Friday 30 September 2016

800 people squashed into just 15 townhouses

Damian Corless on the war-time austerity suffered by an Irish population already struggling to survive in disease-ridden slums

Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30

Searching the rubble: Dublin children collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising.
Searching the rubble: Dublin children collecting firewood from the ruined buildings damaged in the Easter Rising.
Light relief: Comedienne Lottie Lennox was at Dublin's Tivoli

As the plain people of Ireland made plans for their 1916 Easter break, there was no shortage of come-the-revolution bar-stool banter, but for most folk it was just that, pub prattle. There was enough to deal with getting through the daily grind without worrying over something that would almost certainly never happen.

  • Go To

Tens of thousands of Irishmen - Nationalist and Unionist - were away at the Flanders front as the Great War neared the close of its second year. War-time shortages had inflicted extra austerity on the make-do-and-mend norms of a society that took a dim view of wasteful behaviour. Faded clothes could be given new life at Eustaces, "The Famous Dublin Dyers". Wood-Milne Rubber Heels & Tips were guaranteed to "restore the buoyant step of youth" to worn boots and shoes, for rich as well as poor, as the well-heeled man in the advert made clear.

Shortages of petrol, paper and cloth added to the general air of thrift. A 'Shell Notice To Motorists' stated: "It is more important than ever for all motorists to see that they receive all motor spirit products in properly sealed cans and that the seals are intact." An intact seal indicated that the can had not been refilled with black-market petrol, while the prices had been fixed by law in an effort to foil profiteers. As April arrived, the stretch in the evening pushed lighting-up time for the capital's streets towards 8pm and eased household expenditure on the lamp paraffin that had recently replaced whale oil, helping save the ocean giants from extinction.

Newspapers had already been reduced to slim affairs, but the Irish Independent reported: "A drastic regulation is to be enforced reducing the import by one third of paper and paper-making materials". This would mean smaller print-runs, and the Independent called on readers "to place a regular order to your newsagent" or risk going without.

In recent decades, Dublin's rich had abandoned the city centre for suburbs like Ranelagh and Drumcondra, and by 1916, their formerly fine homes had fallen into dereliction, but not disuse.

While much of rural Ireland was dirt-poor and hungry, many Dubliners lived in a crowded squalor which condemned them to lives even more nasty, brutish and short. The capital's slums were the poorest in the British Isles, with a death rate 33pc higher than in the worst parts of London. The inner city was crowded with livestock kept in filthy, undrained dairy-yards and laneways, and the sound of animals being slaughtered rang from countless backstreet abattoirs. Offal, blood and excrement splattered the city-centre pavements.

Disease plagued the slum tenements where one-in-three families lived in a single room. Henrietta Street, near O'Connell Street, was now a by-word for wretchedness, with some 800 people squashed into 15 townhouses originally built to house just one upper-crust family each. Outside to the rear there was a piggery. Dublin Corporation's efforts to improve conditions were feeble, not least because many Corpo members doubled as slum landlords, collecting rents from the crumbling tenements. And as disease raged, and infant mortality in particular soared, the hospital system was falling apart as ballooning war inflation crippled fixed budgets.

In the bars and kitchens, topical chat revolved around the news from the front, the chances of a flu epidemic, the pros and cons of Home Rule and the prospects of a Zeppelin attack. Even though the damage they caused was small, Germany's airships were currently terrorising the south of England and their psychological impact spread far.

But despite all this, the music halls, cinemas and sports grounds were booming, and, as we shall see, even the snake-oil salesmen were making a bob, pushing everything from infallible betting systems to mail-order miracle cures.

Smoking Permitted In All Parts

James Joyce had opened Ireland's first cinema, Cinematograph Volta, in 1909 and seven years on, many more had shot up, offering a mix of silent movies and live acts, with many landing from Britain. One advert ran: "Distinguished well-known Vocalist (Gentleman), London And Provincial Concerts, wants Tour. First Class picture houses only."

The Town Hall Cinema in Rathmines and the Rotunda, billing itself as 'The House, The Pictures, The Orchestra', were both screening A Welsh Singer. This "great five-reel drama" told the story of a shepherd and farmgirl torn apart by their careers as he becomes a famous sculptor and she an opera singer. Sharing both bills were Pathe newsreels and "world films". Pathe Gazette News also featured at the Bohemian Picture Theatre beside Dalymount Park, where The Dop Doctor main feature was "supported by a splendid programme of comic and topical subjects and the finest orchestra in Ireland". At the Fr Mathew Hall "sacred films" were the warm-up for a lecture on 'Commerce After the War'. The music halls were hopping. At the Gaiety, the Adelphi Players presented "the play of the season", Tina, which featured "a Chorus of 40" including chorus girls dressed up as "gentlemen". "A Largely Augmented Orchestra" provided the soundtrack.

With laughter the best medicine for the wartime blues, the Empire Theatre gave top billing to "America's Leading Comedienne Hilda Gyder", while the Tivoli featured: "Lottie Lennox, favourite comedienne; Pauline Travis, male impersonator; and The Brothers Webb, in mirth and melody."

The nearby Queen's Theatre was presenting a twice-nightly revue entitled Human Hearts. Nicotine addiction was getting a huge boost here under Kitchener's 'Smokes For The Troops' programme, but smoking in the presence of women was still widely frowned upon. As an added enticement, the venue advertised: "Smoking permitted in all parts".

Gramophones and discs were taking off, while a steady trade continued in new and second-hand musical instruments. The big pet fad of the day, for rich and poor, was the caged canary, finch or parrot.

