What may have been the largest squat in Europe, at Grangegorman in Dublin, was recently evicted for the second time. A major hardship for the 30 people living there but one that was rapidly improved on when many of them moved a kilometre down the road and occupied a long abandoned prison.
The Debtors Prison on Halston street was built in 1794 and actually lies between Halston Street and Green Street. The ‘U’ shaped 3 storey building is built of granite and limestone and was built as a luxury prison for the wealthy who had run up gambling debts. There were 33 such rooms / cells which were rented either furnished or unfurnished. If you weren’t rich you were thrown into the basement, Dublin at the time had 5 debtors prison and this one alone could accommodate 100.
It later saw use as a police barracks, both the RIC and the Garda, and in the 1960s for public housing. After that it was threatened with demolition in the period when many historic buildings and indeed squares were pulled down to make way for ‘development’ before being leased by Students Against the Destruction of Dublin, a campaigning group formed by architecture students in the 1980s and then handed back to the Office of Public Works (OPW).
Ireland has a very hostile legal climate for squatting, which is a major part of the reason why despite a severe housing shortage the centre of Dublin is full of both long abandoned buildings and people sleeping on the streets. Property speculators rest safe in the knowledge that if their muscle fails to illegally evict squatters judges will issue injunctions to force them out, even if no intention exists to use the building.
In this case though the building is state owned but has still been allowed to remain derelict for a number of years. Of course once it was being brought back into use outside its control the state panicked and suddenly was concerned for the health and safety of a group of people it had just evicted to the ‘health and safety’ of the streets. But apparently without shame the Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works told Mr Justice Michael Hanna that for a range of reasons running from the state of the electricity supply to the presence of pigeon droppings this group had to be forced back onto the streets for their own good.
The occupiers argued in court that the states claim to title was no better than theirs but they needed time to demonstrate this. The judge gave them a week but ordered them to be out by midnight Sunday.
The occupiers posted a statement to the Facebook page set up to resist the eviction of their previous accommodations at Grangegorman which reads
“The Debtors Prison on Halston Street has recently been occupied by a collective of artists. The prison has been left empty and has fallen into disrepair. The occupants are currently seeking support and cooperation from the organisation responsible for the maintenance of the building, the Office of Public Works, as well as the local community. The occupants have stated that their intention is to restore the building and open the ground floor for exhibitions and walking tours which would highlight social injustices from the past until today. The occupants are hard at work preparing the space and launching projects.”
Sh what happen’s if the state gets them evicted? Well according to the website site of An Taisce, the National Trust of Ireland the prison is “Vacant with no identified new use”. They go on to say “The building is suffering from major conservation problems. Most of the external fabric remains, but there are obvious signs of deterioration such as slipped slates, vegetation growth, broken windows and vandalism. There is no immediate danger of collapse but condition is such that unless urgent remedial works are carried out the building will sharply deteriorate… The building is of significant historic importance and requires conservation works to prevent further deterioration.”
Or in other words this building badly needs to be occupied and brought back into use to prevent further deterioration. A large group of people are doing just this and this group have already a proven record of hosting free artistic and community events in their previous base at Grangegorman. We also understand that a small local business offered a grant of 10k per annum towards restoration for the next decade if OPW allowed them a long term zero cost lease.
The state which insists it doesn’t have the funds to fix the building up when faced with a group of people willing to do so for nothing drags them into the courts and seeks to kick them out on the streets.
Keep an eye on their Resist Grangegorman's Eviction page for updates, we took the photo used with this story from that page.
Words:Andrew Flood (follow Andrew on Twitter)