- 22 Jan 20
In 2017, members of the Connolly Youth Movement in Cork broke into a city-centre building and set up camp there, naming the house Connolly Barracks. But who are these people? What drives them? And what goes on inside the barracks?
Cork city’s Granary Theatre is an old structure, painted in loud pink. It yawns the ennui of a ‘70s building under searing summer sunlight, and coughs out the anxiety of a performer in pursuit of excellence in Autumn and Winter, when it’s filled with drama students from University College Cork (UCC). On its left, is a line of almost identical houses. One house in the row, however, stands out, not immediately, but surely, if one is in the mood for paying attention. Above its newly painted doorframe, the words Connolly Barracks are spray-painted in green. On its noticeably clean window, a piece of paper is stuck. “We support the occupation of derelict buildings to use as homes for people,” it says. The words ‘derelict’ and ‘buildings’ are inscribed in red. The house lights are never turned on, not because there is no one inside, but because there is no electricity. Connolly Barracks, with its distinctly sour reek, is home to seven people, who fill all of its damp bedrooms. Six of these people are members of an all-Ireland Marxist youth organisation, the Connolly Youth Movement (CYM). The other resident used to be a member in his youth.
CYM and The Original Housing Crisis
The Connolly Youth Movement was founded in 1963 in Dublin when the city was ablaze with rage and revolt in response to a chronic dearth of housing. The shortages led to the formation of the Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC), a dissenting group, who decided on a strategy of breaking into empty buildings, repairing them and then squatting in them. The success of the DHAC inspired a group of young republicans to form the CYM. The name Connolly was included to signify the group’s dedication to the revolutionary ethos of James Connolly, the socialist leader at the heart of the 1916 insurrection – and arguably Ireland’s greatest patriot. The CYM is allied to the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). Being a youth group, however, members must be between the ages of 16 and 30. The CYM kept a low profile through the 1980s and the ‘90s. However, by 2002, it had re-emerged quietly in Dublin. As the housing crisis deepened in the aftermath of the financial crash, CYM’s popularity began to grow. In 2017, Alexander Homits was appointed General Secretary.
Alex is 26, tall and strong-boned, with bushy eyebrows, a shaved head and a blonde Van Dyke beard, similar to that sported by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Originally from Estonia, his family migrated here when he was small. Alex’s voice is clear, wry and confident. He speaks Russian fluently. Almost inevitably, he has become a target for online haters. “Not Irish,” a tweet directed at him reads. On his personal Facebook page, Alex once shared a meme of a man for whom ‘where are you from?’, seemed like a loaded question. “Every time,” Alex captioned it. His calmness in the face of adversity seems almost preternatural. Not always, however. CYM members recall him coming to work at Cork’s Trade Union Office, when he was severely ill. “Fuck’s sake,” he shouted, “I hate to be sick.” Alex grew up, he admits, “as somebody who was homophobic and quite sexist, who was a misogynist.” Later, however, he embraced the Marxist objective of liberating women from patriarchal oppression. “It’s a process of unlearning those things and developing a new culture,” he says. He has recently moved to Dublin to work as research assistant to the left-wing Independents 4 Change politician, Joan Collins TD. But he prefers Cork, where he grew up. Walking through a busy O’Connell Street on a lukewarm Thursday afternoon, Alex is reluctant to take credit for CYM’s ascent in Cork. “I like to think I’m responsible,” he says, “but that’s just my ego. Everything is a collective effort.”
Heat The Commies
August 2017. Alex and a few fellow CYM members broke into a dilapidated building on Mardyke Road and announced that it had been “liberated”. They also encouraged other young people to solve their housing woes by following suit. A fundraiser called “Heat the Commies Community Fund”, was established to help the squatters warm the house with heaters, operated with gas. Cork activists furnished the house with secondhand furniture. Artist members of the CYM began painting communist graffiti on the walls. Connolly Barracks was born. It is the CYM’s most successful “political project” to date. I sit down with Alex in the building on East Essex Street that also houses Ireland’s age-old radical bookstore, Connolly Books. I ask him why ‘Barracks’? “It’s named after James Connolly,” he says. “And yes, the term Barracks denotes the disciplinarian element to the house. I put down the success of the Connolly Barracks to the fact that there is a degree of discipline to it, unlike other squats or occupations.” Alex refers to a set of rules that apply to all residents. They can be found on the CYM’s website. For example: “Those who occupy the Barracks must be CYM members or probationary members as they will be bound by the branch and its principles.”
