With progressives and community activists more mobilised than ever in recent years, the time was coming for a hub for ideas, thoughts and events. Enter Rebel Reads, a new community bookshop and co-operative space on Father Mathew Quay. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with co-ordinator Declan Synnott.
The tide has turned in Ireland in recent years. Our well-documented conversion from a once-conservative island fealty to a diverse, forward-looking nation has been an increasingly common international media story. The last thirty years have seen everything, from the decriminalisation of homosexuality and divorce, to liberalisation of laws regarding marriage equality and reproductive rights. The latter saw an unprecedented civic partnership of social and political groups come together, to push for citizen’s assemblies and eventual referenda on these matters, leading to hard-fought but decisive results in its favour. The question of ‘what next’ has many answers, and a great many debates are to be had regarding civil partnership among community groups and progressive political factions.
But on a local level, taking that energy and organisation forward and building on the work of the Together for Yes campaign was of vital importance, especially in the light of the loss of community arts spaces in recent years. Rebel Reads, a community bookshop and organisation space on Father Matthew Quay, occupies the campaign’s former headquarters, and as co-ordinator Declan Synnott reveals, came from the desire to move things forward. “An initial callout was made via Solidarity Books’ Facebook page. Solidarity Books was an anarchist bookshop on Douglas Street, which closed in 2015. People were attempting to reorganise, and we began holding meetings every few weeks to discuss how we’d go about it. The plan was to have a physical space with a bookshop running out of it, that would be acting as facilitators for radical, left-leaning political activities and organising, but also open to cultural and creative activities on the independent level in the city.”
The process of assembling a team and reaching consensus on a mission statement, while building on effort and enthusiasm, had to be taken seriously. In carrying on from Solidarity Books, a hefty precedent exists, and providing a progressive space requires solid policy and a plan. “Within those meeting was an overt focus on dialogue and discussing what individuals wanted and what the city needed, and start to organise according to ability to start to address these issues. That meant setting up working groups, so there was a policy group, for organisation and operation, PR groups for social media and engaging with the outside world. But there was always the understanding that they would be coming from a left-leaning background, working toward the end of social change. That was the discussion, understanding that that’s what we wanted.”
The idea of a multi-use space grew from these discussions. The process of taking ideas from different sources on board, and putting them all in one place to set about actioning them, has been essential to its development and general pitch to the public. “Part of our view is wanting to enable people to do what they want to do, or need to do, in the city. So, we’ve always had something of an open call for people to come and propose uses of the space, and we’ve attempted to enable people to do that by themselves, so that we would be in a facilitation role, providing resources. Again, it’s a conversation, we talk to them, see what their needs and our capabilities are, and find common ground.”
Community spaces right now in the city are at a premium as gentrification continues, which makes the shop’s existence even more important at this time. The response, support and interaction from other community organisations has been essential to its development. “It’s all been incredibly positive, people have been supportive. The space we’re in came through Cork Together for Yes, a lot of us were involved, and we’re, as is our policy, a pro-choice organisation, so that was one very natural relationship. But lots of people from varying backgrounds have been involved, and it’s been a positive response, whether it’s wanting to collaborate or showing support. There is that understanding that having community-focused, non-profit spaces in the cities is getting harder. People tacitly understand our existence is precarious, and want to help work to secure it. We knew space might be transient, and the nature of the rental market, gentrification, our government not really caring about how these things happen once profit is generated. But part of our commitment is to always fight for this to happen, and so many people feel the same way, cares, and reaches out.”
In terms of events – there’s screenings and plans for quiet gigs, and there’s already been cookouts and repair shops. The role of events in the space’s development is that of creating a destination for all manner of interests. “We have regular things, a screening every Friday, music. We have vegan food nights, repair cafes. All of those things are about community outreach, where people feel comfortable coming into a space where paying in isn’t essential, where we can do donations or keep admittance as low as we can, and that emphasises how we operate as a bookshop as well. We have couches, we want people to come in, drink some free tea, hang out and feel like they don’t have to pay any money to be in a space. Having these events is to have a sense of like-minded people, sharing an experience, and fostering a sense of co-operation and unity. Cities are alienating places, and spaces like this are where you find support.”
What’s in the future for the space, and what is its importance in light of the changes happening to the city over the next decade? “I believe that people will always come in with great new ideas. Keeping that open to external ideas, and letting those develop more, and more. It’s gonna add to what’s there and assist in changing things. We’re not focused on development for profit-making. We’re focused on aiding communities and positive, radical social and political change, and we’re always going to be dedicated to that. Offering support, a view to alternatives, and a sense that people care, people care beyond monetary value, about individuals.”
Rebel Reads is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10am-7pm, at 14 Father Mathew Quay, around the corner from RTÉ Cork. For more information on events and concerts, check out @rebelreadscork across social media.