The centenary of the Church Street disaster is fast approaching, and will rightly be commemorated and remembered as one of the most tragic incidents during the course of the 1913 Lockout. On September 2nd 1913 two tenement homes collapsed to the ground, killing seven working class Dubliners, with children among the dead. While this tragedy did spark a very significant housing inquiry, tenement collapses remained all too common in Dublin in the decades that followed. This is the first of a number of posts in the weeks ahead looking at tenement disasters in Dublin.
Two tenements collapsing within weeks of each other in June 1963 forced Dubliners to re-examine the housing situation in the city, and sparked a huge inquiry into housing in the city which delivered many shocking finds. It also saw hundreds of families moved out of their homes at short notice, for fear further collapses could be imminent. The panic began on June 2nd, when two elderly Dubliners were killed on Bolton Street when a four-story tenement home collapsed, trapping them under the rubble and wounding seven other occupants of the house. The destruction to the tenement home was clear from this shocking image featured in The Irish Times. Incredibly, the paper reported that when firefighters arrived on the scene, they could hear Billy, a pet bird on the fourth floor of the house, still “singing in the sunshine in his cage” in a corner that had withstood the collapse.
The collapse of this tenement home sparked a real fear for other properties in the area, and many people came forward to the Corporation believing that their own homes could be in danger of collapse. Only days later it was being reported in newspapers that two families living in a home less than 100 yards away were moved to Cabra and Fatima Mansions. This evacuation of dangerous properties continued in the weeks that followed, and by June 22nd the media were reporting that since the Bolton Street disaster “156 houses have been evacuated because they were in a dangerous condition. This has necessitated the rehousing of 520 families.” It was reported that an astonishing 223 families were still awaiting rehousing, and it was clear the Corporation were unable to provide housing with the required urgency, rehousing people in some very unlikely locations. It is noted in a history of the Dublin Fire Brigade that Dublin’s fire service “were forced by a panicking Corporation to allow tenants into the former married quarters in both Dorset Street and Buckingham Street fire stations.”
The Bolton Street collapse was followed on June 12th by a similar incident on Fenian Street, this time claiming the lives of two young children. Marion Vardy (9) and Linda Byrne (8) were the victims of that incident, as two three-storey buildings toppled onto the street. There were scenes of anguish on the streets at the time, with the Irish Press writing that “Hundreds of Dubliners, many visibly crying, crowded the narrow streets leading to the scene of the collapse as firemen and Gardaí frantically shoveled bricks, rubble and mortar aside to reach the victims.” The two young girls, described by their loved ones as inseparable, were returning home from buying sweets at a corner shop. One man, Andrew Dent, jumped for his life from the collapsing tenement.
Only days after this second tragedy, a third was narrowly avoided. The top storey of 36 York Street collapsed shortly after 1pm on June 16th, thankfully after families had been evacuated from the building but one man who had returned to collect belongings from the building left it literally moments before it collapsed. He would tell reporters “I had just closed the front door when I heard a resounding thud as bricks and mortar came crashing through the landing in a cloud of dust.”
The response to all of this was an inquiry launched at City Hall. Some Dubliners were skeptical of what this inquiry could achieve, with reports of one group of protesters marching onto City Hall behind placards telling the city not to wait until their homes too had collapsed around them. Exceptionally bad weather at the time was cited as a factor in the June collapses, and other collapses were discussed which had not made the news to the same extent as those with tragic consequences. On the first day of the inquiry a story was told of an Inspector who had left a house at Buckingham Street “white-faced” and horrified by the condition of the structure, which was immediately evacuated. The inquiry was told that there had been a partial collapse of this empty property on June 11th, despite immediate emergency work.
It was reported in July that the Corporation was seriously considering prefabs as a response to the housing crisis in Dublin, and that “red tape is being slashed to overcome this emergency.” The Irish Independent reported that Griffith Barracks was among the locations housing those moved from tenement dwellings during the emergency period.
Erika Hanna notes in her recent study of urban change in Dublin in this period that in the eighteen months that followed the Fenian Street disaster “around 1,200 of Dublin’s Georgian terrace houses and mews were destroyed, mainly in the north and east of the city.” What were the long-term consequences of these tragedies? The Ballymun Housing Scheme and other such plans which would follow were, in a way, a response to the urgency of the problem in Dublin city centre. These incidents were a tragic reminder that fifty years after Church Street, Dublin’s working class were still to be found living in houses unfit for human habitation.