On November 23rd, 2023, anti-immigration riots broke out in Dublin, involving looting, arson, and vandalism. These riots bespeak a deep problem plaguing the Irish capital: homelessness. The lack of available housing has led some Dubliners to express the feeling that ‘every house given to an asylum seeker was one “taken away” from an Irish person.’ While these riots illustrate the built-up resentment toward immigration felt in Ireland, they are also a prime example of the far-reaching impact that the housing crisis has posed on human rights. The housing crisis has not only fueled discontent but has also been weaponized to further division among people in Ireland. This weaponization not only further creates divisions but also poses a threat to the nation’s democratic fabric.

Standing tall in the heart of my home, Cork, Ireland, is a mural entitled “What is Home?” by Asbestos, an Irish street artist. The piece is a powerful, in-your-face testament to Ireland’s housing crisis. Ireland no doubt has a housing crisis. Indeed, the number of homeless individuals is at a record level, reaching nearly 14,000 at the beginning of 2024. The artist, Asbestos, hails from Co. Dublin and specializes in mixed media artwork. This mural is not his first contribution to Ireland’s urban landscape, and he has received significant public backing for his endeavors. His work explores concepts of identity, loss, and human rights and intends to jolt “pedestrians out of their daily routine.” 

“What is Home?” is a large mural appearing on the side of a semi-detached house. Created in 2021, this piece is located on South Main Street, adjacent to the iconic “English Market,” a busy part of the city, making it extremely hard not to see the art. The neutral grays of the surrounding buildings are contrasted by a figure looming over the street, hiding its face behind a cardboard box in the shape of a house. Its large size does not merely beckon but forces passersby to reflect on the profound question it poses: “What is home?” The overarching message is that defining home is not as simple as one might think.

The mural’s power extends beyond the visual. As the artist notes, home “isn’t simply about where you were born; it’s where you feel you belong, where you feel safe, where you feel welcome, where you can come back to and feel accepted, loved and part of a community.” The mural transcends art, entering into the realm of politics. It explores the intersection between social artistry, social consciousnesses, identity, and activism. It calls for government action and accountability to promote human rights and to uphold values of human dignity and equality in the face of the housing crisis.

Humanitarian considerations are intricately intertwined in the piece. To borrow the artist’s words: “Never as a country has our sense of what home means been more at threat.” The statistics are striking–2023 witnessed the highest number of homeless ever recorded in Ireland, with 13,179 people reported to be homeless or living in temporary housing. Particularly alarming is the situation for those between the ages of 25 and 29, with 68% of these individuals continuing to live with their parents. The cost of housing is rising 0.8% monthly. There is also a chronic shortage of available rental accommodation. According to the United Nations, homelessness is an “assault on dignity, social inclusion, and the right to life.”

“What is Home?” speaks volumes about the profound human rights crisis in Ireland’s housing predicament. Homelessness is not merely an economic or social issue; it is a fundamental assault on human dignity. Each individual grappling with homelessness is deprived of the dignity of having a safe and secure place to call their own—the housing crisis tramples upon fundamental human rights.

Asbestos’s deliberate use of a cardboard box over the figure’s head is powerful in conveying the invisibility and vulnerability of those experiencing homelessness. The opposing shape of the cardboard box obscures the identity and dehumanizes the figure. The box hides their face, placing a shadow over their identity and casting darkness over the situation. It also comments on the unsafe and precarious architecture of homelessness. The mural’s emotive appeal, with a sad lone eye gazing at the viewer, offers a glimpse into the hardship faced by people experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, the hand placement accentuates the figure’s concealment from society. This detail may be alluding to the shame associated with seeking help. Their hand holding up their head portrays abandonment and hopelessness as they grapple with the weight of their situation alone. Additionally, the concealment of the figure prompts the audience to contemplate how housing struggles, despite their prevalence, can remain hidden in plain sight. It confronts us to challenge realities that may be concealed beneath the city's surface.

Jane Palmer, a sophomore at Notre Dame, is pursuing a double major in political science and global affairs. Palmer is an international student from Co. Cork, Ireland. In the fall of 2024, she will study abroad at Science Po, Paris. On campus, she is heavily involved with the Kellogg Institute for International Studies as part of their Developing Researchers Program and Pre-experiencing the world fellowship in Zambia in the summer 2023 and as a group leader summer 2024. Currently, Jane works as a research assistant for the Pulte Institute for Global Development. Jane’s interests in sports and passion for her heritage converge in her involvement with the Notre Dame Gaelic Athletic Association. Having spent six years studying art practical and history in high school, she blends her passion for her heritage and art by rooting her work for this digital exhibition in her home city. This creates a meaningful connection between her academic pursuits and personal interests.


Story originally posted at nanovic.nd.edu.