How To Make Racing Pay

In the years immediately following the war, spectator sport would put on a spectacular spurt, but the signs were already there. The Irish Cup semi-finals produced record gate receipts for Linfield's victory over Glentoran, and Bohemians' 3-2 win over Shelbourne.

There was widespread interest in Gaelic Games, cross-country running meets, boxing, billiards and hunts of the staghound and foxhound varieties. The definition of 'sports' extended to pursuits that were key to putting food on countless tables, such as ferreting for rabbits. One prominent advert offered: "Large, strong, healthy Dog Ferrets. Good workers. 5/- each." At the other end of the social scale, Ireland's golf clubs had already established a calendar of fundraising tournaments for wounded Irishmen in British uniforms.

Racegoers looking forward to the big Easter meetings were being told that betting without a foolproof system was a mug's game. A London firm, Daily System Wires, offering cast-iron tips by telegraph, pitched: "Known throughout the world as the most reliable way of beating the bookmakers. Don't lose any more money. Irish racing a speciality. Send for My Great Free 44-Page Book. It contains scores of testimonials, proofs etc and explains How To Make Racing Pay."

The Best Fish For Lent

The Irish enjoyed more meat in their diet than their neighbours across the sea, but Catholic dietary norms were interrupted in the weeks before Easter by the restrictions of Lent. Sweetshops, bakeries, butchers and restaurants took a seasonal hit, as did the pubs as menfolk swore off for the duration.

However, for the fish trade, Lent was always Christmas-come-early. Tinned in Newcastle-On-Tyne, Skippers were heavily advertised as "The Best Fish For Lent". The advert continued: "Skippers enable you to observe the Lenten Fast without sacrificing nourishment which is really necessary for health. Skippers themselves are rich in just those elements which build up the system and enable it to bear the extra strain and extra work imposed by the War.

"Ask gently but FIRMLY for Skippers."

For most working families, urban and rural, the main meal of the day was dinner at lunchtime, with stews - made from leftovers - regular fare. For eating out, Restaurant Jammet at Dublin's Burlington was beyond all but the wealthiest, but many pubs did affordable soups, grills and sandwiches.

At the bottom of the food pyramid, the board of the Roscrea Workhouse in Tipperary tendered for a supply of white bread which "must be equal to and will be compared with the Best White Bread made in the town of Roscrea". A far greater proportion of Irish adults and children were incarcerated in workhouses, reformatories and mental hospitals than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. (See below).

The National Infirmary For Bad Legs

In an age before the flu jab, a bout of influenza could, and often did, prove fatal. The newspapers advertised countless compounds including Iron Jelloids and Beecham's Pills which claimed to protect against flu and, for good measure, against just about anything else that might ail you. Two years later, the fears came horribly true when a global influenza epidemic killed some 50 million including tens of thousands here.

The sorry state of Ireland's health service actually promoted the spread of infectious disease, with the poor, the orphaned, the homeless and the disturbed shoehorned into barbaric workhouses, reformatories and mental institutions.

During recent decades, the ­British had dampened down dissent by pumping generous subsidies into ­Ireland's local authorities, ­maintaining Dickensian institutions which should have been long shut-down.

In 1916, the underpopulated county of Monaghan had four hospitals and a workhouse. Up the social ladder, St Patrick's Hospital For The Treatment Of Mental Diseases was touting for custom.

Advertising its refurbished "mansion" on 200 acres, it announced: "Urgent cases can be admitted to the Hospital on application to the Medical Superintendent."

If the adverts were to be believed, bad legs ranked second only to influenza as a public health concern. One, in this paper, carried a testimony allegedly from a monk, headlined: 'How A Bad Leg Escaped Amputation'. With his mother's leg facing the chop, the monk recommended that she try Grasshopper Ointment & Pills. Her cure was instant and miraculous, and readers could share in it by sending off a postal order for 2/6.

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 here was the catch) where "the problem is incurable".

A coupon was attached which could be filled out and sent for a free treatment. Senders could identify themselves by four prefixes: "Miss, Mrs, Mr or Rev."

'Boy wanted, about 15, orphan preferred'

In the jobs market, two new sectors were positively flying. The rapid advance of wireless and telephone technology, and a parallel growth in motor transport, provided prospects outside traditional occupations for men such as blacksmith, farm labourer, butcher, carriage maker, etc, and for women beyond shop assistant, housemaid and the clothing industry.

Girls in particular were courted by the new communications industry, through dozens of adverts along the lines of that by The Ladies & Gents' Telegraphy School, Limerick, which boasted: "Over 100 Pupils Recently Obtain Positions."

Indeed, decades later, the man who coined the term 'global village', Marshall McLuhan, would contend that the world's first radio broadcast was made in 1916 by the rebels holding the GPO. He wrote: "Wireless had already been used on ships as ship-to-shore telegraph. The rebels made, not a point-to-point message, but a diffused broadcast in the hope of getting word out to some ship that would relay their story to the US press."

Driving schools too were spreading like wildfire, with each stressing that they didn't just teach driving skills, but the mechanical know-how to cope with contraptions that kept breaking down. The Irish School Of Motoring also provided "special tuition for ladies". For most jobs requiring mobility, a car wasn't necessary. One advert looked for: "Reporter. Junior. Cyclist. Good paragraphist."

In an unregulated world, some job descriptions were vague, such as: "Australia. Girls wanted. Fare £1. Graham Corbet, Government Agents, 18 Lr Ormond Quay, Dublin." One that wouldn't be seen today read. "Boy, about 15, wanted for light work. Good home, orphan preferred."

Indo Review

Read More

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News