Skip to main content

How can you create when you’ve nowhere to live



Molly Keane’s second instalment on the creative process deals with how creatives still produced during a pandemic, a housing crisis and an all-round terrible time for artists…


You’re in your mid-twenties. You’re living in a small flat with your partner and your friend, and your under-counter fridge light blinks and hums sleepily. It’s the middle of December, and drops of water race each other down your single-glazed windows, causing the old windowsills to bubble and peel. The landlord won’t be happy about that.

The upstairs neighbour marches heavily on the floorboards each night. ‘Ye lucked out with this place lads, it’s just dreamy – you have a balcony and all!’ And we even thought to ourselves that we were lucky. We were lucky to be able to move out of Dublin and into an apartment which we thought was a great find, right between our two hometowns in the west of Ireland. We were lucky to have a super king size bed and a very large bedroom. We were lucky to have a balcony that hung over the Garavogue river that we filled with plants. We were lucky to have a chaise longue – albeit a broken one. We were lucky we were ‘only’ paying eight hundred euro; a mere fraction of what our Dublin friends were paying for smaller and far, far worse.

‘Five-fifty there when you’re ready. Do you want to tap?’ says your barista, who is also a photographer, a painter, an actor, a musician, as they hand you your oat flat white. It’s gone in two mouthfuls.

Housing is a basic human right, or so you would think. In actual fact, the access to housing is not at all protected in Irish legislation or in the Irish Constitution. When people have nowhere to live, people have nowhere to create, and Ireland’s young generation of artists are driven back to their family homes, or to move abroad, because it has become virtually impossible to live as an artist and be able to afford to rent in Irish cities.

Peter McAteer, fine artist and tattooer, talks of his change in circumstances at the beginning of the pandemic. “I had to move home from abroad but I was extremely privileged to be able to move back in with my mum and brother. There was some pressure to find an income as my family is also renting and I needed to contribute, but that encouraged me to sell my prints,” he says.

He also talks about the internal dichotomy between wanting to stay and feeling the need to leave. “The housing crisis unfortunately means that, like a lot of Irish creatives at the beginning of their career, I am always wavering between staying in Ireland and leaving. I know I’d be able to have a more fulfilling and financially stable life and career outside of Ireland but I can’t quite bring myself to leave again. I’m just hoping things get better.”

Filmmaker and Cork native Elena Horgan has moved home after living abroad for some years after graduating from college. “It’s difficult and sad but it’s my home and I want to stay here,” says Elena. There is a feeling of guilt associated with leaving, or wanting to leave, amongst Irish artists. We are told that we are deeply appreciated and valued and needed in society, but we are also constantly told that we won’t ever afford a house given the amount of avocado toast we eat and the online subscriptions we have. We all know that neither avocados nor streaming services are the problem.

Constance Keane (FEARS) says: “So much of my work is inspired by Ireland. All my videos are based there and feature the landscape heavily. I know for myself that I wouldn’t be able to create what I create anywhere else. Because my work is so personal, it has to have strong links to a feeling of home.”

She also says that although her work is heavily inspired by Ireland, “I live in London a lot of the time now. There are next to no opportunities to work in the industry in Ireland compared to London.”

The thing is, Irish artists don’t want much to create. We don’t want massive studio spaces or giant houses. We crave simplicity and space to call our own to create in.

“I want to be living in a little cottage in the south-east of Ireland, somewhere near the coast, making art in a studio in the back of my garden with my two dogs and my partner, working towards an exciting project or an exhibition,” says photographer Donal Talbot. He, like many others, has for now chosen to leave Ireland in search of a better life elsewhere in Europe. “Whenever I leave Ireland and live somewhere new, I’m reminded of how special and curious our little island is. It’s so important for us to hold on to our cultures and traditions and I believe that creating an environment that encourages artists to keep developing their work is one of the most crucial ways to sustain our culture,” he says.

Unless there occurs a seismic shift in housing supply to meet the demand, rent caps for landlords, and a means by which you can do what you love and still afford to buy your little cottage in the countryside, the legacy of emigration will continue, as will the hypocritical call out for the need for artists to stay to preserve our culture and rich history of artistic export.

You get a knock on your apartment door. It’s someone from the building management company, telling you to take the Pride Flag down off your balcony because ‘the balcony isn’t included in the lease agreement for the apartment.’ The following month, your landlord emails you. They’re raising your rent ‘because it’s been the same since you moved in a year and a half ago.’

The fridge light still blinks and the windowsills continue to bubble and peel. There are new patches of damp on the walls. The bass from the nightclub next door surrounds you in your bed each night. The carpet frays at the ends, like a frizzy head of hair. You decide to move home, to save for a while. Sure, aren’t you lucky to have it?


With thanks to Donal Talbot, Elena Horgan, Peter McAteer & Constance Keane (FEARS).