Thursday 14 December 2017

Home truths: A new spirit of 1916 in housing

People queuing for food in 1916.
People queuing for food in 1916.
People queueing to receive Christmas hampers at the Capuchin Day Centre.
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

With the 'proper' anniversary commemorations of the 1916 Rising soon to get underway, it is interesting to look back at what was going on with housing in Ireland at that time. So if you thought we have a housing crisis today, consider the extraordinary problems which existed just before the rebellion kicked off.

The 1911 census - the closest to the date of The Rising - shows more than 26,000 Dublin families lived in tenements, largely subdivided Georgian terrace homes. It was estimated at the time that 20,000 families - just under four fifths of those living in tenement accommodation - occupied just one room. The National Archives point out that Dublin had the worst housing conditions of any city in Ireland and the British Isles.

In turn, many one-room tenements did not just house one family - it was common to share with other tenants in a time when eight or 10-child broods were not unusual. Among the tenements of Mabbot Street and Tyrone Street, 17 families kept lodgers, mostly in a single room.

Almost everyone rented their homes at this time and were often ejected when the rent went behind to the degree that evictions were a common sight on Dublin streets in the years running up to 1916. Those families reduced to starvation sent their children to queue for bread which was handed out daily by religious orders.

The data available from the National Archives of Ireland (much of it now available online), shows that in Henrietta Street, 835 people lived in just 15 houses, which works out at roughly 56 people per house - most of these buildings were originally designed for just one family.

The house at No 7 had 104 people sharing and these were listed as charwomen, domestic servants, labourers, porters, messengers, painters, carpenters, pensioners, a postman, a tailor and a whole class of schoolchildren. It shows that those with jobs considered 'respectable' - the equivalent of today's middle classes - occupied much the same squalor as the unemployed.

Generally, a house like one of those in Henrietta Street had one outdoor toilet and one outdoor tap for fresh water to cater for that 56 tenant average. Crowded conditions, the prevalence of TB and unsanitary conditions lead to a high mortality rate.

Most families lost one, if not two children. The Dixon family in Buckingham Street was recorded as having just six survivors from 13 children. By 1916, most of Dublin's wealthiest had abandoned the city area and moved to the suburbs where they paid their rates to new local councils.

It meant Dublin Corporation had no money to solve the 1916 housing crisis. The condition of the buildings in which city people were housed was often questionable. This was not helped by the stress of holding far more people than they were designed for, combined with a general lack of maintenance. Tenements owned by Mrs Ryan on Church Street for example, collapsed in 1913, killing up to seven people. The O'Connor family of eight lived in one room at 66 Church Street which was one of the houses that collapsed.

In rural parts, the mass evictions of the 1880s had petered off but were still common enough. In Galway, boycotts were still in widespread use against rack renting and the workhouses were filled to overflowing with the homeless. There had been widespread food shortages in 1912 and land unrest meant there were approximately 1,000 policemen based in the county. Most rural families lived in modest rubble-built thatched cottages. In Kerry, records show the vast majority of farms in the county were basic subsistence units of under 20ac in size. In contrast to the city where tenants were packed into rooms like sardines, the countryside was filled with empty homes due to emigration.

So the modern housing crisis has quite a way to go before it becomes as wretched at that of 1916. But this week there have been many sinister echoes of it as we learn that a record 125 families became homeless last month with the number in emergency accommodation now standing at 769 - including 1,570 children. That's 769 families mostly living in B&Bs and in hotels where, like their 1916 era tenement predecessors, they are mostly existing in one room. Also this week, the Simon Community stated that homelessness had jumped 100pc since January last year.

Evictions too are on the up - this week we also learned that home repossessions rose by 80pc in 2015, with an extra 1,500 people declaring themselves homeless across the country according to the Peter McVerry Trust. Meantime David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation also stated there are now 17,000 people in the courts who are at risk of losing their homes.

For its part the Cappuchin Order recently estimated it now has up to 3,000 people queueing each week for food parcels outside its day care centre on Church Street - site of the tenement collapses. Which all goes to show that when we consider the housing crisis, 1916 isn't really 100 years away.

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