In June 1979, the site of the hugely controversial Civic Offices at Wood Quay was occupied under cover of darkness by protesters. Under the Black Raven flag of the Vikings, newspapers reported that “poets and politicians, writers and artists, trade unionists and people from the Liberties” were among those who made the bold step, led by Father F.X Martin. Martin was a prolific historian, writing on subjects as diverse as the Irish Volunteers and Early Modern Ireland, and in his lifetime he could boast of roles as diverse as Chairman of the Friends of the Medieval Dublin, Professor of Medieval History at University College Dublin and friar. The occupation of the site grabbed national and international headlines.
Martin had legally opposed the construction of the offices as far back as 1977, and had argued that the site should have been preserved as a tourist attraction due to its heritage. In 1978 he went before the High Court in an attempt to prevent the construction project continuing. As Frank McDonald noted in The Irish Times, Martin used his court appearance to argue that the real importance of Wood Quay was in “the fact it revealed the layout of Medieval Dublin, showing how the ordinary people lived at the time and how the city had evolved around them.”
Judge Liam Hamilton accepted the case of Martin and said he was satisfied the site was of national importance and should be preserved. Incredibly however, two months later Pearse Wyse (then Minister of State of the Office and Public Works) announced that excavations at Wood Quay would be coming to an end and the Corporation would be allowed continue with its construction work. This led to a major campaign of resistance, with a petition signed by over 200,000 people and a protest march of 20,000 through the city. ‘Operation Sitric’ in June 1979 was one of the most exciting moments of that campaign of opposition. The protest took its name from Sigtrygg Silkbeard, a one-time Hiberno-Norse King of Dublin.
At first, fifteen protestors occupied the site. These included Michael O’Leary T.D, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. The writers James Plunkett and Mary Lavin, Denis Larkin and Donal Nevin from the trade union movement, the sculptor Oisin Kelly and architect Michael Scott, who was responsible for the modern Abbey Theatre.
The occupation of the site began at 7.15pm, with the occupiers rushing the site as workmen finished for the day. The writer James Plunkett told the media that by “destroying Wood Quay we were making a disgrace of ourselves and our city in front of the world.”
The media reported that on one occasion workers rained gallons of water on top of the protestors, destroying their sleeping bags. On another occasion, Gardaí were called to the site following an alleged assault on a female occupier.On June 7th a compromise was reached whereby workers would be freely allowed enter the site by the protesting group, on the condition work not continue.
With a council election looming, the protesters aimed to await the election of a new City Council, in the hope it could save the Wood Quay site. The Irish Press wrote on June 18th that the occupation was going strong, and over two weeks in the paper noted:
Morale among the latest Wood Quay invaders has been high, with plenty of ‘hooting for preservation’ from the passing motorists, well wishers handing in chickens and sandwiches, The Stag’s Head pub supplying the stew and Peter O’Toole “just dropping in.”
The occupation had an improvised kitchen on site, and availed of the toilet facilities which ironically were originally placed there for the use of construction workers. The media noted that “the age of the professional sit-in has arrived”. The John Paul construction company claimed to be losing about £30,000 a week owing to the occupation.
Among those occupying the site were Mick and Teresa Wall, a young married couple from the Oliver Bond flats, both unemployed. Teresa had been protesting outside of the construction site before the occupation with a pot and pan, and Mick described their involvement in the sit-in as one of the most positive experiences of his life. Sitting among academics and professional writers, it showed the real mix of Dubliners involved.
On June 21st, most of the occupiers left the site following a Supreme Court order, and powerful machinery was once more used on the priceless site. The John Paul construction company later said it would seek £8 million in compensation for losses brought about as a result of the occupation.
Among those who spoke out in defense of the Wood Quay office blocks was Ben Briscoe of Fianna Fáil. Briscoe accused the media of giving the Wood Quay demonstrators a “bandwagon to perform on” and insisted that “most archaeologists in Ireland support the Corporation in what they want to do.” Ironically, in Dublin’s ‘millennium’ year of 1988, four stalwarts of the campaign to save Wood Quay were presented with honorary awards for their efforts to preserve Dublin’s heritage!