In freewheeling Dublin collective Seomra Spraoi, the personable is political
Group offers ‘a space where you don’t feel like you need to buy a cup of overpriced coffee just to sit and relax for a while’
Rob O’Reilly, a bicycle mechanic in Seomra Spraoi off Mountjoy Square in Dublin, fixing a bike for the workshop. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Seomra Spraoi is a collective that established a radical social centre in 2004 which now resides on Belvedere Street in the north inner city of Dublin.
On its website it declares “this idea is an attempt to rebuild some of the things that have been lost to us in the modern world: the sense of community, an atmosphere of tolerance and respect, a safe and secure environment, and a non-commercial space for political, arts, cultural, community and other events.
“It’s a space where you don’t feel like you need to buy a cup of overpriced coffee just to sit and relax for a while.”
On a bright Thursday evening, a bike workshop is taking place in the back yard. Upstairs, their bi-monthly general meeting is about to start. The people involved in Seomra Spraoi feel they have been misrepresented in the media in the past – depicted as a fluffy, neo-hippy bunch, or as something to be suspicious of – and because of their non-hierarchical form of organisation there is no one person in charge, no spokesperson, no representative.
Their adherence to consensus breeds courteous contentment, with a deeply political heart. Several groups operate out of the space including pro-choice collectives and anti-racism groups. There are gigs and language classes, feminist discussion groups and creative writing workshops. During their general meeting, a group of Roma Travellers are looking for a meeting room. A Korean festival is seeking a place to rehearse.
Seomra Spraoi operates on the principles of autonomy and self-management, openness and inclusion, co-operation and mutual aid, and on a not-for-profit and environmentally sustainable basis.
Kevin, a young man studying social care who has been involved for about a year, says he just saw it “as a great place to come and meet people”. He points out some elements of the space, consisting of two floors and an outdoor area. Downstairs there’s a kitchen, a cinema room, a communal computer and free wifi. Upstairs are meeting rooms and a room often used for meditation.
There’s a small ‘free shop’ in one corner, a space with clothes on a rail: if you have something you don’t want that’s clean and usable, it can be left here and anyone is free to take it.
“That’s a nice cushion,” Kevin says, picking up a slightly jaded looking pillow with an elephant motif. A library upstairs features independent, alternative, DIY literature.
The bike workshop is busy. There’s a covered seating area, where people adjourn while their bikes are being fixed, or just hang out, rolling cigarettes and engaging in conversations about everything from making hot water bottle covers with rabbit fur to emigration.
An ingenious wood-burning stove made from a beer keg keeps them warm. Men and women, locals and people of different nationalities wheel in their bikes to be assessed. Spare parts are handed around. Bikes are everywhere: in the front room, where a stack donated by the Garda lies waiting to be fixed up, and on the roof of the workshop outside. The ‘workshop’ sign is made from a bike chain. One yellow bike has ‘question everything’ written in black marker on the crossbar.
Inside, beside the coffee station you can almost smell the sarcasm from one particular notice, “Happy birthday Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore”. Above it, there’s the vegan cafe menu: butternut squash and chestnut bake with beetroot and walnut hummus, along with mango, coconut and cashew ice cream.
Barry from Dublin became involved in Seomra Spraoi in 2004, at a time when the city remained notoriously unaccommodating towards alternative spaces that didn’t fit into the rigid paradigm of commercial retail or offices.
Since the property market imploded, that paradigm has shifted. Alternative spaces, or at the very least, spaces making use of previously disused warehouses and buildings, have popped up around the city.
“It’s difficult to sum up, but we have an idea of how the city should be, how society could be,” Barry says.
“Rather than complain about it, we do something about it. I think personally the way of communicating to people that idea of ‘a better world’ is to show it to them. Show that it’s possible, rather than just talking about it or writing about it.”
“A lot of people talk about politics like it’s something that’s ‘over there’, where they vote every four years and then just shout at the TV about whatever decisions ‘they’ have made on your behalf. But this,” he says pointing at the ground of Seomra Spraoi’s back yard, “is politics as well. And it’s much more potent than the sort of passive engagement [many] people see their politics to be
“We’re not just building our little embassy off Mountjoy Square in the north inner city of Dublin. This is a way bigger idea than just this building and just this project.” He pauses, “but we don’t necessarily have all the answers either”.
Seomra Spraoi runs on donations. For more information visit seomraspraoi.org. For information on the bike workshop visit seomraspraoibikeworkshop.wordpress.com