Housing and Inequality Today
In September this year, the Department of Housing confirmed that, for the sixth month in a row, over 10,000 people in Ireland were homeless. To understand the full extent of Government failure, the number of people who have been forced into emigration – including many musicians – would also need to be taken into account, along with those who end up moving in with their parents because they have nowhere else to live. Meanwhile, Dublin now ranks in the world’s top 10 most expensive places to rent. The CYM view is that the housing crisis is an artificial problem manufactured by capitalist greed. “Homes are deliberately not being provided for people,” Alex insists. The result is that rents are soaring. “And the rent money,” he adds, “goes into the pockets of landlords, vulture funds and multinational companies that have a grip on several houses.” So how might the housing crisis be addressed? “Property taxes in Ireland are very, very low by comparative standards,” Vittorio Bufacchi, a lecturer in Political Philosophy at UCC, says. “So, there is no incentive to do anything with a vacant house. You can do two things in response. You can fine people for leaving their houses empty or have a much more progressive property tax.” In the current climate, Dr Bufacchi sees squatting as a necessary act of civil disobedience. “Any democratic society desperately needs an element of civil disobedience,” he says. “You need people who are prepared to stand up and make themselves heard and make life difficult for the authorities.” He attributes the rise of Marxist groups such as the CYM not just to the housing shortage, but to rising inequality. “There are economic inequalities. There are cultural inequalities that are deeply ingrained in our societies. There are social inequalities – for example, we have the most expensive childcare system in Europe. And now, housing inequality reinforces that, and is going to generate more inequality.” Alex now rents a room in the working-class neighbourhood of Jobstown, in Dublin. He sees “overthrowing the State” through an “inevitable” socialist revolution as the only solution. “The free-market solution is creating homelessness every day,” he says. “In a communist, socialist system, the common well-being of humanity comes above the necessity for somebody to make a profit.” He shrugs at the suggestion that revolutions are rarely peaceful. “We’ve seen all over the world that when there is a protest, the State will react violently,” he says, “and the first thing that comes to mind is the use of police and the army. I have the right to defend myself, and the Connolly Youth Movement and anybody affiliated with us will defend themselves in the inevitable confrontation.”
The Oxygen of Publicity Stunts
Already, the Connolly Youth Movement has been engaged in minor confrontations with the State. In October 2018, CYM members interrupted a meeting of UCC’s Young Fine Gael Society, which was attended by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney. Alex, who was studying Law in UCC at the time, called the Tánaiste “a smug, scum fuck bastard.” He was asked to leave the room. CYM members live-streamed the entire saga on their Facebook page. The university later reprimanded Alex “for swearing”. Earlier this year, CYM members attended an event at the Clayton Hotel at which the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was speaking. In a room filled with Fine Gael politicians, Khadijah Bracken, an Irish-Egyptian CYM member stood up and read from a written statement, attacking Fine Gael for their failure to address poverty and homelessness. In Alex’s view, these events were successful publicity stunts. Applications for membership increased. He refuses to divulge the total number of CYM members across their branches in Cork, Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Galway and Belfast.
