Thursday 24 October 2019

Home truth: Philanthropic housing has long been used to control working classes

‘Luxury’: The Guinness-created Iveagh Trust built many blocks of quality flats in the vicinity of its St James’s Gate brewery
‘Luxury’: The Guinness-created Iveagh Trust built many blocks of quality flats in the vicinity of its St James’s Gate brewery
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Housing philanthropy has long been deployed through Irish history - largely as a means of keeping workers happy and healthy but also under the heel of their employers.

Anglo-Irish rural landlords for centuries provided homes on lands their forebears had taken from locals. However, the homes rented out to tenants were of very poor quality and issued at very high rents.

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The notion was that most of the money earned in meagre wages by agri- workers was paid straight back to their landlord bosses as rent. It meant tenants were little more than serfs.

But by the middle of the 19th century, owners of big city businesses both in Ireland and in Britain were living in fear of the prospect of a full-blown revolution and of socialism and anarchy from the poor and working classes.

There had been upheavals in Europe and numerous "red" assassinations and bombings. The Fenians had reared their heads both here and in Britain. Trade unions and strikes were emerging with the spread of socialism and suffrage for the working classes. Big business owners were terrified. So they built homes.

The best example of business-provided housing in Ireland is that provided by the Guinness-created Iveagh Trust in Dublin. Elaborate redbrick blocks containing hundreds of flats were built in the vicinity of the James's Gate Brewery and they are still standing and occupied today. Through the Iveagh Trust, the Guinness family in the late 19th century and beyond provided apartments with two and three bedrooms. These were an absolute luxury back when workers in Dublin could expect their entire families to live in a single slum room.

The Guinnesses also provided public baths, a market, a public park for workers (the Iveagh Gardens) and sports and childcare functions.

While it might seem that the Guinness family were being unusually generous, there was also a very practical and commercial side to this housing philanthropy.

The Dublin slums were among the worst in Europe and a source of TB and cholera. The operators of a big brewery like Guinness could simply not have contagion imported into a huge workplace where it would create havoc with production. Healthy workers made for better work. Similarly, the Iveagh public baths were used with a bar of soap. Once again, cleanliness cut down on disease and illness.

Living in a Guinness home meant you were less likely to go on strike or cause trouble in the workplace in times of political and labour upheaval. The same Guinness workers paid rent (back to the Iveagh Trust).

Irish Distilleries also provided housing for their workers (Jameson had terraces around its complex in Smithfield), as did tram and railway companies. So too did the vast Pembroke Estate in south Dublin.

In Rathmines, the local authority provided housing for its firefighters. The owners of mills along Dublin rivers did the same, and examples of these are evident today in areas like Milltown and Windy Arbour.

Stylish but tiny cottages are still very much part of the character of old villages like Ballsbridge, Donnybrook, Ranelagh and Dundrum.

The arrival of company and later local authority social housing vexed Dublin's first 'cuckoo fund' - which despaired of making money from its mission of providing tiny homes to the skilled and working classes at high rents. The Dublin Artisan Dwelling company (DAD) was a semi-philanthropic private enterprise that took in Government loans, but it was mostly established to make big profit for investors.

Between 1879 and 1933, DAD built 3,600 dwellings in more than 30 major schemes across Dublin city, in Dún Laoghaire and in Bray, most of which survive in use to this day.

The DAD gave up building houses in 1933 as the State began finally providing proper social housing in numbers.

DAD slowly began selling off its stock, while at the same time buying commercial buildings. Housing workers at high rents in tiny spaces was no longer a high-profit racket - as it has become again today.

Irish Independent

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