Thursday 22 August 2019

Oh to be from Rathmines

Joseph Brady outlines the social and physical landscape of Dublin on the eve of the Rising

A postcard from the era shows Grafton Street.
A postcard from the era shows Grafton Street.
UCD's Joseph Brady.

Aminor character in Seán O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars is the fashionably-dressed middle-aged stout woman from Rathmines. As the Rising begins to affect the city and the trams are stopped, she meets Fluther, the Covey and Peter and asks 'For Gawd's sake, will one of you kind men show any safe way for me to get to Wrathmines?' She is not treated sympathetically, for to be from Rathmines was to be far removed from the reality of life in the tenements.

Dublin in 1916 was a city of great social contrasts even though it was a small place in geographical terms. It was not a single urban area but rather a city and a collection of adjacent independent towns bound by economic ties. To be from Rathmines, was not just to be of elevated social status, it was also not to be from Dublin but from an entirely different legal urban entity, a suburban township with its own council, water supply, rates - and its own view of the world.

Despite the efforts of Dublin Corporation in the latter years of the 19th century to absorb the townships - and so get their ratebooks - Pembroke, Rathmines and the coastal townships of Blackrock, Kingstown, Dalkey and Killiney were still independent in 1916. Though the townships were relatively small compared to the city - 29,294 people in Pembroke and 37,840 in Rathmines/Rathgar in 1911 compared to 304,802 - they were middle-class in character and were important to the business and commercial life of the city. For example, though there were 2,090 civil service officers and clerks in the city, there were 303 in Rathmines and 566 in Pembroke alone. It was to the city that they came to work, to shop and to enjoy themselves.

In the evening they went home, insulated from the lives of the poor whose streets they shared during the day, for even in the best street the tenements were only a stone's throw distant. They also avoided having to support the work of Dublin Corporation in addressing the housing crisis - there were 21,133 one-room tenements alone in the city in 1911 - though the 1913 Housing Inquiry suggested that Dublin Corporation's commitment to that project was not what it might be.

The main business area was around College Green where many insurance and financial institutions had built impressively while the legal profession had offices along the quays between O'Connell Bridge and the Four Courts.

Sackville Street, for all its impressive scale, was not a major business street but directed more to tourism with some shopping and the Metropole, Hamman, Imperial and Gresham hotels provided a high level of service with all of the facilities that wealthy people might expect. These were international standard hotels with separate accommodation and dining facilities for the servants who accompanied visitors. In fact, it was these visitors who were most immediately discommoded by the events of the Rising, given the location of the hotels.

The city centre was pre-eminent as a shopping destination for the people in the townships. While they enjoyed good quality local shopping, nothing could compete with downtown. Travel was easy and efficient with good train and tram services. A minority could afford to travel by carriage and the best shops provided liveried attendants to ensure that these customers were treated as they expected.

It was suggested that the more elegant suburbanites did not cross the Liffey when they came to Dublin. That is an exaggeration because the north city had excellent shopping facilities and there were middle-class areas in Clontarf and Drumcondra which had been absorbed into the city after 1900. It is equally true that the needs of most southsiders could be met south of the Liffey.

Then, as now, there were two main quality shopping districts - one bounded by Grafton Street and South Great Georges Street and a more linear area on the northside with Henry Street as its core, flanked by Mary Street and Talbot Street. Grafton Street had pretentions to pre-eminence long before 1916 and a 1904 shopping guide for visitors advised that it was there that one would see the 'wealth, fashion and beauty of Dublin' engaged in shopping in the morning and in promenade in the afternoon.

Status was important and many shops boasted royal warrants, though some took care to feature the Irishness of their products. London, Paris and St Petersburg led fashion and Dubliners were kept up to date on trends by magazines such as The Lady of the House which also offered practical advice. Women's clothing dominated the shopping landscape and smaller boutique shops vied with the larger warehouses (department stores) such as Brown Thomas and Switzer's.

Made-to-measure clothing was easily available and stores often maintained a manufacturing component on the upper floors or to the rear of the premises. For those who preferred an even more personal experience, there were many dressmakers who had rooms on the upper floors.

In the nearby streets a range of personal services was available, including language instruction, dancing masters as well as hair and beauty salons. Men were well catered to, even though it was recognised that they did not go 'shopping' with a similar emphasis on made-to-measure clothing including suits and shirts.

Exhausted by shopping, the ladies could repair to a number of fashionable coffee houses, of which Mitchell's was probably the best known, and discuss the business of the day. Perhaps they might have some servant issues and so visit one of the nearby servant registries. Even those on more modest middle-class salaries could afford a daily servant and this was the single most important respectable employment opportunity for women. Some 14,263 domestic servants lived in the city in 1911, 85 percent of whom were female. Pembroke had a further 2,600 while Rathmines had almost 4,300.

It was not all hand-made items with personal service. The shops catered to the range of middle-class incomes and but even those with more modest salaries were distant from the lives of the poor. An advertisement for Switzer's appeared in the Freeman's Journal in February 1916 for a discounted consignment of tailor-made coats which usually would retail for 2-3 guineas but which they could offer for between 17/6 and 21 shillings. It was estimated that a household income of £1 per week was needed to meet basic needs but many families did not come near this.

Despite the damage caused by the Rising to Sackville Street and the surrounding blocks, quality shopping was back by 5 May. This was much easier on the southside but even Arnott's, who were lucky to have survived, were back in business. Clery's, whose main premises were smoking ruins, announced on 12 May that their postal business was back in action in Earl Place and that their summer stock had missed destruction because it was in transit.

Joseph Brady is a lecturer in the School of Geography, University College Dublin

Irish Independent

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