Rossa Ó Snodaigh knew a stage when he saw one.
The whistler and percussionist with trad group Kíla had been on the lookout for a street stage, not for busking, but for an exercise in free speech.
The three steps on the northern edge of Temple Bar Square were his second choice, but they turned out to be just right. “Those steps were perfect. They were the platform,” he says.
Just about every weekend between 2004 and 2006, for two hours or so, Ó Snodaigh declared the steps a place for anyone to hop up and speak their mind.
He called it Speaker’s Square, or Cearnóg na Cainteoirí, and it became a weekly forum for poets, politicians and punters to mouth off to passers-by.
“It’s a funny thing that happens when you’re up there and there’s people throwing jabs at you from left and right that you haven’t even thought about. It actually informs your own opinions,” he says.
The project petered out years ago, but it seems that it will soon be well and truly dead. On Monday night Dublin City Council approved a plan to refurbish Temple Bar Square – and that would mean saying goodbye to those three small steps that were briefly a symbol of counterculture in the Celtic Tiger.
A Solution That Became a Problem
When Grafton Architects got the job to design Temple Bar Square in the early 1990s as part of the Temple Bar renewal strategy, the site sloped significantly down towards the River Liffey.
From south to north, it fell about 50-60 centimetres over just 20 metres. The architects’ solution? Build up the north end from the roadway with three short steps.
Back then, it seemed like a pretty good idea. “The surface of the new square is made of indigenous stone flags, with a minimum amount of intervention – stone steps accommodate the natural fall on the site and act as informal seats,” the architects said the year the square opened. “The idea is that the surface becomes a ‘carpet’ for public activity.”
But priorities, and the city, have changed in the last two decades, and the council now sees some problems with the old design. The sunniest part of the square is the southeast corner, which is more road than piazza, and the steps and bollards around the square make it just a little bit too cluttered for the heavy pedestrian traffic it gets.
But one of the biggest concerns is equality of access for people with disabilities. “The removal of steps from Temple Bar Square will ensure the primary aim of universal access to all is to be made applicable to the Square and surrounding streets. The same levelling of carriageways and pavements is to support this principle,” the new plan says.
By extending the pedestrian area, clearing away street furniture and flattening out its steps and kerbs, the council hopes to make Temple Bar Square a nicer place to walk. All that means a much bigger square is to replace the old plaza and roadways, but no more steps, and no more stage.
Old Laws and Ancient Struggles
Temple Bar Square was not Ó Snodaigh’s first choice of venue for his in-person free-speech project.
“I wanted it in Stephen’s Green,” he says. “I had the idea of the Speaker’s Corner in England, which I actually never attended – I just love the idea. I was always into debating so I thought perfect, you’re not going to get edited by a newspaper editor … your opinion will be bare-naked in front of people.”
But it turned out that wasn’t possible. Ó Snodaigh had unwittingly stumbled into an Anglo-Irish cousin of the same restrictions on political activity which the British Chartist movement, which sought political reform and an extension of suffrage beyond the propertied classes, had faced down.
“These are all old laws that were brought in by the British, resisted in England, but not resisted in Ireland,” Ó Snodaigh said.
Speaker’s Corner in London was born of the pressure of mass rallies at Hyde Park in defiance of government bans in the 1860s. The St Stephen’s Green bye-laws, originally dating from 1877 were transposed into Irish law in 1962.
Right there with the instruction not to walk in the flowerbeds or hop in the pond, the regulations say: “No person shall, Within the Green, hold or address a public meeting.”
So he settled on Temple Bar Square, instead. “There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and then finally permission was granted,” he says. “I started ringing around people I knew, different protestors, and started inviting them.”
Defending Your Right to Say It
Ó Snodaigh had his platform for no-holds-barred pronouncements in the middle of Dublin, and from the very start, that’s what he got. He remembers two particular teenagers who got up to say their piece early on.
“It’s amazing that they had the balls to do it, but they got up and started talking about hash: ‘Hash has never killed anybody, why isn’t people allowed smoke it?’” he recalls.
“Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately – some guy who was suffering from hash psychosis and coming out the other end of it started berating them for their stupidity. That was pretty funny,” he says.
The proceedings of Speaker’s Square were usually civil enough, but violence wasn’t unheard of. Once, a visually impaired man was saying his piece, to the annoyance of one particular woman, who was heckling him.
“She was getting annoyed and I was trying to encourage people to get up. So I said to this woman: ‘Why don’t you get up there and make your point?’ Thing is, she walks up and pushes him off the bloody podium!”
Ó Snodaigh sometimes found himself intervening on behalf of speakers he didn’t agree with in the spirit of what he saw as the free-speech mission of the project.
“There was another one and this guy [was making racist remarks] … There was this girl in the audience and she just said ‘I’m not letting you talk,’ so she started roaring at him. And I just said ‘Hold up, let him speak,’ but she said, ‘I’m not letting him speak’.”
Afterwards, the speaker was furious at Ó Snodaigh, thinking he’d been egging the woman on in her efforts to drown out his views. But Ó Snodaigh told him the opposite was the case. “I’m defending your right for free speech here. I totally disagree with everything you’re saying, but you’re allowed say it,” he recalls explaining.
The Bite of the Tiger
With the cost of living rising in Dublin, Ó Snodaigh decided he had to move out of the city. In 2006, he bought a house in Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim.
As he prepared to leave town, he cast about for someone to take up the job of keeping the project going, but couldn’t find any takers. “I tried to get people to take it on and people didn’t want to hear their own voices, it seems. They were only interested in money, and making more of it,” he says.
By the end of 2006, the regular Sunday soapbox sessions had stopped. Little by little, his stage got crowded out by street furniture.
“That corner just got feckin’ clamped up by loads and loads of different poles. I remember going back there and there was a rubbish chewer and a whole load of stuff,” he says. “You’d have thought two years would have created enough of a space for people to say, ‘I own that space to get up and talk.'”
In 2013, there was an effort to revive Speaker’s Square as part of the Theatre Machine festival. Organised by Veronica Dyas and a number of other theatre practitioners, it had a short run during the festival in Temple Bar before moving to the Northside.
“We kept it going for almost a year after the Theatre Machine, at the GPO end of Henry Street, and did a few as part of Live Collision Festival too,” Dyas said.
There were Speaker’s Corner events as part of Culture Night in 2013 and 2014, but a week-in, week-out public forum has yet to return to Temple Bar.
Ó Snodaigh believes that even with the proliferation of social media as a vehicle for alternative viewpoints, people ranting on street corners is still relevant.
“Even back then, people were saying, ‘We have the digital age, we’ve all these other forms of communication – why would you invest in in the spoken word?’, and I would say you can actually have a really strong impact just talking to someone or just writing notes on a page.”
Ó Snodaigh still believes in the power of in-the-flesh political debate to win hearts and change minds.
“There’s all the stuff now, you’ve trolls on various platforms and all that but there are people who would never get their voices heard, ever. And if they did take part in actual debate I think they might be a bit more measured about what they say about people.”
What’s his advice for anyone who wants to have a go of making stump speeches on street corners?
“Talk loudly. When two people stop, they make other people stop. You have to have your hecklers – the hecklers make other people listen to you,” he says.
“If there were five of us, one of us would get up and the other four would get up and stand around in different places so that people can hang around without feeling they’re the only one listening. Find a spot and start doing it, like buskers do.”