkward sites.
“They were once commonplace around Dublin, as visible in Shaw’s Pictorial Directory of 1850, so this is a key survivor. This house even has a Gothic decorative flourish to its window mullions.
“The three houses were unoccupied and vulnerable long before the present occupation, in spite of being protected structures sitting at the top of the main street in the city. If anything, the current occupants seem to be doing a better job at keeping the pigeons out than the authorities.
“There is considerable scope to restore these houses to their former appearance. This would include stripping the inappropriate render that was recently applied to the facades, re-pointing the brickwork with traditional wigging, re-instating correct sash windows and good shop fronts. Internally, the houses would present fabulous living over the shop accommodation in one of the most central locations in Dublin.”
Squatters’ 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.