A song of protest, and despair
West Cork musician Martin Leahy makes a weekly pilgrimage to the Dáil to sing his song of protest about Ireland's housing disaster. It's about his own situation, and the country's.
What drives a man to the gates of Leinster House from his home in West Cork, week after week, to sing a song of protest outside the most important legislative building in the country?
The smart answer is the eight o’clock Aircoach every Thursday morning from Cork city centre. But the motivation behind musician Martin Leahy’s weekly pilgrimage to Dublin is rooted in one word in that opening question.
And to keep the game of word association going crisis. Or, as President Michael D. Higgins rightly called it this week “disaster”.
The president, like the rest of the country, was referring to the singular failure that is smothering the Irish state: a failure to provide affordable homes to rent or buy for hundreds of thousands of people across Ireland.
Speaking in Kildare this week the president said this: “It isn’t a crisis any more – it is a disaster.
“I often ask myself, how republican is what we’ve created? And isn’t it sometimes very much closer to the poor law system than we thought we were departing from.”
June, 2022 and our president is making historical parallels with a system of government under colonial rule literally known as the poor law system, and this despite Ireland being one of the richest countries on Earth. He might as well have finished his speech with the words “For what died the sons of Róisín?” But in that speech, President Higgins was indignant and angry and that line summoning Róisín, oft repeated, has an air of resignation, as if to say, “Era, we knew this would happen.”
“For what died the sons of Róisín?” It certainly wasn’t for affordable accommodation, but it could well have been for property capitalists.
Songs of protest
There’s a thoughtfulness to Martin Leahy’s anger. Like the president, he’s indignant, but he’s measured. When we talk on the phone on a Friday in June, it’s the day after he has made his fifth trip to Dublin. A long, long time ago I’ve seen and heard Martin, when he played with North Cregg, most likely at a gig in The Lobby, when it was still The Lobby.
Martin, 46, is a journeyman musician and producer, a precarious job at the best of the times. The reason he sets off to Dublin early every Thursday morning to play his song “Everyone Should Have a Home”, is both personal, but also much, much bigger than his own difficult situation.
The nuts and bolts are Martin was served with an eviction notice earlier this year. His landlord wants him out, as he wants to sell the property, and if or when that happens Martin will come up smack up against the one of the worst places to be in modern Ireland: searching for an
affordable home to live in.
Well before he was served with his eviction notice Martin had been paying attention to the housing disaster, but he told me that the eviction notice provided the impetus to pen the song.
“I started looking at these kind of talks and stuff, Rory Hearne had given a good few of them and David McWilliams. I just wanted to get things straight in my head before I started writing [the song].
The more he listened to critics assailing the government’s failure on housing, the more infuriating it became, because, as he says, they weren’t just lobbing grenades, they were providing solutions also.
“I mean, it became infuriating listening to them, like, usually at the end of their talks, they go, and this is how it could be solved and give multiple options. And then it kind of starts to dawn on you where you go, ‘Oh they actually know how to solve this and it could be solved’. But it's an ideology that you're holding on to. So yeah, that's pretty infuriating.”
Likewise, in the protest song Martin subsequently penned and plays on repeat for an hour outside the Dáil, there’s an ideology to it. Basically, it’s this: Everyone should have a home.
(The animation for Martin’s song is by Cork-based musician and artist Eileeen Healy who has written in Tripe+Drisheen about her onw struggles with the housing market. You can read that piece here.)
The chorus from Martin’s song:
Everyone should have a home, everyone should have a home, in this world, in this life, it’s a basic human right to have a dignified place you call your own
Everyone should have a home, everyone should have a home, safe and warm where you belong, everyone should have a home
But in the battle of ideologies the one that Martin is promoting, in which everyone has a basic right to shelter, is losing (has lost?) to neoliberalism policies where one in ten renters in Ireland are paying 40% of their salaries on rent.
Leinster House, Dublin
A routine has developed to Martin’s weekly pilgrimage. He makes his way from his home in Ballinadee near Bandon up to the city centre where he catches an eight o’clock Aircoach to the capital. He used to lug his amp with him, but one rainy day in Dublin he didn’t use it and he’s found that he doesn’t really need it to get his message across.
“I do it outside the gate. I go up at one o'clock there and play away there for an hour. I play the song over and over again. So it gets a bit weird, but I guess protests are meant to be disruptive in some way and that means hearing the same song over and over again,” Martin says.
Sometimes Martin is joined by musician friends, and sometimes he’s supported by politicians, councillors or members of the public who drop by, but Martin’s not over all social media rallying troops to come and support him. This is very much something he’s doing alone and committed to keep doing.
“But I think the hope for it will be in its consistency, you know, to keep doing it every week. And eventually, I don't know if it ever turns into anything, but it feels like that there's a point to doing it,” Martin says.
And that’s what drives him to keep on keeping on week after week.
Ironically, Martin says that the pandemic, despite all the anxiety, suffering and grief it ushered in, it had the unintended consequence of bringing at least some sanctuary with it to renters.
Martin said he had an “epiphany” during the pandemic, one which ushered a great deal of relief, when a moratorium on evictions was put in place.
While live music was cancelled across the board, he settled into a routine of being creative at home, and that creativity was likely influenced by the fact that at least for a while his accommodation anxiety was shelved. The pandemic he says was a hugely creative time for him as he started down the route of releasing his own music,
“I didn't feel like I have any anxiety or worry or anything like that. It must have been because of the whole lockdown I just felt secure,” Martin says, something he hadn’t felt for a long time when it came to thinking about shelter.
Martin has a great deal of empathy for what Rory Hearne calls “Generation Locked Out”.
The uncertainty of where you’ll live “effects every part of your life” Martin says, adding that especially for families the tension and stress seeps down to children and effects their mental health too.
The other thing that Martin noticed in the pandemic is what government can do in an emergency. As he points out, we saw “how quickly and how effectively a government can act during an emergency - and this is definitely a housing emergency.”
Martin hasn’t ruled out moving abroad if his eviction goes through and he can’t find a place to live here which he can afford, but the point of his protest, of his song, is it’s not just his situation, it’s a societal one: everyone should have a home.
Martin will be playing in The Lord Kingsale on Sunday, July 10 at 8pm as part of the The Kinsale Arts Weekend. Tickets and more information here.