Anna Maria O’Flanagan gets the book out for The Rent Strike

Many believe that our current housing crisis is a new phenomenon, that there was once a golden age when ordinary people were able to comfortably afford to live in a house with a garden and ample space for children to grow and play. The Rent Strike, a documentary by Azzy O’Connor, Dr. Fiadh Tubridy, and Declan Mallon, explores Ireland’s long history of housing and rental crises, showing that the current situation is built on the shoulders of previous crises. 

The film examines a nationwide rent strike, held in the early 1970s by council and corporation tenants in protest against their poor living conditions and rent increases. The people who played a role in the action give first-hand accounts of what life was like over a half century ago. They reveal the struggles to secure housing and the criteria required to become a tenant. Dr Fiadh Tubridy from Maynooth University provides an outline of the political thinking of the 1950s Lemass government. Their policy was to push the private home ownership model and cut government spending on public housing which resulted in an eventual housing crisis in the 1960s and 70s.

Under pressure, councils and corporations built housing estates and blocks of flats, often without the essential amenities and infrastructure to support these new communities. Most of the tenants who moved in were young married couples with children. Often the rents were beyond their means and rent arrears were common in many households. Through local tenant associations or co-ops, tenants frequently had to lobby for the most vulnerable and fundraise for local amenities to serve their neighbourhoods. There was a growing consensus that some housing was not only poorly constructed but also unsafe. In Cork, a gas explosion injured two women, and one woman who was pregnant lost her baby. 

Just as Jim Larkin led a workers’ revolution, galvanizing the trade union movement, Matt Larkin led a housing revolution as General Secretary of the National Association of Tenants Organisations (NATO). The softly spoken bespectacled man – in his neat shirt and tie with a Pioneer pin in the lapel of his coat – was the very essence of respectability as he talked on camera in the grainy archival footage from news reports from the time. 

Well-organised and effective, NATO coordinated nationwide rent strikes, withholding rent payments and picketing council and corporation offices. With a national membership of 100,000 households, NATO effectively had an individual membership of around 400,000 individuals. The government pushed the narrative that the rent strikers were a small group of subversives only out to cause trouble, while the church denounced Matt Larkin as a communist. 

The film’s primary focus is on the rent strike, how it emerged, how it progressed and how it finally ended, but around its edges, another story was being told, one of a changing Ireland. The visuals depict an emerging modernity. Suburbia had truly arrived, with new housing estates established on greenfield sites away from the inner cities and towns, along with the advent of high rise flats, their concrete facades making an appearance in the archival footage.

Women played a pivotal role in the strike. The “Irish Mammy” cliche, with the head scarf, the shapeless housecoat and the pair of dowdy shoes was replaced by a young vibrant mini skirted woman with a stylish hair-do, pushing a pram with one hand and holding a placard in another. Women were to the forefront of the strike, taking on much of the picketing while the men were at work. However, not all women stayed at home. There was also a growing band of part time working mothers, supplementing their husband’s income by finding employment in factories, working as cleaners in schools and serving in the bars and restaurants of hotels. In fact it was one such woman, who, while working in the bar of a local hotel who, heard on the grapevine of a planned eviction and alerted her community. This successfully prevented the eviction of the Leonard family from a flat in Coolock and generated significant media attention for the cause.

The 1970s black and white footage serves as a reminder that this social change was happening against the backdrop of the Troubles. The documentary explored how two IRA men acted as self-appointed proxy policemen outside the house of one of the organisers to ensure that no collected monies would be stolen. Then later, another IRA supporter called for a hunger strike while imprisoned atfter an arrest. The implication of both being how partisan players can attempt to hijack and exploit social issues for their own political ends. 

Humour plays a pivotal role in their stories, as does their determination and their pride in what they achieved. The language of the time is also revealing. Interviewees talk of low wages not low income, council estates not social housing and corporation flats not apartments. One neighbour decided not to play it safe and bank his rent but to splash out on a new carpet instead; ‘big knobs’ in suits came into their offices in the city.

There is always a danger that a film like this could slip into nostalgia, especially as interviews are conducted in the comfort of the subject’s home surrounded by family photographs and memorabilia. However, these moments are present while never shying away from the hard issues. 

While The Rent Strike is told from the strikers’ point of view, it implies that not everyone in the community agreed with the action. This was a thread that wasn’t explored, begging the questions: what would those silent voices would have said? What were their fears and doubts about the strike? And how did their stance effect their relationships with their neighbours at the time and later? 

When the general election of 1973 came about, the Labour party fully supported NATO’s demands and when they were elected to government, the rent strikes ended. For the first time, working-class voices gained access to negotiate directly with those in authority. Empowered, many continued to work in politics or the trade union movement.

This action was a pivotal moment in our social and political history, but was soon forgotten. One of NATO’s biggest successes was that tenants were eventually able to purchase their homes from the councils and corporations, becoming what we now refer to as affordable housing. Today almost two thirds of all houses built by the state are in private ownership. Ironically, many of those once affordable houses are now prohibitively expensive for most of the population.

Having sold off their housing stock, councils and corporations did not reinvest in new homes for future generations. Government policy reverted to promoting private property development. The Rent Strike reclaims a lost history and preserves it. The film exists as a timely reminder of what happened to a past generation, the mistakes made and the lessons not learned. 

The Rent Strike screens in selected cinemas across the country.

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