Discover more from Tripe + Drisheen
The Tripe + Drisheen Interview with Martin Leahy
"It makes me so angry...to have people's lives needlessly destroyed due to this problem is disgraceful." Martin Leahy on what drives his year-long protest highlighting Ireland's housing crisis.
For more than a year now, Martin Leahy has been making the journey from his home near Bandon to the Dáil in Dublin every Thursday to sing his song “Everyone Should Have a Home”. The focus of his song and his protest is singular: Ireland’s housing crisis.
As of April, almost 12,000 individuals in Ireland were residing in emergency housing facilities, while thousands of renters were once again faced with the daunting task of finding a new home after the government lifted its eviction ban earlier this year.
And yet, the boom times for Ireland Inc. just keep getting boomier. The government is predicting a budget surplus of up to €10 billion this year, increasing to more than €16.2 billion in 2024.
I interviewed Martin in June 2022, which you can read here. In the year since, he’s made the journey to Dublin every single week armed with his song and driven by his frustration, anger, and determination.
I suppose the best place to start is: why keep going?
It's been a year of protest. Did you think it would last that long when you started out last May?
No, I didn't. I was just going from week to week with no plan, but it always felt worthwhile. Then, it was a year all of a sudden. I certainly did not think last May that the housing crisis would be even worse a year later.
Why keep going? Is it a mix of commitment, frustration, and drive? Is there also a certain degree of ego or vanity in what you’re doing?
I keep going because I feel frustrated, for sure. I also feel powerless when I sit at home and read articles and statistics, so the weekly protest makes me feel like I’m using my small voice to make my frustration heard, and it always feels like I’ve done something positive each week. Homeless figures are rising every month, so that also contributes to the frustration and, therefore, the drive.
The question about ego and vanity is interesting. It’s my first time engaging in any type of activism. I've wondered about that a lot, and I've come to realise that it was actually things like ego and vanity that largely contributed to me not doing anything like this before. When you stop obsessing about what people might think of you and you let it all go, you can do whatever you feel like doing.
Can you describe your ‘protest day’, your weekly pilgrimage to Leinster House from your home in West Cork?
I have two alarms set for 6:30 am. I then drive up to Cork. My bus is not until 9:00 am, but I need to get up early to park my car at the top of Patrick’s Hill on The Old Youghal Road. There's free parking up there, but you need to be up early to get it (don’t tell anyone!).
When I get out of my car in Cork, I feel like that’s the beginning of my protest. I carry my sign that says #housingcrisis and face it towards the traffic as I walk down Patrick’s Hill and along MacCurtain Street. I go into the lovely 5 Points Café at the end of MacCurtain Street, right next to where the bus departs, and wait there.
Sometimes, if someone is coming up with me, I meet them there. I get on the bus at nine, and if I’m on my own, I’ll put on my headphones and listen to some podcasts or music. I arrive in Dublin at 12 pm. I have some soup and then head to the Dáil for 1 pm, and finish at 2 pm. I then head back on the three o'clock bus.
I’m back by six and walk back to the car, and I'm home around half-past seven (if I don’t have a gig, which I often do on a Thursday).
What have been some of the highlights in a year of your protest?
The biggest highlight for me has been meeting and getting to know other activists. I started my activism because of an issue that was affecting me. I have met some hugely inspiring people who fight for causes that do not affect them but fight because they see an injustice. I am hoping to be more like that from now on. People like this are responsible for many of the freedoms we enjoy today. I am honoured to have met and gotten to know these people.
It's worth pointing out that the housing crisis is not something abstract for you; it's personal. What is your situation at the moment with your own accommodation?
My situation is that I have not yet been served with a notice, but it is looming.
Have you got to know people around Leinster House, have they got to know you?
Yes, I have gotten to know many people around Leinster House, including people who work there and many politicians who are in opposition. However, I have not had anyone who is in power engage with me.
Talk us through your protest at Leinster House. Do you just walk up to the gate and get going? How does it work? How long do you stay for?
I walk up to the Dáil at 1 pm. I say hello to the gardaí standing outside. They change around a lot so if they don’t know me they’ll ask what I’m up to. I tell them and they’re grand. I take my guitar out of the case, put my sign against the railings and start singing my song. I sing my song on a loop for an hour.
Sometimes I meet people and have a chat to them – politicians, other activists or people who come along to support me. I might get a picture with them. There are people who stop on the street and take a video or wait til I’m finished the song to ask me about what I’m doing. I stay there til 2 pm and then I head off. The cars beep in support sometimes.
Returning to the housing crisis, the ending of the eviction ban earlier this year left thousands of renters in a precarious position of having to find accommodation where supply is limited. Were you surprised that the coalition government ended the ban?
Yes, I was very surprised. About two weeks before the lifting of the ban, I spoke to someone in opposition outside the Dáil and asked if they thought the ban would be lifted. He said he thought there was no way they would lift it. It took everyone by surprise. I don't think anyone expected them to be that heartless
The author and academic Rory Hearne documents many of the worst aspects of the housing crisis affecting people in Ireland, and its makes for depressing and grim reading. I imagine you have also heard many stories of hopelessness and desperation. Does it become overwhelming?
Yes, it does. The stories are so bleak, reminiscent of tales from the past, but now they have taken on this new monstrous form. It makes me so angry. We are only here for a short time, and to have people's lives needlessly destroyed due to this problem is disgraceful.
People are made to feel shame because housing is unaffordable, children are traumatised for life, people become suicidal, people never feel secure or happy, people feel they have failed in life, and never reach their potential - all because of a warped ideology from a small group of people who view property as a means of wealth generation rather than an essential basic human right. It is horrible and disgusting. We need to rise up and refuse to accept this.
It's an inevitable question in a way, but will you keep going, and for how long?
I still have no plan. I will do it as long as it feels worthwhile.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the housing crisis in Ireland?
I am optimistic about what can be done. However, I am pessimistic about our current government doing anything to solve this crisis. We need radical action to deal with this emergency. The miserable targets that the government keeps missing will not get us anywhere near solving this crisis.
A lot of artists and musicians have taken your song, performed it, and published it on social media. That’s been a new experience for you. What’s it like?
It's a great thing to happen, and there's something very hopeful and inspiring about it. I love all the versions of it. I believe in the power of the protest song. It’s hard to measure the exact effect of a protest song, but it certainly can reach people on a different level and create vibrations that greatly contribute to change.