- 20 Aug 04
Kim Porcelli investigates Speakers’ Corner, the “forum for public discourse” currently running in Temple Bar each Sunday. The brainchild of Kila’s Rossa O’Snodaigh, the event promises all manner of political and social debate. But are the people of the Republic actually all that bothered? Photography Cathal Dawson
You realise,” one of the book-stall sellers in Temple Bar Square is telling me, “that you can’t actually say anything at Speakers’ Square. You can say anything you want at Speakers’ Corner in London, but not here. If you say anything specific about anyone who then hears about it and doesn’t like it, you can be sued for slander.”
That can’t be right, I say – surely the entire point of an open, free forum, where any topic can be raised by anybody, the only rules being those of general courtesy, is that you can say things that politicians, newspapers and others in society who have bigger platforms and more power, won’t or can’t?
“Nope,” he shrugs, handing somebody back her change. “So, just, mind yourself I guess.”
We’re not 100% sure he’s right about England, but sure enough, a local solicitor we consult confirms that the Sunday-afternoon forum – created by Rossa O Snodaigh (yes, he of Kíla), a few like-minded friends and Temple Bar Properties in late April with a view to giving Irish freedom of speech a weekly, public appointment in Dublin – is subject to the normal Irish laws governing more usual public-opinion-airing forums like newspapers or television. Indeed, Speakers’ Square’s website itself says as much: “The law of the land,” it reads, “will apply as it does nationwide – in that it is an offence to incite hatred or slander anyone in public.”
This, to me, is disappointing. Nobody wants to incite hatred, but history has proven time and time again that while libel and slander laws certainly protect the innocent, less helpfully, they have also been known to protect the guilty. And as a citizen myself not of Ireland but of the US, where our supposed First Amendment right to say anything no longer applies lest you be branded a traitor, and where “news” stations are cosily in the pocket of a corrupt government – well, let’s just say my own reasons for really, really wanting Speakers’ Square to be a forum for intelligent, lively debate and unafraid truth-telling were not inconsiderable.
When we arrive at half two, Rossa himself is speaking to a crowd of about 20 (most of whom are lone males, knapsacked and bespectacled, with crossed arms: tourists, perhaps?) from atop a small wooden box. Next to him, at his feet, is a miniature sandwich board slate, upon which is chalked: “Who dares speak? You?”
Among the first subjects is the smoking ban. This is not, it transpires, because a member of the public has a bee in his bonnet about having to relocate mid-pint for a puff, but because the speaker at the moment is in fact a friend of O’Snodaigh’s and is speaking in order to, as it were, get the ball rolling. We’re a bit disappointed by the mundanity of the topic, but presumably it was chosen in order to hook the attention of passers-by: more easily done when your bait isn’t too subtle. Leaning on the outer doors of the Quays Pub, however, directly across from the speakers’ box, are two men, both smoking, who don’t share my ambivalence.
“Bullshit!” spits one repeatedly over the speaker’s voice.
“An opinion! Thank God!” says the speaker, gesturing. “Come up and speak!”
This is the most interesting thing we will notice over the course of the afternoon. All day, we will wait for a member of the public – that is to say, someone who is not a friend of the organisers’, someone whose presence is not prearranged – to take the floor. For many hours, nobody will.
But that’s not, it becomes clear, down to lack of interest: it’s down to an unwillingness on the part of the people of Dublin to make the decision to stand up on a six-inch-high platform and speak to strangers in an impassioned (or at least opinionated) way.
What people will do is pass, make loud comment and walk on. A young man in a checked shirt will stop for a moment, listen to a (very predictable) George Dubya-dissing speech about the reconstruction of Iraq, and catcall, “Boo!” Less predictably, a woman, upon listening to Rossa speak about the Irish language and about how English came to be spoken in this country, will tut and turn away, muttering sarcastically, “Damn English. Their fault as usual.”
It’s a strange, missing-the-pointish kind of response, seeing as Rossa’s gist was that Ireland’s ability to claim a “second”, more populist, national language in addition to Irish (namely English, the language of international politics and commerce) is a good thing – but that’s public forums for you.
The reluctance of passers-by to speak is not the only factor against which Speakers’ Square must fight: the relentless blare of music and chatter from the Quays Pub directly opposite is making hearing anyone who isn’t a prizewinning orator next to impossible. The last thing I hear from the current speaker, who in any case ran out of interesting arguments about ten minutes ago, before he becomes totally inaudible is, “I’m gonna talk about one other thing, which is God.” Good lord.
