23 years after the birth of the Free State, a writer in the journal Studies complained that slumdom remained, and that the city was still home to “conditions which are often quite unsuitable for cattle,much less human beings.”
To Professor T.W.T Dillon, things were still dire and not getting better:
…the pattern of dirt, decay and discomfort is everywhere the same. The filthy yard with the unspeakable closet often choked, always foul-smelling,serving the needs of all the families in the house; the single tap,often situated in the basement or even in the foul-smelling yard; the cracked and crumbling walls and ceiling covered with scabrous peeling paper or blistered paint; the leaking roofs and rat-infested floors. There are differences in detail, but in general a drab and disgusting uniformity is unrelieved by any sign of human dignity.
Yet while there was much work still to do in 1945, the previous decade had witnessed some significant changes and improvements, which we can still see in the urban landscape today.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the opening of the Oliver Bond House scheme at Usher Street and Cook Street. Just like the beautiful Chancery Park complex across the Liffey, it serves as a reminder of the remarkable architect Herbert Simms, who was to be “responsible for the design and erection of some 17,000 new homes” in his time as Housing Architect from 1932 to 1948. In recent years there has been a great resurgence of interest in Simms and his work, and public housing in Dublin more broadly speaking.
“Bread for the People” – The coming to power of Fianna Fáil and the issue of slumdom.
The 1932 General Election is primarily remembered for the cynical ‘red scare’ tactics of the out-going Cumann na nGaedheal government. Front page newspaper advertisements from the party warned that “The gunmen are voting for Fianna Fáil. The Communists are voting for Fianna Fáil.” One government publication warned that if de Valera’s party took control, “the extremist minority, as in Spain, as in Mexico, as in Russia, will get the upper hand.”
Fianna Fáil attempted to make the slums an election issue, promising increased public spending on housing. This was one contributing factor in Labour supporting the first Fianna Fáil government, with party leader Willie Norton declaring that “so far as the slum-dwellers are concerned, they need have no regret at the change of government, and the old-age pensioners have reason to be glad that the rich man’s government of the past ten years was not in office at the present time to further reduce them.”
Cumann na nGaedheal had, in truth, delivered some advances in public housing in Dublin. The Free State’s first attempt at public housing was in Marino, well-detailed here by Rhona McCord. The new state looked internationally for influence on occasion; as architectural historian Ellen Rowley has noted, “a collective of Dublin officials took a study tour to Amsterdam and Rotterdam in 1925 so as to examine the Dutch Expressionist housing by Michel de Klerk and Piet Kramer.”
On political platforms and stages, the slums became an issue. One Fianna Fáil candidate, Eamonn Cooney, declared at a 1932 election rally that “in the slum dwellings there would arise a new hope” if the party were elected to power. In Smithfield, a Cumann na nGaedheal candidate was heckled by Fianna Fáil supporters about the condition in local slums, attempting to deflect criticism by asking if people were prepared to see “the red flag flying” in Dublin.
Fianna Fáil’s policies undoubtedly owed more to populism than socialism, but as Brian Hanley has noted, the party did evoke the promise of the revolutionary period:
It talked about putting into practice the “ideas embodied in the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil” while de Valera claimed James Connolly as his major inspiration and promised to make “the resources and wealth of Ireland … subservient to the needs and welfare of the people”.
Furthermore, there would be more than simply political independence; Ireland would be “self-supporting economically”. Much mocked now, Fianna Fáil’s commitment to protectionism and native industrial development was fresh and radical in a state whose government seemed content to maintain itself as a giant beef ranch for the British market.
When Seán MacEntee read the first Fianna Fáil budget before the Dáil, he emphasised that this was a new approach to ruling. Now, there would be “bread for the people”. The poor were promised dignity, and that meant pulling down the slums.
Throughout the decade, the slums of Dublin were spoken of as hotbeds of vice and crime. To The Irish Times, the slums were “Dublin’s deepest shame and gravest peril”, and it was “almost a miracle that hitherto Communism has not flourished aggressively in that hideous soil.” In 1936, an Archdeacon Kelleher was reported as saying:
Slums could be called the breeding grounds of potential Communists. The fact that they are not producing the natural destructive effects of typical Communism is to be attributed, in my mind, to the fundamental Christian virtues of faith, charity and humility.
Horace O’Neill, the City Architect, went as far as to tell a 1935 meeting of the Old Dublin Society that “slums are barbarous. If I were born and lived in a slum and unemployed, I would be a revolutionist.”
Herbert George Simms:
The Londoner Herbert Simms entered the service of Dublin Corporation at the age of only 27, a veteran of the First World War who had served with the Royal Field Artillery. A scholarship received in the aftermath of the war allowed him to study architecture at Liverpool University, and he was appointed temporary architect to Dublin Corporation in February 1925. Seven years later, and after a brief spell working as a planner in India, he was appointed to the position of Housing Architect for the Corporation. There was much work to do; Simms told one 1936 tribunal that “they were now trying to do in one generation what should have been done by the last four or five generations.”
The early 1930s witnessed real change in the approach of the Corporation to housing. Until 1932, the construction of new social housing had been the job of the City Architect, but the creation of a specific office for Housing Architect meant there was a new focus on home construction. Praise was heaped onto new developments in the years that followed, the Greek Street scheme, shown above, was described in the press as being of “the most modern type….to us they recall photographs of municipal flat schemes from Berlin,Moscow or Vienna.”
Christine Casey, a leading authority on Dublin’s architectural heritage, has written of the distinctive nature of much of his output, noting how “Simms developed formulae for inner-city blocks of flats, which derived ultimately from Dutch housing design, but probably more directly from contemporary British models. They are generally composed of three or four storey perimeter walk-up blocks with galleried rear elevations and stair-towers facing large inner-courtyards.” Simms work is instantly recognisble in Dublin today, with his Art Deco style housing schemes dotted across the city on both sides of the Liffey. Particularly popular is the Chancery Park scheme, completed by June 1935. Though comprising just 27 flats, it is considered a masterclass in public housing, and boasts a beautiful small garden. Simms told a Housing Inquiry that he firmly believed the homes he was constructing would outlast the slum dwellings they were replacing. To him,”flats should last at least 200 years…providing they were properly maintained.”
Simms is primarily remembered today for his work in the city, but he was also responsible for the erection of new dwellings in the suburbs, including in Cabra and Crumlin. Of course, rehousing people beyond the city in new suburbs brought its own challenges. Speaking in 1935, Simms outlined his belief that “you cannot re-house a population of 15,000 people, as in the Crumlin scheme, without providing for the other necessities and amenities of life.”
Simms was certainly overworked, to such an extent that in September 1948 he took his own life, throwing himself in front of a train near Coal Quay Bridge. His suicide note said “I cannot stand it any longer, my brain is too tired to work any more. It has not had a rest for 20 years except when I am in heavy sleep. It is always on the go like a dynamo and still the work is being piled on to me.” In a fine tribute shortly afterwards, the City Surveyor Ernest Taylor remembered him as a man who had done much for the poorest in Dublin:
By sheer hard work and conscientious devotion to duty, he has made a personal contribution towards the solution of Dublin’s housing problem, probably unequaled by anyone in our time… It is not given to many of us to achieve so much in the space of a short lifetime for the benefit of our fellow men.