Campaign for Wicklow Sudbury School

Wicklow Sudbury School is an experiment in Irish education. The first  curriculum ‘free school’ in the country. A school where students spend all day long, pursuing their real interests. The Sudbury Valley model, pioneered in Massachusetts in the late 1960s, puts children in charge of directing their own education. A few years ago I organised some events along these lines in Dublin. Learning and teaching as self directed fun. Those experiences, and my time volunteering at Exchange Dublin – the democratically organised art space in Temple Bar forcibly shut down by Dublin City Council in 2014 – have shown me the power of learning as play. The  importance of genuine ‘third spaces’, where people can explore through play to offer the kind of deep personal enrichment that bureaucratic curricula and educational measures cannot hope to define, let alone measure. These spaces are so rare in our contemporary societies, where every inch is commodified and defined, every intervention tailored, every creative work moulded and marketed to a constructed audience, that they can seem fantastical. They are spaces that literally remind us what it means to be human. Connection, creativity, love in action.

Last year I made a radio documentary, following a year in the life of the school – exploring in a small way the opportunities for more libertine forms of education in Ireland in general. This year, as I moved out of radio and into video production, I offered to head back to the school, to help with their crowd funding campaign. I spent a day at Wicklow Sudbury, shooting interviews and capturing the decidedly unconventional educational environment. I combined short interviews with three staff and five students with footage of the learning through play that makes this place unique. The end results are a ten minute mini-documentary and a two minute promotional video. Unlike the documentary this campaign is decidedly partisan. I’ve worked as hard as I can to convey the enthusiasm of staff and students for this new kind of education. 

Hopefully these videos capture a little about what makes this school so different. This really is a place where kids can be themselves. A place to develop the kind of diverse talents that our rigid bureaucratic education system cannot accept, let alone promote. These kids are passionate, creative, and above all independently minded. They give me hope for a future less rigid, heartless and polarised than the present. This is the kind of place that any misunderstood, creative kid might have imagined into existence. It’s the sort of place that makes having kids worth considering. It’s that revolutionary. If you’re interested in learning more, Wicklow Sudbury staff frequently offer talks about setting up your own community school, and you can find information about these, and if you’d like donate towards the school (which naturally receives no government funding), at their website

Community Arts in Dublin – Culture File

Exhibition party for Franck Omer, a French artist I invited to show at Exchange Dublin in 2012.
Exhibition party for Franck Omer, a French artist I invited to show at Exchange Dublin in 2012.

Perhaps the most famous line in Portrait of the Artist goes like this: ‘Ireland is the old sow that eats her own farrow’. Some things never change. The ‘peace dividend’ of Brian Lenihan’s attack on the Irish economy, was a fall in rents. Dublin got something it had never had before, cheap unused buildings. This meant that artists, historically an embarrassment in the way of progress (see The City Arts Centre, the Temple Bar redevelopment, etc, ad nauseam), took an active unmediated part in the life of the city. Visitors to this years ‘Culture Night’ attractions, will have discovered that all that is done for. We have lost so much, so quickly. So much hope that the city could be a place for people, not merely a venue for business. A creative community, not just a pop-up cash register for green dollars. So many of my generation, and the cohort after me, have left. There was no room for us. This city killed the spaces we created, one after another.

Volunteering in Exchange Dublin, circa 2011
Volunteering in Exchange Dublin, circa 2011

Exchange Dublin, Mabos, Subground 43, Space 54, Dublin City TV, Supafast, Bluebottle Collective, the Factory, Moxie Studios, the Joinery. All going, going, gone. These were spaces where anyone could take part in making things. Art as expression and community, not just commodity. Each was systematically defunded, ejected, and shuttered. There are still arts spaces in Dublin, of course. Commercial galleries, artists studios, and the kind of businesses that don’t promise or threaten social change. I wanted to know why. Why have so many spaces that offered hope, connection, ingenuity and freedom gone? Is it a combination of rising rents, and unsustainable commercial rates? Or is this city and those who govern it, actively hostile to anything that doesn’t draw a buck.

The audience at one of the early Milk & Cookies events in Exchange Dublin.
The audience at one of the early Milk & Cookies events in Exchange Dublin.

I spoke with all the volunteers and founders I could find. Some of those interviews are compiled in the piece above for Culture File. Some I’m sitting on, waiting for the right outlet to tell this story. Because it’s my story too.

After I finished college in 2008, I found myself footloose and penniless. Ireland didn’t seem to offer anything in the way of meaningful, ethical work, and I couldn’t afford to emigrate. I discovered a place called Seomra Spraoi. A collectively organised space, for communities united by a rejection of capitalist realism: The dismal view that this is as good as it gets, and if you want more you’d better clamber over the guy in front. A few months later, I visited a new space, a friend from college was helping to create, Exchange Dublin. Volunteering at Exchange was to occupy three of the most creative, rewarding years of my life. Exchange was a collaborative community, like Seomra Spraoi run through consensus meetings anyone could join. It offered space, most often for free, to literally hundreds of groups, for exhibitions, meetings, performances and artistic expression of all sorts. But this space was in the heart of the city, with glass walls that invited visitors in. And in they poured, from all over the world, visitors of every age and ethnicity. They’d arrive, on a Saturday afternoon, stepping in for a tea, or to escape the rain, or to take part in a dance class they’d glimpsed through the window. Often they’d be back, volunteering the next day, and the day after. The openness of the space, it’s lack of walls, whether of glass, class, education, or appearance, made it utterly unique.

No Signal, experimental audiovisual collective. Exchange Dublin.
No Signal, experimental audiovisual collective. Exchange Dublin, 2009.

It was meeting so many marvellous strangers and artists, entering a world I’d never had access to, that gave me the courage to pursue comedy, performances, radio, theatre, video and performance art. Exchange Dublin gave birth to the education collective I co-founded, Open Learning Ireland.
All the marvellous adventures I’d admired, but never imagined myself doing. All of the things that make life more than series of days occupied by work and distraction. Exchange kickstarted the careers of dozens of comedians, visual artists, dancers, and activists. This January, the space was forced to close, accused by DCC of nebulous ‘anti-social behaviour’. Seomra still ticks on, just about covering it’s rent and rates from month to month. Day by day, week by week, more and more of my friends leave. Not because we loathe Ireland, or lack the courage to stay through a recession. But because every flower we plant is plucked out, and the soil that’s left behind is salted barren.

Download: Unlikely Spaces