Home sweet home: homelessness in Dublin, fifty years after the Dublin Housing Action Committee

The current ‘Home Sweet Home’ campaign to force the Irish government to take notice of the endemic problem of homelessness on Dublin streets has captured the empathy of a city. Reading the reports over the past few days, it is clear that there is a public appetite to address an obvious unfairness: the deliberate decision to leave properties vacant while people are homeless on the streets. When these properties, as is the case with Apollo House, belong to the government (or its agency, NAMA) the situation appears even more acutely illogical. It is not without significance that the occupation of Apollo House comes at the end of the celebratory year of the Rising, when we re-told ourselves stories of the bravery of men and women who had a social and political vision for an independent Ireland. Jim Sheridan, one of the celebrity supporters of the campaign, captured the problem within a historic narrative:

We were the first nation in the world to do that and, 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.

Indeed, this historic sensibility was a feature of the founding of the Dublin Housing Action Committee fifty years ago (1966 was also a commemoration year) against the background of rising homelessness, lengthening waiting lists for social housing, and the apparent contradictions between the promise of the Proclamation and the delivery of a social vision for justice within an Irish Republic. One wonders whether the Home Sweet Home campaign might finally deliver on the state’s promise to cherish its children equally, and to realize the social justice that we often attribute to the foundation myth of the state. If it does, then it might finally provide a resolution to problems that have been fifty years in the making.

In 1968 and 1969 a small activist organization called the Dublin Housing Action Committee grabbed headlines in much the same way: their protests and occupations against the spiraling problem of homelessness were framed within a language of historical responsibility. The roots of the crisis, like ours now, lay in events several years before. The tenements of the early 1900s were mostly gone, but housing provision in the city was still well below contemporary standards. Matters deteriorated rapidly in the summer of 1963, which was one of the wettest summers on record. Flooding caused numerous houses to collapse, almost all in areas traditionally associated with traditional ‘tenement’ dwelling. On both sides of the Liffey, fears increased regarding the safety of old houses. Housing shortage became so critical that the Dublin Health Authority acquired a section of Griffith Barracks to house homeless families.

When the Housing Act of 1966 was signed into law, the government’s priorities in housing matters became clear. Already in the pipeline since the Housing Act of 1962, the 1966 Act declared government incentives for citizens to purchase their own homes. This was a move away from state responsibility for housing provision, and effectively called upon citizens to make provision for their own accommodation. Government-backed loans would be offered to help families (the basic constitutional unit of the state) to purchase homes; the expectation was that these measures might provide adequate incentives for families to move out of the city centre and into family homes in the suburbs, without having to resort to adding their names to lengthy local authority lists in the hope of acquiring social housing.

By 1968, housing protests had escalated. Protests and arrests gained media attention. In September that year a group, heavily influenced by Sinn Fein, protested outside the Shelbourne hotel to highlight the ways that the Republic had failed to deliver on its promise to free the working people of the nation:

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. To achieve this we must sweep aside the present administrators of money-grabbing politicians and their foreign monopolist bosses.[1] [italics in original]

The new Lord Mayor of Dublin, Frank Cluskey, attempted to meet with a deputation from the DHAC in August. But the problem remained that Minister Kevin Boland remained intransigent on the issue. In fact, apart from the Minister, the whole country was obsessed with the issue of housing towards the end of the year. In his presidential address to the annual conference of the Association of Municipal authorities of Ireland, Dan Spring stated that ‘the provision of houses was one of the most pressing matters for all councils’[2]; RTE’s Seven Days program invited Fr Michael Sweetman to show them around what he considered to be the worst parts of Dublin (they were unable to broadcast the footage because it was deemed to be too upsetting); Kevin Boland was plagued by questions from deputies in the Dail regarding plans to address the lengthy housing waiting lists.

Frustration grew. At a Conference of Dublin’s Homeless, held in November 1968, a resolution was passed stating that squatting was the only resort left to homeless people.[3] This was a direct challenge on private property, designed to test Article 41 of the Constitution requiring the state to protect the family. On 17 November Denis Dennehy, a key organizer of the DHAC, moved his whole family into a room at 20 Mountjoy Square. The property belonged to a prominent Dublin businessman and member of the Georgian Society, 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.’[4] Dennehy refused to leave: on 3 January, he was imprisoned for contempt of court. In protest at his arrest, he went on hunger strike.

