There were some Molotov cocktails thrown…

There were some Molotov cocktails thrown…

“There were some Molotov cocktails thrown, not at anyone but just to make a visual impact”: A history of the Dún Laoghaire Housing Action Group

The below blog post was written by Fiadh Tubridy and Gregor Kerr, CATU members in Dun Laoghaire.

From 1968-1974 there was a militant campaign to win decent, secure housing for working class people in Dún Laoghaire. This was led by the Dún Laoghaire Housing Action Group, or DLHAG, which resisted evictions, took direct action to oppose land and property speculation and forced the corporation to address the housing crisis.

This article is part of a project on the forgotten and suppressed histories of housing activism in Ireland. As members of the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU) in Dún Laoghaire we are researching the radical history of our area in order to engage with and understand the community around us and help our members to develop a sense of identity and connection to the area (a previous article on housing activism in Dún Laoghaire in the 80s is available here). This work is also part of a larger CATU project on the history of community and tenant organising in Ireland, in particular the national rent strike of the early 1970s, which is an important but almost entirely forgotten example of successful tenant organising in Ireland. You can watch a short video about the rent strike project here.

The article is based on our own research using newspaper archives as well as an interview with Osgur Breatnach, who was one of the key activists in the DLHAG. In 1978, due to his membership of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), Osgur was tortured by the Garda ‘heavy gang’ and then imprisoned after being falsely accused of involvement in the Sallins train robbery. He was eventually released but is still actively campaigning for a public inquiry of these events.[1] State repression is also a key aspect of the history of the DLHAG and we come back to it again in our account of their activities. We are very grateful to Osgur for talking to us and for the insights he provided.

To provide some political context, the activities of the DLHAG were linked to the radical political climate of the late 60s, including the US Civil Rights movement and radical student and worker organising in Europe. More specific to Ireland, another important influence was a leftward shift in the Republican movement at this time which led to Republicans becoming involved in social and economic campaigns including housing, the redistribution of farmland and against the sale of natural resources to multinational companies. While not formally affiliated to any political party, a significant number of DLHAG activists were members of Official Sinn Féin before later joining the IRSP. Similar housing action groups existed around the country including in Bray, Dublin, Sligo, Limerick, Drogheda, Dundalk, Cork and Waterford. Osgur explained that the idea “was that the tenants’ groups would all eventually link up including with small farmers groups and create a broad-based movement.” Unfortunately, a lot of this activity dropped off in the late 60s due to state repression and a shift in the focus of activists to the North in the context of escalating violence.

At the time the DLHAG was active in the late 60s to early 70s housing conditions in Dún Laoghaire were atrocious with many people still living in overcrowded tenements. In 1968 a DLHAG spokesperson described the conditions in one building where “there were 13 families including 23 children living in 13 rooms and most of the occupants of the house had suffered from pneumonia and other such illnesses”.[2] There were at least 500 families in the Dún Laoghaire area living in squalid and overcrowded conditions, paying up to half of their income to live in a single room while languishing on the Corporation’s housing list for many years.

Another key issue and source of anger was the demolition of existing homes (and the eviction of the tenants) to make way for offices and other commercial developments. The sixties in Ireland saw the beginning of the government’s strategy of attracting foreign direct investment which was leading to increasing demand and prices for office space. As a result, developers were buying up houses in Dún Laoghaire, often leaving them vacant for many years before eventually redeveloping them as offices when it became sufficiently profitable to do so. Meanwhile the Corporation was completely failing to address the housing crisis. Osgur remembers that in the 4 years before the DLHAG began its campaign they had built only 20 houses for people on the housing list. While there are obviously differences, many of these issues – vacant homes, high rents and interminable waiting lists for council housing – are depressingly familiar and show that what is often called the ‘housing crisis’ is in fact a permanent feature of Irish capitalism.

at a later point the threat that a family was going to contact us would even be enough to hold off the landlord.

