Dublin: importing a counter-culture (part 2)
This is the second part of my story about Dublin's counter-culture in the mid 1990s - the first part can be found here.
A team of five: me, Phil, Ed, Toner and Simon, set out from our Temple bar base, with our stencils concealed in an artist’s portfolio holder, intent on delivering a dose of cultural subversion to the sleeping city. In Paris We had noticed that the best spots for attention-catching graffiti pieces are along train lines. There are normally many plain concrete walls facing the tracks and lots of bored commuters on trains pass by with nothing interesting to look at.
Thus, we took the last DART train of the evening to Lansdowne Road station. We disembarked, left the station, cut through the level-crossing and then turned off the road and began to walk back along the tracks towards the city. After a few hundred metres, we found a perfect wall facing onto the tracks at the back of the old West Stand in Lansdowne Rd stadium – the home of the national rugby and football teams. We busied ourselves in two teams. One person held the stencil steady while the other sprayed paint over it. The odd man out, Simon, kept look out. I was responsible for holding one of the stencils and had climbed onto a wall with Ed to access a higher and more prominent spot when I saw Simon suddenly turn and run off into the night at a breakneck speed. After a second or so, a policeman wearing a yellow high-visibility jacket ran by chasing him. Oh shit.
I hadn’t been noticed yet, but another couple of officers were approaching from the station that we had come from. I leapt down from my perch and bolted away from them, in the same direction that Simon and the officer had ran. Ed was wiser and stayed on the wall and managed to remain undetected as the approaching officers ran after me. I soon passed Simon who had been collared by the officer who was chasing him. Having got clear of the arrest scene, I took stock of the situation. Phil and Toner were running along beside me. I turned to look behind and was relieved to see that nobody was in pursuit – we had lost Simon and Ed, but at least three of us were getting away. We kept running, and started to laugh with relief as we put further distance between ourselves and the police.
On this part of the line, the tracks were elevated above the city streets below, so we had no choice but to keep running along them. Suddenly, to my great shock, a figure loomed up out of the darkness in front of us. It was another cop, standing in the middle of the track. He was wearing a motorbike helmet and had his arms outstretched to block our progress. I was leading the charge, heading straight for him. My self-preservation instincts kicked in and, without thinking, I executed an evasive procedure from my rugby days: I feinted to go right and spun left, bumping the officer’s right side, disturbing his balance, leaving him wobbling and grasping at thin air. Toner was the unfortunate victim of my manoeuvre. He had been running directly behind me and, as I spun my way out of trouble, he kept going and ran straight into the cop and the two of them tumbled to the ground in a heap together. Phil, who had been bringing up the rear, took advantage of the confusion to veer around the tangled heap of bodies on the ground and kept going after me.
We sprinted on for several hundred metres, with our nerves on edge lest another policeman might suddenly emerge from the darkness. However, we spotted a chance to escape our exposed position, where the elevated track crossed a bridge over Macken Road. There was an old metal lamp-post a few feet away from the edge of the bridge. We climbed onto the low wall, which guarded the track, leapt onto the lamppost, grabbed it in a bear hug and slid down to the road. In retrospect it was an exceedingly risky manoeuver, but with adrenalin pumping, we both executed it flawlessly without so much as a second thought. From bridge to ground took no more than 5 seconds.
Our heroic escape was, however, in vain. The streets in that area – around the Grand Canal Dock, were, in that era, full of warehouses and abandoned industrial premises and were deserted at that hour. Several motorbikes and squad cars had been dispatched to hunt us down. We attempted to affect a nonchalant air as we walked towards Pearse Street, where we might hope to blend away into the normal pedestrian traffic. Within 5 minutes, however, we were rumbled. A motorbike cop stopped us and began to question us. We were visibly panting, which gave the game away at once. The officer radioed for assistance and, within a minute or two, he was joined by two squad cars and several more motorbike cops. Simon and Toner were sitting unhappily in the back of one of the cars.
