The Seomra Spraoi project to create an autonomous social centre in Dublin came directly out of the experiences of people working under the banner of Dublin Grassroots Network. DGN was loose, anarchist/libertarian alliance, which facilitated the Mayday 2004 mobilisation against the EU summit, ‘celebrating’ the expansion of the European neoliberal project. Whilst relatively small in comparison to most other summit mobilisation across Europe, it was the biggest single mobilisation by anarchists and unaligned individuals in the history of the state.
The experience of being involved in organising these mobilisation showed many of us the necessity of having a stable space to use as a political resource. Some folks involved in the Seomra Spraoi collective were part of the Magpie collective, who squatted a building in the plush surroundings of Leeson Street in Dublin. It was here that many of us met for the first time, as it hosted most of the organising meetings for the Mayday protest. The squat got evicted a few weeks before the summit, but its resonance continued. The genuine sense of community that was felt, as well as the potential that autonomously organised activity suggested within us, was key in motivating people to get proactive and look towards creating a social center in Dublin. Whilst most of our sense of what social centers ‘are’ was formed by either visits to or being somewhat involved with social centers in the UK or across Europe and beyond, we also wanted to make our own thing and to bring to bear what we had collectively experienced and learnt, both positive and negative.
From the outset we decided that if our social center was to be public and open, squatting was not a realistic medium term strategy. As a tactic it can be useful to do squatting actions to raise issues but with the knowledge that at the time it couldn’t be a sustainable way of creating social and political resources, we opted to rent a space. We called a meeting in November 2004 to “organise a social center” and sure enough the only folks who turn up where the ten or so poeple who animatedly ( repeatedly and over pints) reckoned that a social center would give Dublin the kick in the ass we felt it sorely needed. We weren’t put off and knew that meetings aren’t always where things happen. The wind was in our sail given the year we had had. Our first public event was to host a screening of films about social centeres put together by the Direct Action Against Apathy collective. After cooking dinner for the hundred or so people who turned up in the community hall of St Nick’s it was clear that there was an energy and desire for what we wanted to do. It gave us more impetus and a real sense that even though we where just a few people, that we had the support and active interest of a much wider base. We initially found a room in a ambiguously squatted residence of a well known radical artist in the city centre. Three years on and we then we have become ‘home’ to most of the radical, non-hierarchical campaigns in the city, provided resources and respite for many groups and individuals, and also seemed to become the hottest place to get you late nite dance off in the city. Much of these well and other activities are well documented and can be found on http://www.indymedia.ie. Along the way we were complete media tarts, doing interview in print and radio, in local press and national magazines. Most, if not all, of the coverage was sympathetic, and it was clear to us that there are spaces to exploit to get our voices out there for short term gains. Although it wasn’t all rosy. Much of the problems and major obstacles Seomra Spraoi has faced since its beginnings are also to do with the pragmatic choice of renting. In short, landlords generally ARE bastards!!!
The poetics in the physical
Developing an explicit political orientation as a collective is a process. Like any imagined participatory democracy we may wish for, its basis is on founded upon discussion. Unlike almost all ‘P’olitical organisation, Seomra has no defined membership, (turn up to three meetings and you’re in) and as such has posed challenges. Whilst we grew out of the experiences of activism and anarchist tendencies, as more people got involved so to did the range of visions. In itself this is a positive thing. But its no easy task either for a bunch of people to explicitly attempt to define its collective politics when we come from differing backgrounds, political experiences. To some extent we all, as individuals, continue to tease out our own understandings of the world around us and our roles within and upon it. This is as true for the sub-paying class struggle anarchists of Seomra Spraoi as it is for others coming from arts background.
Given what it takes to organise and work at events, prepare workshops, clean toilets, fix the motor to the glitter ball or the other day to day buearocracy of social centers, we found that its really helps to create structures and make space for these conversations. Initially there were quite a few groans whenever we tried to shape political conversations and sometimes there has been a kind of tension, often unspoken, just from a sense of impending conflict that might somehow damage the collective. But now these discussions are now very much part of Seomra Spraoi and how we function. Whilst we still don’t label the collective with any particular ideology, its strongest tendencies are radical left, libertarian, autonomist, anarchist, and still figuring it all out, if you catch my drift.
Our reason for being was not to be a solely political organisation, but our desire and motivation were not just abstractly creative. As is prevalent within much of the ‘ movement of movements’, particularly in the West, it’s always much easier to declare what we are against than what we stand for. But by setting out aims and principles, we discovered that there is a massive amount of common ground within the collective, and that revolutionary desires reside very deeply within us once we talk about it in ways that resonate, and break down the fossilised rhetoric of much of the authoritarian left and reclaim ideas of revolutionary activity. Like democracy itself, the process of achieving common agreement is often more important than the words themselves, in terms of creating spaces for educating each other and appreciating the subtle distinction of our politics even within the self selecting collectives of social centres
In the midst of this there was also a constant desire not to recreate some of the problems that we felt other social centers across Europe encountered. We wanted to avoid creating an ‘activist ghetto’ and challenge the provider/consumer barriers. Whilst the anti authoritarian, anti capitalist movement is quite numerically small in Ireland, we still wanted to anticipate the problems associated with becoming a ‘sub cultural’ phenomenon within the city. Some practical things we did to preempt this were doing workshops on ‘welcoming’ and working gig nights. We found that by running these we not only increased the pool of people taking on some of the work, but also enabled people to feel an empowered part organising, and we always had at least one person in the space who took responsibility for helping new visitors orientate themselves, and be able to give a background to how the space was run, what it was all about etc. I think this definitely helps shape a culture of openness and inclusiveness, that enables people to feel more part of what was surrounding them and much more likely to bring there own ideas and creativity.
As we are currently ‘centreless’ there has been an opportunity to assess what we have achieved, on our own terms, over the past few years. The collective itself is stronger, more cohesive and more confident that it has ever been. Plans are afoot to host a social center gathering, looking at the experience of past collectives and attempting to shape further the role of social centers in creating, nuturing and sustaining a growing movement of autonomous anti-capitalist activity, in all its variety of forms. On a personal note, I’ve found being part of this collective one of the most inspiring and sustaining ways of being and feeling productive. We have, in the here and now, shown forms of work and ways of working together, that really are not very prevalent in the city. Our last space created a buzz about it that Dublin hasn’t seen in a decade. Within all that there have been many mistakes made and lessons learnt.
One thing that was brought up by an Italian friend at her last Seomra Spraoi meeting stuck with me. She said that when we continually discuss spaces and processes (which I do myself all the time), we(I) often forget that it is people that are central to making things happen, and it is by engaging people that we engender trust, friendships and solidarities. It is us (and you?) that are the backbone of all our collective endeavours. Whether teaching in the kitchen, helping kids find something fun in the freeshop, fighting over what government actually means, or sorting out the double booking between WSM and Animal Liberation, people are the one constant. Ultimately, it is what we carry within ourselves and see in each other that makes collective organising more than a good idea, but the genuine source of revolutionary change. Even the term ‘collective’ doesn’t do justice to reality and the very fluid borders between organisers and participants. In affording us spaces for learning and honing the ways we not only work together, but also describe that activity itself, self managed social centeres offer us all the opportunity to put flesh to our idealisms.