During this time, the core activities of the DLHAG included publicising the housing crisis, resisting evictions, squatting, occupations and protesting the Corporation’s inadequate response to the housing situation. Osgur described the groups general approach to evictions as follows:

We helped families facing evictions, mostly illegal evictions where the landlord would turn up at short notice. The landlord would then get a series of visits first from the housing action group where we’d say that the family is under our protection, then they’d get a visit from Sinn Féin and be told that the family is under their protection. That would often work to put the landlord off. Then at a later point the threat that a family was going to contact us would even be enough to hold off the landlord.

There are newspaper reports of evictions being successfully resisted by DLHAG on Kill Avenue, Royal Terrace and Belgrave Square and it is safe to assume there were many others which were not reported. In the case of Belgrave Square, DLHAG activists supported an evicted family to move back into their home and picketed the house of the landlord, stating that the picket would be kept up until the family were offered alternative accommodation. [3]

Left: The Pierce family, who had been evicted from their home on Royal Terrace at a sit-in of Dún Laoghaire Corporation offices (Source: Irish Press, 4th November 1970). Right: DLHAG activist Michael Plunkett is arrested for disrupting a meeting of Dún Laoghaire Corporation (Source: Irish Independent, 6th July 1971).

The DLHAG also took on bigger campaigns against property speculation and development. This included a campaign against the demolition of Frascati House in Blackrock, the former home of Edward Fitzgerald, a leader of the United Irishmen, which was due to be converted into a shopping centre. DLHAG members demanded that parts of the house be converted to residential use while accepting that another portion could be retained as a museum to meet the demands of conservationists. After the developer hired workmen to damage the roof so the house could be demolished as an unsafe structure [4], DLHAG members occupied the building and supported a local family and another family of refugees from Belfast to move in but were evicted by baton-wielding Gardai in a dramatic raid shortly after. As described by Osgur, “the guards came in at 6.30am in the morning. There were some Molotov cocktails thrown, not at anyone but just to make a visual impact. There were some arrests. We instructed our solicitor to call Liam Cosgrave [5] as a witness that we had the support from a large public meeting. Eventually, we were bound over to keep the peace.” Despite the eviction, their actions succeeded in delaying the demolition plans. 

One important aspect of this campaign is that it illustrates how the struggles of working class people are frequently written out of history. For example, Frank McDonald’s influential book The Destruction of Dublin provides the most detailed account of the campaign to save Frascati available but focuses exclusively on the legalistic tactics of middle-class conservationists. This is despite the fact that, according to a newspaper report in 1974, “the speculators are on record as admitting that the main reason the development was stopped was due to its occupation by homeless families and members of the Dún Laoghaire Housing Action Group and the resultant publicity”.[6] Frascati House was eventually demolished in 1983, years after the DLHAG had ceased to be active, and the site is currently occupied by the Frascati Shopping Centre.

Another important campaign was to prevent the demolition of the Adelphi Cinema and 20 houses on George’s Street and Corrig Avenue in Dún Laoghaire to make way for another shopping centre. Again, DLHAG members supported ‘homeless’ families (this term was used to describe anyone without decent, secure housing) to move into the houses. Newspaper reports suggest that some of the families remained in the houses for up to four years and had significant local support.[7] Again, these tactics succeeded in slowing up the redevelopment plans and no shopping centre was ever built on the site.

One of the occupied houses on George’s Street, Dún Laoghaire (Source: Irish Times, 15th June 1971).

These campaigns illustrate a key tactic of the DLHAG and other housing action groups active at the time, which was the use of squatting to prevent the demolition of existing homes, highlight the issue of vacancy and provide housing to those in need. This was a controversial tactic due to the impact on occupying families who had to live in difficult conditions and risked losing their place on the housing list. However, according to a DLHAG spokesperson quoted in the Irish Press: “squatting has been a most effective weapon in our fight to expose the property speculators and the existence of large numbers of unoccupied, habitable private houses allowed to fall into rack and ruin because of the prospect of a financial killing”.[8]

There was a lot of passive support and financial support but it wasn’t a mass organisation. It’s very hard to build a mass organisation.