The officers attempted to interrogate us. I remained silent, while Phil tried to explain that we had been merely taking a short-cut home as a dare. It seemed most unlikely that they would believe our excuses, especially as our hands were caked in paint. However, they appeared to take our story at face value. They instructed us to get into the back of one of the police cars. They proceeded to admonish us for having ventured onto the tracks due to the risk of meeting a train that was being moved between stations. In the course of their scolding, they revealed to us that they had observed our entry onto the tracks on CCTV cameras. The car was full of the stench of aerosol cans, but, bizarrely, they never mentioned anything about graffiti. They appeared to be treating the incident as purely one of trespassing. Having chided us sufficiently, they insisted on dropping us home. As we disembarked, sheepishly, they opened the trunk and extracted our stencils and portfolio case, still wet with paint, and an aerosol can, which they must have picked up from the site of our crime after we had fled. They asked us who owned the “art supplies”. Nobody owned up. Somebody said that they must have belonged to a friend who had been with us earlier. Once again, they seemed happy with this answer and simply handed us the materials and requested that we reunite our friend with his supplies. They drove off, leaving us baffled.
At the time we assumed that they had somehow missed the obvious and had genuinely not understood what we had been doing with the stencils and paint. Perhaps this was the case – stencil graffiti was unknown in Dublin at the time. However, it is as likely that they had simply not wanted to bother going to the trouble of processing the paper-work for what was a fairly minor infraction, whatever way you looked at it. Saved by paperwork again! Still, the whole escapade served to illustrate the difficulty in importing new counter-cultural forms to Dublin – a few kids spray painting stencils would have been an unremarkable event in Paris, barely worth any police resources. In Dublin it had given rise to a major police operation, which must have involved a significant proportion of the on-duty patrols in the city. Had we been engaged in armed robbery, the security forces would hardly have been able to mount any greater or speedier a response.
The anarchist-influenced counter-culture that I had wondered into certainly had its good points. Cultural subversion, with little care for the law and social norms, and lots of opportunity for mischief and revelry, was both fun and exciting - for a young man anyway. However, it also had its frustrations. Most things were organised through informal personal networks that had been forged in European squatting centres, which effectively excluded outsiders and newcomers. Furthermore, there was a great tolerance for both flakiness and grandstanding. Evenings were filled with creative geniuses concocting grandiose schemes over drinks, mornings were often barren deserts, bereft of people to carry out even the most basic practical measures. Alcohol, drugs, unemployment and nomadism played large parts in that world and, as a result, chaos was never too far away. This was an environment in which Toner seemed able to thrive – but I could not. I was studying computer science, a subject that requires considerable concentration to master and concentration and chaos make bad bed-fellows.
Things came to a head in January 1996 upon my return from France, where I had witnessed the general strike movement. I travelled with Simon from the airport to our Temple Bar abode. It was a Sunday morning and the city was quiet. As we climbed the stairs to our second floor apartment, a man emerged from a door on the first floor. He started to admonish us vigorously. It took a while for him to calm down enough to be able to effectively communicate what had annoyed him so much. He told us that he had experienced persistent noise from our apartment above him, in the last two weeks, and now a small but determined waterfall had sprung from his ceiling. We assured him that we had been away throughout the period, but would take whatever steps were necessary to fix the problem forthwith. We hurried on, somewhat alarmed.
It was probably lucky that we had been forewarned as it dulled the shock of the sight that greeted us. A half-dozen punks were asleep on the sofas and beds. The taps were running at full blast into sinks that were clogged with debris, causing sheets of water to overflow onto the floor. The toilet was a disaster zone. The bowl had been clogged with a big mess of toilet paper and faeces. Water was flowing continuously from the cistern into the bowl, which was full to the brim. Several turds had escaped from their confinement and made valiant attempts to swim their way to freedom across the carpet. Water had permeated the carpets to such an extent that a thin film was rising above them and they were littered with sodden flotsam. Toner and Phil were nowhere to be seen.