Inside the Barracks
Inside Connolly Barracks, the furniture is dingy and covered by old, faded blankets. I am meeting Kevin Cashman, Ida Wulff, Ben Kingston, Ruark Murphy and Diarmuid De Priondragás. Calvin Walantus, a 23-year-old American socialist organiser, who travelled from San Francisco to visit his CYM friends, is there too, lounging on a soft sofa and glancing at his phone. The house is dimly lit by the fading afternoon sun. Ida, 22, with curious green eyes and a shaved head is calmly knitting. Diarmuid, 23 – tall with blonde hair and a penchant for spicing his words with a pinch of humour – is dating Ida. On the walls, a sprawl of art captures the attention, from a drawing of Joseph Stalin in front of a communist hammer-and-sickle flag to a red star married into a golden harp. There is a communist flag hanging from the wall too. Above it, are photos depicting Cork’s CYM members at different rallies, meetings and even personal celebrations, which mostly involve drinking pints of Beamish at their favourite local pub, An Spailpín Fánach. A crimson-coloured bra hangs next to the hammer-and-sickle flag. The remaining walls carry images of socialist leaders and revolutionaries, from James Connolly to Jeremy Corbyn; Fidel Castro to Malcolm X. Kevin, 23, with dark eyes, black hair and a short beard, goes upstairs to waken Ruark, the 18-year-old chairperson of CYM’s Cork branch. Ruark hurries down, sporting tinted glasses and a mischievous smile. He sits next to Ben, 24, with dyed blonde hair and a hint of shyness.
We Need To Talk To Kevin
Kevin joined the group four years ago. He met Alex at a nightclub, where they were both working. They became friends. “I had no real political leanings at the time,” he says. “I was occasionally reading some sort of leftist literature, but I didn’t ascribe to any train of thought. Alex told me there was a protest happening against Job Bridge [European work placement scheme], and I knew it was something that I wanted to help out with. I worked with the CYM for a year, before actually joining.” Kevin’s parents are separated. His father “owns his own home.” They don’t get along. “I moved out of the house at 17, and I lived in places that I shouldn’t really have,” he says. “I’ve lived in ten or maybe eleven different student accommodations since leaving home, and without a doubt, this is my favourite place.” Kevin has a day-job at a call-centre now. He could afford to live outside the Barracks, but he’s staying. “I believe this is a valid form of protest,” he says. “I think it’s legitimate, calling upon authorities to commit to some action.”
Diarmuid agus Ida
Originally from Finland, Ida is a third-year student of International Development and Food Policy at UCC. “When I got here, it was hard to find a place,” she recounts. She stayed in a hostel for a month while she was attending college. Sitting next to her boyfriend, who is listening intently, Ida recalls moving into several different student accommodations. “I just couldn’t find anywhere,” she says. She learned about the CYM on Facebook. “I went to a meeting to find out what the CYM is, who is James Connolly. I joined pretty much immediately after that.” Diarmuid, who works “in a kitchen” during the day, is the only Irish squatter in the room who is not from Cork. He was always fascinated by Karl Marx. “I was reading the Communist Manifesto, and I was looking at my friends and realised that no one was doing anything radical,” he says. One day, he saw on Twitter that Gardaí had raided a house near Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, evicting a group of young squatters. Members, it turned out, of the CYM. “When I saw that, I thought: ‘These people are actually doing something’. I just opened my laptop and sent an application to join.”
Then There’s Ruark and Ben
Ruark, Chair of the Cork branch, has just finished Secondary School. This is the first time he has lived away from home. “I read a few articles. The ones that stood out to me were written by Fergal Twomey, our previous National Chairperson,” he says. “I joined off the back of that.” Ben is a sound engineer. His asthma has deteriorated since moving into the Barracks, but he is undeterred. Identifying as anti-fascist, he is concerned about the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. When the Irish far-right figure, and former journalist, Gemma O’Doherty, announced a meeting in the CYM’s beloved An Spailpín Fánach, the members joined a cohort of People Before Profit (PBP) activists in Cork to organise a large protest. Near Cork’s Kent Train Station, on a green partition erected by Irish developers BAM, Alex’s handwriting reads: ‘Racists Not Welcome’. It is written in both English and Irish.
