In 1936, the Irish Press newspaper launched a major exposé of the Dublin slum problem, with articles and photographs from the slums of Dublin designed to highlight the appalling conditions many Dubliners were living in. The articles and photos sparked real discussion on living conditions at the time, and the newspaper collected some priceless oral testimonies from people living in hellish conditions. At the time, the paper claimed that 30,000 families were living in squalor in the inner-city, and it called for ‘war on the slums’.
The paper refereed to the slums as a “tragic British legacy”, shifting the blame from homegrown landlords and domestic greed, claiming that British policy in Ireland “left to the Free State its inheritance of slumdom”. This article will republish some of the shocking images from that campaign, and show how others also campaigned at the time for radical improvements in inner-city living conditions, choosing to blame domestic forces for the state of the city.
The series attempted to gather personal stories, such as that of Winifred O’Rourke, a young mother from the inner-city who lost five children to ill-health, and who was herself suffering greatly. The paper noted that the children they visited in one inner-city complex pointed out rat holes, and spoke of their terror of the “big roof rats who periodically invade the rooms”.
Coincidentally, October 1936 saw the single greatest tragedy in the history of the Dublin Fire Brigade, when three firefighters died in a fire on Pearse Street. This put considerable focus on fire safety in the city, and the Irish Press noted that in tenement Dublin the flats were like fire-traps, noting “It may be said that practically all slum dwellings are fire-traps. Worst of these, of course, is the type of building that has no exits at the rear, but merely the hall door at the front.”
The health of children featured prominently in the campaign, with the paper noting that the infant death rate for the entire city of Dublin was 79 per thousand births in 1934, but in parts of the north inner-city this rose to a staggering 119 per thousand. The paper insisted that “until the rookeries of the tenements are pulled down and their occupants transferred to airy and roomy homes, little improvement in the public health of the city can be looked for.”
By talking of individual cases, the newspaper struck a strong emotional chord with many Dubliners. The story of Carmel Stapleton for example told readers of how a once healthy child, runner-up in a baby competition only years previously, was suffering to ill-health as a result of life in the slums. “I need a home for them, I’m getting desperate. Look at them, the poor little children”, Carmel’s mother pleaded to a visiting journalist.
Among those who pledged support to the campaign of the newspaper to highlight the slum problem was Maud Gonne MacBride, who hoped that, at the very least, the campaign would “end the ignorant cry of Communism raised against those of us who, from public platforms, protested against the unchristian conditions in which so many of our fellow countrymen are forced to live.”
The lack of a clean water supply in many of the homes was highlighted on many occasions, and this image showed a young Dublin child who carried water up stairs from the communal tap of her tenement home.
The newspaper campaign encouraged readers to donate towards a fund on behalf of those living in the slums. One reader noted that he was donating as someone who “believes in practicing – not preaching – Christianity.” Some families who were featured in the paper were only saved from eviction thanks to the generous donations of newspaper readers. A reoccurring theme was the unchristian nature of the living conditions, and there existed a fear that tenement slums were fertile ground for communism to grow in from those on the right. The Christian Front noted that the slums were one of the single greatest threats to Irish society, while a conservative letter writer told the paper that “there is little good in parties or governments condemning Communism in other countries if they are prepared to tolerate the evil that gave birth to that Godless doctrine elsewhere.”
While the Irish Press may have looked to centuries of British rule to find a source for the misery of the Dublin slums, others looked to domestic landlords. A sustained campaign against the horrific conditions of the Dublin slums was led by the left-wing Republican Congress organisation in 1934, with that organisation reporting on the slums of the city in its own newspaper. Below is a typical report:
Climbing a rickety stairs I entered a small room over a vegetable store, or more properly speaking, a stable in the vicinity of Parnell Square. There was no fire (in April). There was one bed on which lay a married girl of 19, who was expecting a baby. The bedclothes were old coats. The husband, who was unemployed, was receiving 9 shillings a week outdoor assistance, of this sum six shillings went on rent, leaving three shillings for food and other necessities. On the day of my visit they had been living on rice for two days, but this was now exhausted.”
“In the front ‘parlour’ of a house in Coleraine Street live the Keogh family. The room is eight feet square. It contains two beds, a table, and some chairs. At night 11 human beings pack into this den. On one bed seven of the children sleep. On the other the parents and two children rest. ”
“Families of 12 are frequently found living in single rooms. In one house in Holles Street, 49 people are living.
The Republican Congress also attempted to organise inner-city Dubliners into Tenant Leagues, seeking to bring about rent reductions with non-payment campaigns. In places, this campaign saw significant reductions in inner-city rent. The slum problem of Dublin remained a part of life for the Dublin working class for decades after the 1930s however. We have previously featured the shocking 1963 tenement collapses on the site before, and we hope to write more on this subject in future.