"Just don't call us 'squatters'. You can say residents, resisters, occupants but not squatters. Ireland's not like France or the Netherlands – here, if you use the word 'squatter', people think you're a junkie. What we're doing is creating a community space and it's one that people appreciate."
Greum Na Hearadh is one of the 30 people living in a vacant complex – Ireland's biggest squat – in Grangegorman, an up-and-coming district in the north of Dublin that's becoming a front line in the city's gentrification battle. A soft-spoken hippie, Greum and his friends have become unlikely symbols of the ideological clash between Ireland's banks, property developers and the people they're evicting.
A couple of weeks ago, private security and Gardai stormed the complex of three houses, some warehouses and a yard. In a move more befitting a Bond film than a few hippies growing vegetables, the cops pulled out the public order unit while a chopper blasted light onto the dazed locals below. The choppers had heat detectors, which picked up two patches. Cops assumed these were grow houses for weed when in fact they were biomass electricity generators the squatters built.
The Irish media went into full blown hissy-fit mode, with many – including Dublin's Lord Mayor Christie Burke – coming out in support of the squatters. For the Irish cops it was yet another bad PR day as people raced to online forums complaining about security companies, property rights and our current homelessness crisis.
The district of Grangegorman and the complex specifically are just more examples of how little Ireland has learned from its boom and bust. Right now, the complex has a community garden, two biomass plants and a studio area, as well as a large area for gigs, readings and exhibitions. But Ernst and Young, the receivers appointed by the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), don't seem to care about that. Given the huge police presence, it's fair to say the Irish state agrees.
This pretty nondescript area is now home to Dublin Institute of Technology's Arts department, and that means €€€ is to be made from student accommodation – some say in the form of three apartment blocks, each standing 11-storeys high. The site's been valued at €4.2 million (£3 million) and the bank/property developer/state hybrid, which apparently learned nothing from the boom to bust days of the Celtic Tiger, is ploughing through family homes at an expected repossession rate of 50,000 this year. While those people are repeatedly pleading in court, the 30 people in the complex in Grangegorman – who, let's face it, probably can't afford Dublin's insane rents – have become symbols of resistance in a battle against the usual forces of gentrification smirking behind walls of private security and Gardai.
After two years at the property, Greum said the group are looking at legal avenues to keep the place. They currently have a stay of execution until the 5th of May when they're back in court. There are three named occupants. Everyone else has adopted the surname "unknown" in order to avoid injunctions.
I spoke to "Ray Unknown" about the public reaction to the case. "We've such a big public following that if the security companies pull anything it will be a disaster for them. We've support from the austerity groups and anti-eviction groups and the water demonstration crowd came up yesterday. There's a lot of people behind us," he said.
One of those people is Byron Jenkins, co-founder of The Hub, Ireland's Anti-Eviction Task Force: "We've been chatting to the guys in Grangegorman, looking into the legal side of things. We're going to have to become rebellious, it's starting to seem like that's the only way to go. Today when I was driving past Dolphins' Barn I saw whole estates unoccupied. We need to get a legal framework for squatting. Right now I'm driving to meet a woman who's been living in her car with her kids all weekend. Things have gone mental now. The Hub is not anti-establishment but we're pro-human. We're starting to use their own system to beat them. It's the only way," he said.
Byron's organisation is inundated with calls as Ireland's homeless crisis rages on. Just before Christmas there were over 1,000 people, including 700 children, in emergency accommodation in Dublin, a situation unlikely to be helped by the 50,000 people that could be made homeless this year.
Before leaving, I bumped into Milenka from Brazil who told me she was a magazine journalist. She commented on how spaces like Grangegorman are vital for culture.
"Ireland is the land of Guinness and whiskey but I see huge problems with the way people consume alcohol in this country. I just don't get why they're targeting spaces like this. Creative spaces that allow people to express themselves in other ways be it music, art or poetry. Its important for people to have vehicles for their creativity outside of drinking," she said.
Even if Milenka's sentiments echo that of every Irish mammy, it's doubtful that will slow down the €100 million (£73 million) development planned for a site that is for now home to one of the city's vibrant subcultures.
Ray said after the recent eviction attempt people are on edge, but will continue to fight. "They can keep intimidating us but we'll stay stay strong. The worst thing is with all the commotion they scared away our rabbit. Hopefully he'll come back to his home soon and it's just that – his home."
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