Accusations of Hypocrisy
Not everyone sees the CYM in a benign light. Other left-leaning groups have – somewhat typically – accused its members of posing as working-class heroes, while belonging to bourgeois families. Critics also insist that homeless people – even those not affiliated with the CYM – should be allowed to move into the house. “I would like to note that we’re not social workers,” Ben says coolly in response. “We have no ability to provide for [homeless] people’s needs.” What does Alex think? He shakes his head. “It’s a good question,” he says, “but we have a set of rules that govern how the house is run, and when we had people over, who weren’t members, I kind of thought: ‘why would these rules be applicable to them’. We thought about it for some time. When all the people who were non-members moved out, we decided that we would only admit CYM members, so that there would be some sort of internal consistency.”
The Story of Eoin
The last resident of Connolly Barracks is Eoin McCarthy. He is a member of the Communist Party of Ireland. In his sixties, he has lived in the barracks for some time. However, Eoin has recently been given an official letter from the CYM, telling him that he must leave. The letter says that Eoin has transgressed “principle 3.F” of the Barracks rules. Under said principle, “Residents who use the house without contributing anything to its maintenance, threaten other residents, or endanger the project can have their residence revoked by democratic decision of the residents.” Kevin says that Eoin initiated a physical altercation with him. An in-house meeting was convened, during which the others say that Eoin volunteered to move out. “He is of the belief that I was trying to instigate an atmosphere where we were just generally being very hostile toward him,” Kevin says. “This incident happened seven or eight months ago, and I think in a lot of situations in different houses he would’ve been removed, like, immediately, but we have tried to act democratically. “We had a vote within the branch,” he adds. “We’re giving him the right to appeal, but it’s an ongoing issue.” Eoin has now appealed the decision. He says he was made to feel disrespected and isolated in the house. “There were no mechanisms in place to deal with noise issues or problems and these will need to be addressed, if Connolly Barracks has any prospect of being sustainable,” he said in a Facebook message.
A Sense of Purpose
In contrast, the other occupants of Connolly Barracks say that they have found refuge in the CYM. Being involved in the movement has given them a sense of purpose. “I’ll always be very grateful that I have found like-minded people,” Kevin says, “but also a greater project that I can subsume myself into. It gives meaning to my life, more than anything else.” Ida says that “the sense of comradeship” in the house has made her content. She likes living with people who have “the same political end-goal, who have each other’s back.” Ben says there have been days that merely waking up has seemed like a colossal task, but if one wakes up in the Barracks, “at the end of the day everybody’s laughing and has a good time.” “I’m quite happy to pursue a goal towards a struggle that is going to fundamentally change Ireland,” Alex says. “I get a personal sense of satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment out of it, and I know my members do too.”
There is one other dark note. Just a few weeks ago, the Connolly Youth Movement lost a 17-year-old member, Sebastian Stroie. The son of Romanian immigrants, Sebastian apparently jumped off a building in Dublin to his death. Alex, who’s carrying a book called To Die For The People by African-American political activist, Huey P. Newton, wants “Seby” to be mentioned. “His death has deeply impacted me,” Alex confesses. “I spent a week at home crying, and I’m still in shock to be perfectly honest. I can’t wrap my head around it that Seby is not going to the bookshop anymore, or interacting with us, or posting something [online].” A UNICEF report has confirmed that Ireland has one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the EU. Nevertheless, Alex says he felt “tremendous guilt” for not being able to help Seby. But being the sole source of comfort for an undisclosed number of young members is a task beyond his capabilities. “It feels like it’s my fault, and I know it’s not,” he reflects. “There is a stigma for us men, to open up about our mental health, so men take their lives. I encourage everyone, including myself, to talk to a therapist. But, yes, in the CYM, we want to create an atmosphere for young people to be able to share their problems.” As residents of the Barracks light up the house with candles and battery-powered fairy lights, they wonder if Seby would have been happier if he had lived among them. The group then poses for a photo in front of the house. “Will people be able to see the words Connolly Barracks in the photo?” Ida asks. They will, I say and wander off into the night, bleakly aware that no one knows what the future holds.