On the evening of Tuesday, September 2, 1913, at about 8.45pm, two houses on Church Street in the centre of Dublin collapsed without warning. Numbers 66 and 67 Church Street were four-storey buildings, with shops on the ground floor.
The 16 rooms upstairs were occupied by about 10 families – more than 40 people. Seven people were killed in this disaster and many more were injured. Many of the victims had been standing or sitting in the doorway and street when the front wall of the houses suddenly collapsed, burying them in the rubble. Rescue parties worked through the night, digging people out.
Mrs Maguire, who occupied a room in one of the houses that collapsed, described the scene:
"I was standing in the hall door of the house, looking at the children playing in the streets. Other women were sitting on the kerbstone so as to be in the air.
"Suddenly, I heard a terrible crash and shrieking. I ran, not knowing why, but hearing as I did a frightful noise of falling bricks. When I looked back, I saw that two houses had tumbled down. I do not know what I did then but I remember rushing. There was a heap of bricks and stuff piled up on the street where, a moment or two before, children were playing and women sitting, watching them."
Three young children were among the dead. A 17-year-old youth, Hugh Sammon, was also killed. Having rescued his baby sister, Hugh was killed when he went back to the collapsing house for another sister: both were struck fatally by falling masonry before they could reach safety. The funeral to Glasnevin cemetery three days later was a harrowing experience, the grief of Elizabeth and John Sammon for their children Hugh and Lizzie affecting all who witnessed it.
This disaster highlighted the dreadful conditions under which thousands were living. A few days later, RG Pilkington of the Dublin Citizens' Association Committee on Housing wrote in one Dublin newspaper that "the mass of the citizens are in ignorance of the real wants of the city . . . We have evidence to show that (owing to dilapidation) what recently happened in Church Street may occur in other parts of the city."
A committee of inquiry was set up by the government to study housing in Dublin. The report of that committee in February 1914 presented a picture of appalling poverty in the tenements. The committee defined 'tenement houses' as:
"Houses intended and originally used for occupation by one family but which, owing to change of circumstances, have been let out room by room and are now occupied by separate families, one in each room for the most part."
There were more than 400,000 people living in Dublin at the time and of these, 87,305 lived in tenement houses in the centre of the city. And 80pc of the families living in tenements occupied only one room each.