There is no doubt that the timing of the incident was carefully choreographed: January 1969 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of the first Dail. On 20 January, one day before a civic reception was planned to commemorate the anniversary, Lord Mayor Frank Cluskey sent a telegram to Taoiseach Jack Lynch, appealing for

the release from prison of Denis Dennehy to his wife and children on humanitarian grounds, as a tangible token of our acceptance on the great occasion we will commemorate tomorrow and of the princibles (sic) espoused on that occasion.[5]

Since Dennehy was in prison for contempt of court, neither the Minister for Justice nor the Taoiseach could intervene on his behalf. Notwithstanding this, the commemoration held on 21 January at the Mansion House in Dublin was interrupted by a veteran of the 1916 Rising, who used the occasion to highlight the perceived hypocrisy of the government. Una O’Higgins-O’Malley, daughter of veteran Kevin O’Higgins and member of a well-connected Irish political dynasty, wrote to Lynch the following day:

The wrong elements may be being used for the wrong motives but the truth is that far too many people are living in sub-human conditions and the children of the nation are very far from being cherished equally. (I do not question the validity of the High Court decision in the case of Mr. Dennehy – but rather the position which gave rise to all this).[6]

Significant marches were organized in mid-January in support of Dennehy. In fact, the Dennehy hunger-strike was the single most important consciousness-raising activity undertaken by the DHAC. Not only did it increase popular support, it also galvanised support from external groups: opposition politicians, students, the unions, the Dochas Society, all called for his release. A statement from the Cooperative Society, Dochas, summed up the mood of protesters:

A housing crisis exists in Dublin, despite all the good work of Corporation officials… What happened to Denis Dennehy on the eve of the first Dail’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.[7]

More radical voices also came out in support of the Dennehy protest. A group calling themselves the ‘Irish Exiles Association’ placed a picket on the Irish embassy in London: they threatened violence if Dennehy was not released from prison.[8]

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. The main purpose of the Bill, in the words of its accompanying explanatory memorandum, was to ‘secure more effective control over the demolition or change of use of houses.’ The Bill also attempted a more precise definition of a ‘habitable house’ as ‘one which in the opinion of the housing authority is reasonably fit for human habitation or is capable of being rendered so fit at reasonable expense.’

While the Bill did not offer total control over the demolition of sound houses, it did represent a softening of the establishment’s position regarding the housing issue, and demonstrated at least some willingness to consider the most significant concern of the DHAC. It was not enough for many activists. Demonstrations continued until late 1969, but the focus of attention began to gravitate north as violence escalated in Derry and Belfast. The antics of Hilary Boyle, a 70 year old grandmother who chained herself to the railings outside City Hall in November 1969 did not attract the same level of attention as Dennehy’s hunger strike.[10]

And now, almost fifty years later, activists are resorting to the same kind of tactics (consciousness-raising, occupation) in order to raise the profile of the capital city’s homelessness. The obvious disconnect between the promise of the founding period of the state and the delivery of the ideals of the republic continues to capture the public imagination. Commemoration comes with expectation. Half a century after its ‘Just Society’ platform, Fine Gael still struggles to balance social justice with political imperatives. The occupation of Apollo House is the latest attempt to force successive governments to prioritize people over profit.

[1] This was the language from a DHAC membership bulletin, in issues of the United Irishman from mid-1968 through 1969.

[2] Irish Independent, 18 September 1968, p. 7.

[3] Irish Independent, 18 November 1968, p. 13.

[4] United Irishman, January 1969, p. 10.

[5] Cluskey to Lynch, 20 January 1969, Dept. of the Taoiseach, NA 2000/6/423.

[6] O’Higgins-O’Malley to Lynch, 21 January 1969, Dept. of the Taoiseach, NA 2000/6/423.

[7] Irish Independent, 21 January 1969, p. 9.

[8] Security briefings, 20-24 January 1969, Dept. of the Taoiseach, NA 2000/6/423.

[9] For example, Seamus Costello, a local councilor in Bray who was involved with the Dublin Committee and the Bray Housing Action Committee, joined the INLA and was shot dead in 1971.

[10] Correspondence, Hilary Boyle to Jack Lynch, October-November 1969, Dept. of the Taoiseach, NA 2000/6/423.

One thought on “Home sweet home: homelessness in Dublin, fifty years after the Dublin Housing Action Committee”

  1. Hopefully this movement will embarass this useless government into finally doing something to end homelessness in Ireland .Shame Shame Shame on this pathetic government .What would the men of 1916 make of this? Kenny hold your head in shame Taoiseach

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