Life World War 1

Monday 16 September 2019

Society: What Ireland was really like in 1914

Life was one of stark contrast across the island, writes Paul Melia

Irish National Volunteers in Dublin in 1914. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Irish National Volunteers in Dublin in 1914. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
Gaiety poster
A Cumann na mBan leaflet 1914
Children in a wheatfield in Cork
Locals during the visit of King George V to Dublin in 1911. Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A group of ladies and a gentlemen cycling through the countryside close to Killarney in September 1911.
British soldiers on their way to sentry duty on Butt Bridge, Dublin, 1914.
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

IT was a year after the Dublin Lockout and tensions were running high when the war broke out. Nationalists were busy preparing for rebellion and England's difficulty was seen as Ireland's opportunity.

But there was also a sense that many people were happy with our place within the UK. Dublin was the second city of the empire, and many – but not all – were thriving.

The centre of British rule, Dublin had entertained King George V in 1911 during a royal visit where thousands had lined the city's streets to view his arrival. Many of this professional class who came out to see him had grown in political importance, and power in the city was shifting from a Protestant ascendancy to the emerging Catholic elite, the National Archives note.

Grand Georgian houses on Mountjoy Square, North Great George's Street and Henrietta Street were home to leading members of the professional classes including lawyers, businessmen and civil servants, but their moneyed lifestyle was in sharp contrast to that of tens of thousands struggling to survive.

What transpired utterly changed the face of the city. From the end of the 19th century, the wealthy began moving to suburbs including Blackrock, Monkstown and Rathmines. They built their lives around golf clubs and tennis clubs, with yachting and sailing popular pastimes. Houses were run with the help of servants, often live-in, and while trams, horses and bicycles dominated transport, the motor car was growing in importance.

Their former homes, particularly on the less-fashionable northside, became home to thousands of the city's poorest. Dublin's slums were among the worst in Europe, with thousands of manual and unskilled workers living in squalid conditions, where one in three families lived in one-roomed accommodation.

The slums were disease-ridden and residents endured an appallingly high death rate, and even for those with work, life was a daily struggle.

While there were no major industrial hubs, administration and commerce drove the city's economy. Dublin Port was the focal point for British goods imported into the country, while the bulk of agricultural output left through the city to foreign markets.

However, work in construction and in the port could not absorb the sheer number of available workers, and jobs were scarce. 'Good' jobs with employers such as Guinness were dreamed of, but never a reality for most.

The city was not regarded as dangerous, with crime tending to be associated with theft and public drunkenness.

Life outside Dublin wasn't much better. Employment prospects in Cork were dominated by major breweries Murphy's and Beamish and Crawford, while those who lived in the county relied on agriculture and fishing.

Galway was considered a county in decline, with a national birth-rate below the average, and the city's population was falling, in sharp contrast to the rest of the country.

There was no meaningful industrial base, and the famous Claddagh fishing village was in decline with the arrival of modern trawlers.

Life in Waterford was marked by considerable poverty, with evictions of families from their homes and many living on the margins. A predominantly rural county, just two places had a population of more than 2,000 – Dungarvan and Waterford city.

In contrast, Belfast was booming.

"The chimneys of its linen mills and the cranes which stretched above its shipyards framed the commercial success of the city," the National Archives 'Ireland in the early 20th century' website notes.

"Wealth in Dublin and in other Irish cities was usually rooted in trade, in land or in lineage; wealth in Belfast was the product of industry."

Much of the country's agricultural output left through Dublin Port, with as many as seven cattle boats a day leaving the city, with more than 80 weekly sailings to England. But it wasn't just cattle on board. The National Archives also notes that alongside livestock, emigrants from Dublin and the countryside were leaving in their droves for the UK.

Things changed during the war. Writing in 'History Ireland', historian Padraig Yeates notes that life was good in the city as living standards rose and mortality rates fell, with money flowing into the tenements in separation payments to soldiers' wives.

There was a slight reduction in commercial rates, and jobs for women – who would not get the vote until 1918 – in munitions factories. There were food and fuel shortages but the city was a major recruitment ground for the British army.

"But the allegiance of these men was to the half-crown rather than the Crown," Yeates notes. "The army provided one of the few sources of a steady income for the city's vast army of underemployed unskilled workers. It also provided the possibility of learning a trade."


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