I later pieced together what had happened. The apartment building’s water pump had mysteriously disappeared, cutting all water to the upper stories. Meanwhile, a crew of Toner’s squatting buddies from Berlin had come to visit. Toner and Phil had returned to their family houses, leaving the squatters to stay in the apartment. In the absence of water, squalor had ensued. All of the taps had been left fully open, a situation that went unnoticed due to the lack of water. The pump had been reconnected the previous evening, while everybody had been in deep sleep. Water had immediately come gushing out of the open taps into clogged sinks and toilets. It flowed out onto the floor, taking all the built up debris with it, turning the carpets into a muddy swamp, and creating a waterfall for our poor downstairs neighbours. Although I did what I could to restore order and repair the carnage, there is little one can do to remove such horrors from a carpet. My flatmates eloped - taking refuge in their family houses, but I had no family in Dublin. I was stuck and had to spend the next few weeks, coach-surfing while searching for a new place to live. By the time that I found somewhere – a freezing cold and perpetually damp basement flat with a few ugly pieces of threadbare furniture on Pembroke Road – my enthusiasm for the world of squats and the counter-culture that surrounded them had reached a low ebb.
The next few months were spent in that miserable apartment, wrapped in multiple coats, jumpers, scarves and hats, studying for scholarship exams: 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. I have a capacity for shutting out the world and intensely focusing on abstract problems for reasonably long periods. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a necessity for being any good at theoretical sciences. On the other hand, there are few more effective ways of pissing off girlfriends. In any case, on this occasion it paid off – I got my scholarship which gave me some financial breathing room and paved the way for me to spend the best part of the next two years out of the country. By the time I came back to live in Dublin again, at the end of 1997, the cultural revolution of the early 1990s had been largely played out. An economic boom and property bubble had arrived to Dublin and, with it, a change in cultural trends – unemployment was down, rents were up, derelict buildings were being knocked down and turned into apartments, the underground dance scene had been gobbled by new super-clubs and the trend of youth aspirations had started to turn away from counter-cultural subversion and towards upwards-mobility and economic ambition.
The Garden of Delight
However, in early 1996, the decline was still some way off, and the peak was yet to come. Toner’s primary ambition had always been to establish an anarchist bookshop in Dublin. My encounters with that milieu had led me to believe that this was a pipe-dream. If it proved impossible to squat a derelict building or sustain a graffiti crew, how was it going to be possible to establish, finance and maintain such an enterprise. I was wrong, at least in the short term. During the Summer of 1996, Toner somehow persuaded an up and coming local businessman to finance a large, ambitious and modern anarchist bookshop and café space, in a new building in the city centre. The location was immediately beside Dublin Castle. It was called the “Garden of Delight”.
The Garden of Delight lasted for a little over a year, from the Summer of 1996 to the Autumn of 1997. During that period I was only in Dublin for a few weeks, so my impressions are based upon fleeting observations.
My first visit was in October 1996. I was surprised and impressed. The building was modernist and brand-new. The bookshop was spacious, airy and bright. The books were attractively presented. The coffee machine was modern and of high quality. It looked trendy. Its location was excellent, a stone’s throw from Dame Street. I still don’t quite understand how Toner managed to put it together.
The service and atmosphere were less slick and modern than the décor. It wasn't only the counter-culture that had been imported, a fair few counter-cultural Europeans came with it. Visiting the bookshop felt a little too like an exercise in being looked down on for being too mainstream for my liking, such was the preponderance of dread locks, piercings and punks. However, where it really came to life was in the evenings, when the space was given over to meetings, workshops, exhibitions and parties. Evening events spanned everything from druidic drumming circles to political campaign meetings, film shows, poetry readings and avant-garde art shows.
The parties were the high-point. Toner had access to the building’s second floor apartment and the large flat roof, so the parties took in the whole building. The guests represented an eccentric slice of the population – druids, anarchists, artists, musicians, writers and ravers. I attended a couple of them, and found them full of unusual and interesting people. They were good parties, but they seemed too wild to sit easily with maintaining a fancy bookshop. At the second one, somebody pulled the toilet out of the wall.
By all accounts, the Garden’s internal organisation was chaotic. In January 1997, Toner and his partner turned the management of the space over to a collective. The sprawling, free-form collective meetings, with participants from a broad range of cultural and political backgrounds, became a rich source of amusing anecdotes about the difficulty of managing a space through such an unwieldy mechanism. Perhaps somebody will produce an account of its history at some stage. I only got a few glimpses into its internal life because, as it was being put in place, I was heading off into the world again. By the time I eventually returned to live in Dublin, it had finished and Toner had left the country again, this time for good. However, my immediate target was Cuba – one of the only communist countries to have survived the collapse of the USSR.