The Dublin Poor

Malton, Georgian Dublin
Parliament House, Dublin —
from James Malton "Views of Dublin", ca. 1800

At the time of the Union with Britain, 1801, Dublin was at the height of its splendour:

"second city in His Majesty's dominions ... the fifth for magnitude in Europe ... streets graced by magnificent houses ... possessed of one of the finest public avenues of any city ..." — Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1797.

A century later, Dublin city lay in ruins — "pitted by derelict sites ... demoralised by unemployment and almost vanquished by poverty".

"Society" had followed power to London; the gentry had followed the railways to the suburbs: only the poor remained.

For example: "... of the 182 peers of Ireland only two have residences in the capital." — Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1902 edition.
Dublin slums, 1913
Gardiner Street, 1913
Dublin slums, 1913
North Cumberland Street, 1913

They remained in their tens of thousands, crowded into crumbling courts and the dilapidated remains of Georgian mansions.

Dublin slums, 1913
Plunketts Cottages, off Sandwich Street, ca. 1913
"Like a city after a bombardment" — Chief Medical Officer for Dublin.
"The great mansions of the eighteenth-century aristocracy, forsaken by the class which designed them, have been occupied in quite a different manner by quite a different class of people. Instead of one family occupying a ten-roomed house, there is a family in every room ... Where they do not inhabit the old mansion cut up into one-roomed tenements, they will probably be found living under even worse conditions in airless courts and alleys or in the tumble-down death-traps" — D.A. Chart, "Unskilled Labour in Dublin", 1914.

Their condition was officially acknowledged the most impoverished and neglected in the United Kingdom. The slums in which they lived were regarded the worst in Europe – far worse than anything in the US at the time – with a death-rate (above 33 per thousand) comparable to the slums of Calcutta. The death-rate for measles alone was 3½ times that of London.

Dublin slums, 1913
Henrietta Place, 1913
"The whole city, outside a few leading streets, is in a process of decay." — The Irish Builder, 1913.
Dublin slums, 1913
Maguinnesss court, off Townsend Street, ca. 1913
"... the point about Dublin is that it is infinitely the worst of all the great cities in the United Kingdom. It is not that it has got a few slums, but it seems to have got very little else." — Lord Robert Cecil, House of Commons, 1914.
Dublin slums, 1913
Inhabitants of one tenement building, 1913

Over-crowding was endemic. The 1911 Census reported 20,000 families, representing 100,000 individuals or one-third of Dublin's population, living in one-roomed tenements. (The corresponding rate for Liverpool and Manchester in 1911 was 6 and 2 percent respectively.) In one street alone, 835 people lived in 15 houses:

"The decay of Dublin was epitomised by Henrietta Street, which had once been home to generations of lawyers, but was, by 1911, overflowing with poverty. An astonishing 835 people lived in 15 houses. ... For example, there were members of nineteen different families living in Number 7. Among the 104 people who shared the house were charwomen, domestic servants, labourers, porters, messengers, painters, carpenters, pensioners, a postman, a tailor, and a whole class of schoolchildren. Out the back were a stable and a piggery." — National Archives, Census 1911.
Dublin slums, 1913
Tenement room, Waterford Street, 1913
"In some tenement rooms the bedstead is not to be seen in its usual place in the corner, but in its stead there is spread on the floor a mysterious and repellent assortment of rags, which few inquirers have had the hardihood to investigate and which is believed to serve as a bed." — D.A. Chart, "Unskilled Labour in Dublin", 1914.
"NSPCC inspectors discover three families (ten persons) occupying a room that formed the only means of entrance to another room equally overcrowded. In another case, parents and seven children sleep on the floor on which there is 'not enough straw for a cat' and no covering. Utensils consist of a zinc bucket, a can, a few mugs and jam pots for drinking. The only furniture is a broken bedstead and stool." — O'Brien, "Dear Dirty Dublin", 1982.

Astonishingly, many of these one-roomed families took in lodgers themselves.

"Remarkably, many one-room tenements did not just house a family, but that family also took in members of their extended families or tenants ... In 1911 among the tenements of Mabbot Street and Tyrone Street, 17 families kept lodgers, most despite living in a single room." — National Archives, Census 1911.