So, yes, there’s more than a little worthiness about the whole endeavour; to my dismay, I find myself wishing mightily that I could, perhaps, join my friends in a nearby caff, or maybe sidle off for a browse round the shops. It bears remembering, though, that I, who have been here since half two, am “using” Speakers’ Square the “wrong way” – it’s not meant to engage your attention for this long; it’s meant to open a small, brief window into a thinking, civic proactivity and engagement with the world, in between the more typical Sunday activities of blithe hangover-relieving consumption (lattes, clothes, records, homewares or whatever you’re having yourself).
This notwithstanding, in the absence of really good (and loud) speakers your reporter at this point feels increasingly less attentive. I’ve been staring vacantly at a man with small square spectacles and a sour expression. In fact, his expression, if anything, is curdling as I watch him. I then realise with a start that it’s comedian David McSavage I’m staring at.
He’s with a friend. The friend has also been watching McSavage’s gradual metamorphosis. He cocks his head toward the platform and grins. “Gonna get up?”
McSavage does – but only to cross, with ostentatious surliness, directly in front of the speaker. He is holding an open bottle of water at waist level. As he passes, as soon as he feels the maximum number of eyes upon him, he squeezes it so that its contents shoot out, money-shot-style. He then stomps off.
He reappears ten minutes later with a guitar and a mini-amplifier, parks himself on the corner opposite, where he begins a street show that will last for about an hour, will be utterly hilarious and will totally overshadow, and draw crowds away from, the speechifying.
“Yeah, he does a set every Sunday,” one of the Speakers’ Square organisers tells me of this unexpected sideshow. Are you fighting over this patch, as it were? “Nah, not at all,” he says, with a surprising lack of rancour. “It just means bigger crowds, really. When he finishes, a lot of people stick around for us.”
Certainly, if you were predisposed to cynicism, even to a less McSavage degree, you’d have a field day here. Firstly, with a few exceptions, most notably of Rossa himself, the standard of the oratory today, both in terms of fresh ideas and good delivery, is not… well, let’s just say we didn’t hear any “I Have a Dream” speeches.
On the other hand, Speakers’ Square has played host in the past to more formally arranged days of oratory, such as their recent pre-election special, which saw local hopefuls from various parties taking the podium; and the notion of removing the middleman (newspapers, television), and of local politicians being directly answerable to the public, is, in this day and age, a hugely attractive one. Today’s a bit less exciting, though.
Probably its strongest suit is that people can happen upon it by accident – and then find themselves arguing, heatedly but ever so politely, with strangers about whether being an anti-capital punishment vegetarian automatically, by definition, ought to make you anti-abortion.
This is precisely what happens. It is 5.41pm when a member of the public finally steps up to speak. First, before she does, the crowd will thin out; the man who booed earlier will return and, while still declining to speak from the podium, will start offering opinions and counter-arguments from the floor. Then others – some still on bikes, standing where they stopped ostensibly for ‘just a moment’ 40 minutes ago – will join the conversation, shifting knapsacks or shopping or newspapers from arm to arm; no-one will take the podium, but a proper conversation (about the aforementioned “consistent life ethic”) will nonetheless ensue.
The girl who finally speaks is bashful, about 19, and needs encouraging more than once to get up. When she does, she uses the platform brilliantly, better than any previous speaker, in fact, except Rossa himself: that is, she makes her case as succinctly as possible, does not repeat herself, and, crucially, does not stay on the podium for too long. When she finishes, everyone applauds.
Now that the way has been paved, the subsequent speaker is another member of the public, a young, sharp-dressed male student; he speaks intelligently and well, but he’s not the most interesting thing at the podium. Behind him loom two other punters angling for some platform time: two girls of about 12, in semi-matching outfits, in the grand tradition of very young female best friends. The topic on which they appear to wish to speak is the legalisation of abortion in Ireland.
Sadly, they never get a chance to, as the young fella stays too long and the kids’ families eventually arrive, scoop the girls up and move off. But the fact that two 12-year-old girls – probably too young to have seen Fahrenheit 9/11, too young to know who Haughey was or who McCreevy is, too young to read newspapers or be in Amnesty International – wanted to speak publicly about their feelings on abortion, speaks volumes about the usefulness of having a weekly, free event in a public urban space which can inspire passers-by to do something other than eat, drink or shop.
After all, we’re living in a cynical, mendacious world; and any fight we can put up against that is a good fight. Or, to put it differently, keep in mind the episode of The Simpsons where Homer comforts Lisa, who is outnumbered politically, on some issue or other, as she inevitably is. “Don’t worry, honey,” he says. “When I was your age, I used to believe in things, too.” b
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 09 Nov 21