February 1984

At the time the strapped Irish government had abolished free student medical cards and our (union) president was cooling with a few more in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison for defying a protest injunction. One of the other martyrs was the eventual talk radio star Joe Duffy, whose photo (above) shows him being dragged out of a hall in Trinity. A professor who liked to see his names in the papers had, in a not-so-progressive outburst, labelled such protesters “subsidised brats” for invading a lecture given by the Taoiseach (prime minister).

As part of the national campaign, three cohabitants were surprisingly keen to fulfil a promise to help occupy the health administration in the Kildare town of Naas. Nevertheless just thirty-one students got on that bus that morning, so my address alone contributed four. That was more than an eighth. The thought crossed more than one mind that if this went badly one could always hitch the fifteen miles back, as many had often passed that way.

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We entered shortly after noon, climbed to the third level and tied ourselves with thin ropes to the legs of desks in the large office space that was all women. We refused to leave when asked by the manager, a man in a grey suit. Soon we had our names taken by the police, who set up a siege around the building, leaving anybody out and nobody in.

The women typed away at their desks once no further disruption was evident. The students then untied the ropes for comfort. At five, the women all left and the management turned off the heating. The numbers inside had by then dropped to seventeen, as anyone who wanted a J1 summer visa to America had split, just in case.

The nearest pub was called the Wolfe Tone and a few brats hanging around on the streets below slipped in there after dark. It had a fire. When the pub heard what was going on, it was all for the revolution. It gave out free sandwiches to anyone who wanted to go across and throw them up on the roof. The windows of the top floor led onto a gravel roof with a large atrium in the middle. Half the republican sandwiches and several of the brown bags of burgers and chips that were bought nearby overshot the gravel and flew into the hole.

Kipping in our coats should have been second nature to us, otherwise, but it was a very cold night inside. Miserable. Cigarettes were in short supply but at least we found a couple of large, industrial rolls of brown paper in the cabinets and then noisily wrapped ourselves in it on the floor.

In the college canteen in the arts block the following lunchtime, the next year’s president made her name by standing on a black table and telling the crowd that seventeen comrades were holding out and needed their support. That news filled a few buses and a couple of hundred turned up in the afternoon. The ropes were let down into the crowd so sleeping bags could be attached. For the law, pushing and shoving at the fringes, this was just taking the piss.

The crowd below couldn’t understand why the heads above suddenly disappeared from the roof’s edge but, up top, cops with batons drawn were pouring through the windows on the far side of the atrium.

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We ran for the nearest office windows (see photo). Back inside, I ducked aside, behind a filing cabinet, but anyone holding a sleeping bag was chased down and battered. The women at the desks were horrified. They stood up and protested and then refused to leave, despite keen Garda encouragement to do so.

Understandably the ladies wanted to know who would mop the walls if the cops were let mop up. The man in the grey suit then got involved and, after everybody calmed down, it was the police who left, eventually. The seventeen remaining then emerged with the staff, to loud cheers. It all seemed heroic and exciting, especially as I had avoided a baton.

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