Another class assignment, written on February 29 2012. The camp lasted until May this year.
Puffing deeply on my inhaler as I hit the clear air of the Eyre Square, I came to the conclusion that Occupy Galway was really no place for asthmatics. Rollies adorned the fingers of all and sundry in the camp, young and old, male and female. Clearly their opposition to big business doesn’t extend to cigarette companies.
The Occupy Galway has been camped in Eyre Square since October. Five months of Galway rain, local drunks and vilification in the city council and media seems not to have dampened the spirits of those in the encampment. Banners and tricolours adorn the wooden fences which keep the tents away from the outside world. The slogan “We are the 99%” is there. This motto-meaning that 1% of the world hold 99% of the wealth and that Occupy represent the rest- originated on a Tumblr blog. The site better known for hipster flim-flam seems an unlikely source for the slogan of a global anti-capitalist movement, but the Occupy movement is unlikely in many ways.
Conducted largely over social media, the reason for getting involved in Occupy seems to be different for everyone you talk to. There’s a mix of young and old- seasoned protestors and the young and idealistic. Occupy Wall Street in particular was known for its diverse range of participants. Of course, Occupy Wall Street has run into trouble in recent times. The protest was moved from Zuccotti Park in the city last November, and it’s fizzled out since. London’s Occupy has just been evicted from St Paul’s Cathedral by the city authorities.
The Galway camp is intriguing. When I go down there on a mild February evening I’m a little nervous- I’ve never been anywhere like this before. I’m grasping a pack of Maryland cookies as an appeasement gift. Even these I was worried about- should they be gluten free? Have I committed some terrible faux-pas? Are they owned by an evil conglomerate?
I needn’t have worried. The cookies went down a treat. “One must always eat. During wartime one does not know where ones next meal may come from,” says Liam Mac An Bhaird. Liam is what you might call a stereotypical Occupy protestor. He’s big and bearded, with an impressive mane of curly brown hair that falls far below his shoulders. He tells us to check out The Guardianwhich did a feature on him last year. I duly do, and learn that he’s involved in a group which moves into NAMA buildings claiming squatters’ rights.
Liam’s voice booms as he ranges from issue to issue. There are about ten people there, in and out, when I visit, and a hum of activity. I’ve never been in a Mongolian yurt but I imagine it’s a little like this. The main camp is laid out like a sitting room- a low coffee table surrounded by chairs and a red sofa. The walls are vaguely purple and covered with posters and newspaper cuttings. Once the door is open you can hear every car trundle past as if you are under the chassis, and it must get cold and damp on rainy nights. Lucky for Occupy Galway, the winter of 2011/12 has been exceptionally mild.
Two older men are sitting on chairs when I enter. One says he has already talked to journalists today and maybe someone else should speak to me. His companion is smoking a questionable cigarette and chips in with the odd random comment.
There’s only one girl there the whole time I’m visiting. Her long blonde hair and dreamy blue eyes make her look a little like Luna Lovegood. Eleanor Leahy is a Women’s Studies student from NUI Galway. From Bruff in Co Limerick, her reason for joining Occupy is simple. “I won’t get to do a postgrad because the grant’s been cut.”
According to Liam, Occupy Galway is here to stay.
“The camps can go on indefinitely. What happened in London [the recent eviction] was that they were evicted. The issue is that the Constitution makes no room for how long you protest for. You’ve the right to free assembly and protest but there’s clause on how long you can or can’t do it for. They’re looking for other ways around that in terms of health and safety stuff like that. I think, in Ireland, it shows that in essence we don’t live in that much of a police state that this place hasn’t been evicted yet.” Liam says. In the middle of this, the elderly man interrupts “Michael Collins-“
“One minute, Mick.” Liam says, and continues on.
Steve, a young, softly-spoken Sligo man, also agrees that the situation in London was “crazy. I don’t think they should have done it because they’re not offering them anything else as regards an avenue of protesting.”
He’s only been with Occupy Galway two days. Before that he was with Occupy Cork and Occupy Dame Street in Dublin. “Dublin’s a bit all over the place. There’s a bigger group of people, there’s a mix of viewpoints so there’s a lot more clashes.” He has high praise for Occupy Galway. “Out of the three camps I’ve seen, this seems to be one of the best ones. It’s punching above its weight.”
Punching above its weight it might well be, but there are some in the city that are very unhappy about the camp. The city and Occupy Galway came to an agreement about the Christmas market, but such a compromise is unlikely when it comes to the Volvo Ocean Race in the summer. Eyre Square is set to the transformed into a mini-America for the event, in which certain parts of the city will be ‘twinned’ with the visiting countries. Liam is adamant that the Volvo Ocean Race will not affect Occupy Galway. “Why should a protest be infringed on by the Volvo Ocean Race? What difference would it make if the Volvo Ocean Race was on? The protest especially at a time when we’re facing the largest austerity ever enforced on the people of Ireland what we’re dealing with is a society where the elites want to perpetuate an economic model that has failed.”
He knows that the organisers are desperate to present a united front to the world. “They want to sweep it under the carpet that anything’s wrong,” he insists. The Volvo Ocean Race is projected to be worth about €80m to the local economy and is largely funded through the sponsorship of local businesses. It may help Galway, already battling valiantly against the recession, to draw even more tourists to the city, leading to more employment.
After my minor asthma attack, I go into Holland’s newsagents for a pack of chewing gum. Holland’s is one of dying breed in this supermarket age. They’re family-run, old-style and friendly. They’re also one of the sponsors of the Volvo Ocean Race. So, are they part of the 1%?