Over the next ten years we will be treated to lots of commemorations of various political and social events, including the sinking of the Titanic, the Dublin Lockout, the First World War, the Easter Rising and the Irish civil war. But the coming years also represent a good occasion to ‘celebrate’ Dublin’s proud record of substandard, slum accommodation.
While there have always been people living in sub-standard conditions in Dublin, the infamous tenements topped the ‘shit-list’. They provided homes to a large number of the city’s inhabitants for over a century between the 1850s and 1950s, with the last examples being demolished in areas such as Foley St, Gardiner St and Summerhill in the early 1980s. However, tenement life was probably at its most notorious in the early 1910s.
The census records of 1911 show that some of the Georgian buildings, initially built to house one well-off family, now accommodated up to 20 families and over 100 people. The results of this were felt most dramatically in September 1913 when two adjacent buildings on Church Street collapsed, killing four children and three adults.
This awful tragedy provided for some invaluable insights vital to our understanding of the rise of inequality and poverty in our city, through the establishment of the Dublin Housing Inquiry.
John Cooke’s photographs, which he submitted to the inquiry, provide one of the most lasting and illustrative record of the horrific nature of Dublin’s slums. Much of his footage is now accessible through the Dublin City Archives. The photographs highlight the dilapidated state of the buildings and the abject poverty of the families they housed at considerable rents.
The work of the North Inner City Folklore Project has added a further layer to this history through the collection of oral histories of people’s memories of living in the tenements. As well as recalling stark poverty, this fascinating collection presents the humor and resilience of the tenement communities.
Tenement life has entered Dublin folk history, yet beyond the vital work of the North Inner City Folklore Project, the online Census of 1911, and Cooke’s photographs, there is only a limited public outlet for this history.
Dublin desperately needs a tenement or people’s museum, for example, the one in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, New York. There are several suitable properties currently in state ownership and lying vacant, some of them are even in NAMA.
If we are truly committed to embracing and commemorating the events of 100 years ago, then the reality of Dublin life in those days must play a central part in it, whether this is a reality we like to be reminded of or not.
And while the Dublin tenements were finally cleared in the 1980s, there are still echoes of tenement life left in the city. Perhaps the most ironic example of this are the number of former tenement buildings in the Mountjoy Square and Upper Gardiner Street area, each of which are now used as private emergency accommodation to house up to 40 homeless people and immigrants. Maybe the process of remembering, through the curation of a tenements museum, might help us identify, and address, the hypocrisy of the present.