While the DLHAG obviously had many important successes, there are limits to its organising model that we can learn from now. One of the key issues we as authors were interested in was the extent to which it was able to broaden the base of activists involved in housing campaigns and whether people supported by the group became politicised and active in their own right. Osgur recognized that the group had limited success in this regard:

The families who we supported didn’t get involved as members. The membership was fairly small. It fluctuated but there was around 10-20 people. They were mostly young people, not settled people. There was a core of people who would be meeting one day about housing and the next day about unemployment or some other issue, but they were the same people. The families did not become involved, once their problems were resolved they dropped off, maybe they became politicised or maybe they didn’t. There was a lot of passive support and financial support but it wasn’t a mass organisation. It’s very hard to build a mass organisation.

Based on Osgur’s account and our interpretation, we can identify two further specific reasons for the decline of housing activism in Dún Laoghaire which occurred around 1974. These include, first, the intensity of state repression of radical political activity in this period. In 1972, the Fianna Fáil government introduced the Forcible Entry and Occupation Act which criminalised squatting and occupations. It made occupiers liable for any damages caused by Gardai or landlords during evictions and made it an offence to be a member of any group which advocated squatting. Osgur’s brother Oisin was one of the first people charged under this legislation for his part in the occupation of Frascati House. He spent a week in Mountjoy for his troubles, although the charges were eventually dropped.

Other forms of state repression that Osgur remembers include infiltration, violence and harassment against DLHAG members, such as Gardai arriving at activists’ workplaces, homes or school in order to harass and intimidate them. This obviously closely relates to Osgur’s later experiences of being framed for the Sallins train robbery. Overall, it all shows the lengths which the Irish state has gone to in order to protect property rights, landlords and other powerful interest groups, and the need for effective political organisation to oppose this.

A second reason for the decline of the DLHAG relates to party politics and specifically the split between the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and Official Sinn Féin in 1974. At this point a significant proportion of housing activists in Dún Laoghaire were Sinn Féin members but, partly due to influence of the IRSP leader Seamus Costello, who was based in Bray, the majority of OSF members left and joined the IRSP. This led to a decline in the activity of the DLHAG because the energy of DLHAG activists was absorbed by the new party. As described by Osgur, “most Sinn Féin members in Dún Laoghaire, maybe even all of them, joined the IRSP and because of our experience we were immediately pulled into national positions.” The impact of the split on the DLHAG evidently relates to the fact that the group was made up of a small core of activists who were also involved in party politics. This meant that when the split happened and there was a greater focus on party work that no one was left to maintain the housing campaign. Although very easy to say in hindsight, this illustrates the importance of broad movements which are not reliant on or tied to political parties.

Despite these issues, we should recognise the valuable legacy of the DLHAG in holding up major developments, resisting evictions, forcing the council to address the housing situation and educating people and communities to organise and resist. One key success which Osgur highlighted was that the additional pressure on the council forced them to make progress with building council housing in Ballybrack, which had been one of the group’s core demands throughout its existence. On a smaller scale, while researching this article one of the authors found an article about an occupation by DLHAG of a house on Corrig Avenue in Dún Laoghaire which was due to be demolished and converted into shops. This is directly across the street from where I live now and from my window I can see that the house still stands. While just a small example, this shows how the urban spaces around us have been and continue to be shaped by struggle between competing interests and how collective action and the efforts of working class people have achieved lasting successes, even if the history is not widely known.


[2] Evening Herald, 8th October 1968.

[3] Evening Herald, 10th August 1969


[5] Liam Cosgrave was a Fine Gael leader and later Taoiseach who was part of the Frescati and Blackrock Preservation Society. This was a middle-class conservation group who wanted Frascati House to be preserved for its heritage value and tried to achieve this through planning appeals and other legal strategies. The strategy of calling him as a witness is thought to have helped get the charges dropped.

[6] Irish Press, 17th August 1976

[7] Irish Times, 15th June 1971

[8] Irish Press, 1st October 1970