Malnutrition was chronic:

Dublin slums, 1913
Tenement room in the Coombe area, 1913
Dublin slums, 1913
Tenement room interior, ca 1913
"What is the usual dietary of a family depending on the wages of unskilled labour? The recent researches of social inquirers supply us with a ready answer. The labouring family, in a word, subsists chiefly on bread and tea." — D.A. Chart, "Unskilled Labour in Dublin", 1914.
"Cheap bacon, scraps of beef, and a herring supplemented the fare of the breadwinner, whose choice of vegetables was invariably confined to potatoes and cabbage. Among the very poor, pig's cheek was a staple item as was the potato." — O'Brien, "Dear Dirty Dublin", 1982.

Ovens were unknown: an open fire provided the sole means of cooking. Cleaning and washing demanded heroic efforts:

Dublin slums, 1913
Newmarket Street, Dublin, 1913
Dublin slums, 1913
Angle Court, Dublin, 1913
"How is absolute cleanliness possible, even with the best intentions, when some thirty or more people of both sexes and all ages and belonging to different families have to share the same water supply and the same sanitary accommodation, both on the ground floor of a four or five story house? Is there not a temptation to be dirty, when cleanliness involves the descent and ascent of perhaps eight flights of stairs and the carrying of heavy cans of water? Even the cleanest of us is not willing to clean up other people's dirt, and so the common hall and staircase become exceedingly foul, while the state of the common yard frequently beggars description." — D.A. Chart, "Unskilled Labour in Dublin", 1914.
Dublin slums, 1913 Dublin slums, 1913
Dublin, 1912
"It was popularly held that the children of the working classes were 'fine healthy little creatures', hardy enough to endure the physical demands of life in the slums. Doctors and undertakers knew better. The pneumonia wards of Dublin hospitals held more than their share of newsboys and other street-trading children from working-class homes whose miserable physiques and ill-clad bodies predisposed them to early death or frail adulthood." — O'Brien, "Dear Dirty Dublin", 1982.
Dublin barefoot boys from slums, ca 1913
Two barefoot Dublin boys, ca. 1913, clothed in women's hand-me-downs.
Dublin slums, 1913
"The children go hatless and barefoot, and are frequently dressed in the worn-out clothes of their parents, rudely cut down to fit, thus producing that characteristic Dublin figure, the street child with its tousled head, its bare legs and the quaintly fluttering rags of its wardrobe." — D.A. Chart, "Unskilled Labour in Dublin", 1914.
"Thousands of children go with naked feet even in winter. The want of good food and warm clothing often causes the fatal sequel to attacks of measles. Amongst the rich this disease is rarely fatal; but the children of the poor offer up many victims to it." — Sir Charles Cameron, Chief Medical Officer for Dublin, 1880–1912.

Dublin, unlike Belfast to the north and the regional centres in Britain, lacked an industrial base. The only significant industries were Guinness's brewery and Jacob's biscuit factory. Unskilled labour accounted for "around half of the workforce" (by comparison, the proportion in Britain in 1911 was 10 per cent).

Dony MacManus, Linesman

A preponderance of this work centred round the Dublin docks. Dock work was low-paid, bit-rate, dangerous and casual. And there was never enough of it: a labour surplus kept wages down, so that a Dublin labourer was paid 18 shillings for a 70 hour week, two-thirds the average in Britain. At the time, 22 shillings per week was considered the barest minimum to maintain "merely physical efficiency".

High rates of unemployment and under-employment rendered workers "extremely vulnerable to victimization by employers". The playwright Sean O'Casey, a labourer at age 14, records being fined 2 shillings of his 7 shillings and sixpence wages for "impudence and disobedience"; at a later job he was sacked on the spot for not removing his cap while being paid.

"Dublin has little of the bustle which should mark so large a city, and as a matter of fact Belfast is said to transact a greater general trade. There is, too, a spirit of foolish pride which seeks to disown trade; and the tendency to be poor and genteel in the civil service, at the bar, in the constabulary, in the army, in professional life, rather than prosperous in business, is one of the most unfortunate and strongly marked characteristics of Dublin society. That this is attributable to the lingering yet potent influence of an unhappy past is held by some; while others attribute the weakness to the viceregal office and the effects of a sham court." — Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1902 edition.
Guinness brewery Dublin, ca 1910
View across the rooftops of Guinness's St. James's Gate brewery, Dublin, ca. 1910
"Some workers enjoyed unique privileges but only when they worked for unusual masters. The Guinness brewing firm was one such employer. In addition to trade-union rates of pay, there was a daily allowance of two pints of beer per man or exchangeable 'scrip' for use at the company's cooperative store. Pensions up to two-thirds of working wages were payable to retirees at 60. All employees and their families were entitled to free medical service (including the services of a midwife) either at the company's dispensary or on visit by the medical officer. There were liberal sick allowances. And the company also gave annual grants-in-aid to the tradesmen's benefit societies and maintained a savings bank, library, and cafeteria. Nor did benefits end there. There were also excursion allowances in summer, Christmas 'boxes' (though for foremen only), and free breakfasts for draymen and office cleaners. Work hours ranged from 48 to 58 per week. It need hardly be added that trade disputes were practically unknown at Arthur Guinness, Son and Company, Ltd." — O'Brien, "Dear Dirty Dublin", 1982.

