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Our dirty old towns

Chronic disease caused by overcrowding, filth and corrupt officials condemned thousands of Ireland's urban poor to an early death, writes Dr Paul Rouse

One hundred years ago, the cities and towns of Ireland overflowed with poverty. It is Dublin that is most notorious in this respect, particularly in the city's tenements. The city had, 100 years ago, the worst housing conditions of any city in the United Kingdom.

What was particularly striking about Dublin's extensive slums was that they were not limited to the back streets or to ghettos. Instead, the city slums also incorporated great Georgian houses on previously fashionable streets and squares. As the wealthy had moved out to the suburbs over the course of the 19th Century, their huge buildings were abandoned to the poor.

What ensued in inner-city Dublin were tenements that were filthy, overcrowded, disease-ridden, teeming with malnourished children and at odds with the elite world of colonial and middle-class Dublin.

Life in the slums was raw and desperate. The raw facts of the poverty are in some respects overwhelming. In 1911, nearly 26,000 families lived in inner-city tenements, and 20,000 of these lived in just one room.

Remarkably, many one-room tenements did not just house a family, but that family also took in members of their extended families or tenants in order to pay the rent.

Death emphasised the precariousness of life for the poor: tenement-dwellers died younger; died more often from tuberculosis and died more often in childhood. Overall, the death rate in Dublin per thousand was 22.3; in London it was just 15.6.

Dubliners died even as the buildings they lived in collapsed around them. Dublin Corporation employed men to inspect dangerous buildings, but disasters still took place. Tenements on Church Street, for example, collapsed in 1913, killing up to seven people.

The death rate in the city was not helped by the unsanitary conditions in inner-city tenements, where livestock was kept in dairy yards, cattle yards and down side lanes.

Drainage was little better than rudimentary and the majority of meat came from beasts slaughtered in small private abattoirs and slaughter-houses. Offal and other substances lay on city streets despite being forbidden in a series of acts, such as the Nuisance Acts, through the 19th Century.

People living in tenements were failed by Dublin Corporation, the city authority, which did not develop a meaningful policy to improve tenement life. An inquiry in 1914 found that 16 members of the corporation owned tenements and it was clear that members intervened to foil the enforcement of regulations against their properties.

The corporation did attempt a number of successful social housing projects, including one on Benburb Street and corporation buildings off the north quays. Other initiatives from the Dublin Artisans' Dwelling Company and the Iveagh Trust provided improved housing for the working-class, but were necessarily limited in scale.

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At the core of this human suffering lay the fact that work was in such scarce supply, with tenement dwellers often reliant on casual labour as it came their way. There were estimated to be 24,000 men, one quarter of the adult males of the city, dependent on such labour and many went weeks and months without any work at all.

In the city, many families were forced to put their children selling wares on the streets. A 1902 report dealing with the problem of the thousands of children street-selling noted that in one in six cases one or both parents were dead.

Others were from homes riven with illness, drunkenness or unemployment.

Under the Children's Act 1908, inspectors known as Infant Protection Visitors were employed. They had much to do. In 1911 there were men and women serving time in Mountjoy Prison for mistreating or for neglecting their children. Many children themselves ended up in confinement. There were several penitentiaries for children across the city, including High Park Reformatory for Girls, most of whom were committed for petty theft. And for all manner of reasons, boys could also be sent to prison or to industrial schools such as the one in Artane.

Women tried to make money as dealers selling fish, flowers, pigs, fruit and much more on the side of the streets. Other women worked at home, or with other women, to make various items such as bags, hats, vests and dresses. Some were forced to turn to prostitution on the streets or in brothels, and they, too, ended up in Mountjoy Prison.

Around Dublin's tenements were many pawn shops offering immediate relief to those in distress. Interest was high, however, and it was not unknown for people to have to pawn essential clothing, boots and work-tools, so worsening the cycle of poverty. Hundreds begged on many of Dublin's more prosperous streets, including Merrion Row and St Stephen's Green.

The poverty of Dublin's tenements was replicated on a smaller scale across Ireland.

A Royal Commission of 1908 laid bare the poor quality of life for the poor of Belfast. Much of the housing in the city was built to reasonable standards, but slum conditions such as those around Abbey Street endured. The slums were not as extensive as Dublin, but thousands of families lived in cramped, unsanitary dwellings, away from the prosperous streets and squares.

Throughout the 19th Century, generations of people had left the agricultural lands of Ulster and beyond, and had come to Belfast in search of industrial work.

This was the type of insecurity that was so typical of unskilled working-class life across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It was usually subsistence, and families often relied upon the ability of wives and children to earn money. Most people earned enough to keep themselves in lodging, but destitution was also a constant presence in the city.

Children, too, often earned their keep. Begging on the streets was a regular feature. There were also boys and girls selling newspapers or flowers, running messages, hawking sticks and much else. There were also more than 2,000 children between the ages of 10 and 14 who alternated their days between the schoolroom and the linen mills.

Indeed, during the early years of the 20th Century, school was far from being a certainty for every Belfast child. In 1914, for example, 15,000 children in Belfast were without a school place and for thousands more, non-attendance was a regular occurrence. Only one child in 60 passed from national to secondary school.

In county towns, the problems of the city were also manifest; poverty visited every corner of every province. In Kerry, for example, despite the fact that the tourism industry was relatively impressive, some visitors who wrote about their stay in the county noted the number of people who were begging. Indeed, there was no escaping the poverty in a county where the workhouse was filled with suffering paupers.

Perhaps the greatest measure of poverty across Ireland at this time was the number of people who were forced into workhouses. In Galway for example, 100 years ago, the number of people in the county receiving relief under the poor-law system was 2,614, of whom 1,301 were in workhouses.

• The author is lecturer in UCD's School of History and Archives