Sunday 20 August 2017

Hard times and high jinks in Collins' Ireland

A group of children with a baby playing in the tenements before the Easter Rising. During this period, Dublin had some of the worst slums in Europe.
A group of children with a baby playing in the tenements before the Easter Rising. During this period, Dublin had some of the worst slums in Europe.

While half the nation mourned the death of Michael Collins, most people faced the hard graft of getting on with the gritty side of life in a time of real hardship.

The capital's rich had abandoned the city centre for suburbs like Ranelagh and Drumcondra, and by 1922 their formerly fine homes had fallen into dereliction, but not disuse. While much of rural Ireland was dirt poor, many Dubliners lived in a crowded squalor which condemned them to lives even more nasty, brutish and short than their country cousins. Dublin's slums were the poorest in the British Isles, with a death rate 33pc higher than in the worst parts of London.

But despite all, the music halls, cinemas and sports arenas were booming, and even the snake oil salesmen were making a bob, pushing everything from infallible betting systems to mail order miracle cures. In the years following WWI, in Ireland and globally, spectator sport put on a spectacular spurt.

There were huge crowds for cross-country meets, boxing, billiards and all manner of blood-drenched hunts. The definition of 'sports' extended to pursuits that were key to putting food on countless tables, such as ferreting for rabbits. One prominent Irish Independent advert offered: "Large, strong, healthy Dog Ferrets. Good workers. 5/- each."

Another Irish Independent advert invited Irish readers to write for a free cure to The National Infirmary For Bad Legs in Manchester. The Tremol Method was guaranteed to work "without the possibility of failure" except in cases (and there's the catch) where "the problem is incurable".

In 1922, almost half of all workers were employed in agriculture compared to less than 5pc today. Almost 20pc worked in manufacturing industry compared to one third of that figure now. One in 10 employees in 1922 were housemaids, butlers and other domestic servants, a vanishing group that's shrunk to near invisibility today. More than two-thirds of pupils taking the subjects Commercial Course and Shorthand were boys, because most office secretaries were men.

In 1922, most farm families kept a cow, as unpasteurised milk didn't travel well in a land where both electricity and refrigeration existed in tiny pockets. The short shelf life of milk explains heavy sales of the condensed version on the Consumer Price Index. Fish and chicken were rarely consumed beyond fishing communities and those who kept their own poultry. Tea that sells for around €2.30 a pound today was prohibitive at an equivalent €10-€16 in 1916. Butter and eggs were luxury buys, costing up to three times the price in 1916 as they do today.

While modern housing schemes were shooting up in the new suburbs, the building stock was tottering. The 1911 census listed thousands of 'perishable units' which were either mud huts, or equally crude one-room, one-window dwellings built from rubble. There were 51,451 one-room dwellings in Ireland, and nearly half were home to three or more people, sometimes many more. The contrast between the haves and have-nots was most extreme in Dublin where nearly 10 pc of families lived in veritable mansions of more than 10 rooms (under 3pc today), while 36pc of all family homes were just one room, and 23pc of all Dubliners were crammed into single-room tenement accommodation.

Hard times.

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