Jacob's, famous still for its "cream crackers", employed 3,000 girls in its Dublin factory (the female staff at Jacob's were invariably referred to as "girls": the actual teenage girls were known as "mice"). Jobs at Jacob's were coveted by women workers. The alternatives in Dublin were long hours and low pay as a shop girl (than whom "no adult worker could have been more abused") and domestic servitude (house servants represented 40 per cent of female workers in Dublin in 1901).

In August 1911, in one of the lead-up disputes to the Lock-out, the baker's assistants (boys) at Jacob's struck for higher wages and better conditions. "On that occasion occurred one of the most remarkable instances of workers' solidarity in the history of the city when 2,000 girls of Messrs. Jacob came out in sympathy." These Jacob's "mice" were also "out" in the Lock-out of 1913.

Dony MacManus, Linesman
Dony MacManus, "The Linesman", 1999, on City Quay, Dublin – statue commemorating the Dublin dockers.
"Of all occupations, dock labor was one to which in the general opinion something of a stigma was attached. Although many a bona-fide skilled dock worker in regular employment could earn higher wages than the general laborer, dock labor was of such a nature that a surplus labor pool needed to be on hand at all times and this attracted an army of unskilled 'casuals' with a reputation for thriftlessness and intemperance who because of their precarious existence seemed destined sooner or later for the workhouse. Many of these so-called dockers were lucky to earn as little as 5s. a week." — O'Brien, "Dear Dirty Dublin", 1982.
Dublin slums, 1913
Dublin, 1913

Ill-paid, ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-fed, ill-treated and just plain ill, the Dublin poor maintained a spirit of community and charity that's celebrated still in Dublin memoir and song. Sir Charles Cameron, for 32 years the Chief Health Officer of Dublin, closed his "Reminiscences", published 1913, with the remark "I would like to bear testimony to the wonderful kindness which the poor show to those who are still poorer and more helpless than themselves."

Poole Street, Dublin slums, 1913
Poole Street, Dublin, 1913

By the 1900s Dublin Corporation was a wholly Irish and nationalist body. 16 of its members were slum-owners, elected in part by the Dublin working-class. The historian D.A. Chart remarks on this peculiarity in his address to the Statistical Society of Ireland, 1914:

Dublin slum-dwellers, 1901
Dublin slum-dwellers, 1901
"The truth is that the proverbial slum dwellers delight in their surroundings. The one-room tenement was the dwelling of their forebears, the box bed had sufficed for the home of their early days and they have no soul that longs after better, cleaner, and healthier conditions ... the cry of the slum dweller is to be let alone, to be allowed to live and die amidst the squalor and dirt." — Sanitary Record, 1904; quoted in O'Brien, "Dear Dirty Dublin", 1982.
"Undoubtedly there is a long educative process before those who would try to raise the standard of life of the Dublin labourer. His worst fault is his too easy acquiescence in a shameful and degrading position. He accepts the one-room tenement, with all that the one-room tenement implies, as his natural lot and often does not seem to think of, or try for anything better. If he had felt any real resentment against that system, he would not have elected so many owners of tenement houses as members of the Corporation."

It was Larkin's life's work, and Connolly's too, to address this "acquiescence".

Malton, Georgian Dublin
Dublin Castle Courtyard —
from James Malton "Views of Dublin", ca. 1800
Malton, Georgian Dublin
Custom House Quay —
from James Malton "Views of Dublin", ca. 1800
Malton, Georgian Dublin
Rutland Square —
from James Malton "Views of Dublin", ca. 1800
Malton, Georgian Dublin
Powerscourt House —
from James Malton "Views of Dublin", ca. 1800
Havell, Georgian Dublin
Sackville Street & the GPO —
Robert Havell, ca. 1820