Protest over housing shortages and high rents has escalated rapidly in Ireland since 2016. The Home Sweet Home movement, which staged a high-profile occupation of a former government building in late 2016, framed the problem of homelessness as a historical failure of the state to deliver on the promise of the Proclamation one hundred years previously:
“…Coming from a famine country where everyone was displaced and had to leave, we think we should be in the forefront of ending homelessness especially in these cruel times of austerity, of banking crisis, of people paying debt.”
This protest against homelessness is one of several social movements that have harnessed the centenary commemorations for grassroots political leverage. The austerity imposed by successive governments in the wake of the banking crisis of 2008 gave new energy to a fractured left, now mobilised around specific issues: progressive reform on rights for gay and trans people and access to reproductive rights, and opposition to water charges, direct provision, and homelessness.
It is the first time since the 1960s that we have seen this level of progressive action from grassroots social movements in Ireland. The conventional wisdom is that Ireland didn’t experience the same kind of anti-establishment upheaval that characterised the “Sixties” elsewhere. The Civil Rights protests in Northern Ireland are part of our understanding of the global sixties, but historical narratives generally ignore social unrest in the Republic. But against the background of the first cycle of commemorations – the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising and the subsequent establishment of a revolutionary independent parliament in 1919 – several groups came together within the Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC) to pressure local and national government to find solutions to housing shortages in Dublin. In doing so, they reframed domestic historical and political narratives, within international leftist ideas and tactics, including occupations and squatting that had proved successful in UK and US rights movements. Between 1966 and 1969, the DHAC brought international anti-poverty activism together with a peculiarly Irish political narrative.
By the early 1960s, despite relative economic prosperity homelessness and social dislocation were on the rise in the capital. Officially founded in 1967, the Dublin Housing Action Committee was keen to point to the apparent contradictions between the promise of the Proclamation and the delivery of a social vision for justice within an Irish Republic:
“Our freedom has not yet been won, that the 26-county ‘Republic’ declared in 1949 is a sham. Ireland cannot be free until her whole wealth is under the control of the organized working people of the whole country.”
DHAC membership bulletin
Sinn Féin were early drivers of the movement; the DHAC offices were located at Sinn Féin headquarters in Gardiner Street. This is important: after the failed Border Campaign of the 1950s, Sinn Féin sought to reshape itself as a viable political choice for the Left. This desire to rekindle the class-based republican socialism of the early revolutionary period would eventually contribute to the split in the republican movement in the early 1970s, between those who sought a whole-republic socialist movement oriented around the needs of the working classes, and those who saw armed struggle as the route to an all-island republic.
But while Sinn Féin provided some of the networks and infrastructure for the DHAC, the two were not synonymous. Throughout Europe, squatters rights movements sought to reclaim cities for the poor. In 1968, the London Squatters Campaign had begun to occupy both luxury and empty habitable buildings throughout the city, to challenge the disconnect between local council policy and the realities of homelessness. Denis Dennehy, a key organizer in the DHAC, had squatted in both London and Birmingham, and brought this experience to the Dublin movement.
On 17 November 1968 Dennehy moved his whole family into a building at 20 Mountjoy Square. The property belonged to a prominent Dublin businessman Ivor B. Underwood; it had been left vacant for some time, possibly in the hope that its conditions of use could be changed from residential to commercial. On 16 December, Mr Justice Butler ordered the Dennehys to vacate the premises, or find themselves in contempt of court. Reporting the case in its January issue, The United Irishman concluded that “despite the grand language of the Sacred 1937 constitution, a working-class family counts for nothing against the might and majesty of landlordism in Ireland.” Dennehy refused to leave, and on 3 January, he was imprisoned for contempt of court. In protest at his arrest, he went on hunger strike.
The timing was choreographed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first Dáil in January 1969. Dennehy’s hunger-strike was the single most important consciousness-raising activity undertaken by the DHAC. It increased popular support, and also galvanised support from opposition politicians, students, the unions, and the Cooperative Society, Dóchas. For Dóchas, the historical significance was clear:
“What happened to Denis Dennehy on the eve of the first Dáil’s 50th anniversary must never be allowed to happen again. The gaoling of homeless Denis Dennehy should be the last indignity that we allow the homeless to suffer.”
Irish Independent, 21 January 1969.
The eventual release of Dennehy in late January, and the publication of a new Housing Bill the following March, marked some degree of success for the DHAC. But demonstrations continued until late 1969, when the focus of attention began to gravitate north as violence escalated in Derry and Belfast.
Now, fifty years later, activists demonstrate a similar historical sensibility in the ways they seek to raise the profile of Dublin’s homeless crisis. The launch of the #raisetheroof campaign was timed to coincide with the centenary of the first Dáil, and the publicity posters specifically referenced the democratic programme of the revolutionaries of 1919. Commemoration comes with expectation. Half a century after its ‘Just Society’ platform, the main party of government Fine Gael still struggles to balance social justice with neoliberal political imperatives. Following in the footsteps of the Dublin Housing Action Committee, today’s protesters continue to use political commemorations to try to force the state to prioritise people over profit.
Sinead McEneaney received her doctorate from Maynooth University in Ireland, and over the past years she has held teaching positions at Newcastle University, the University of Essex and St Mary’s University, Twickenham before a recent move to the Open University. Her research interests lie primarily in the social and political history of the 1960s in the US, with a particular focus on grass roots protest movements.