As rents continue to soar and more and more people become locked out of the housing market, Donal Fallon takes us back to the lofty co-operative housing schemes built for workers by the corporations of Dublin and weighs up their experience against similar ventures abroad.
In his wonderful oral history of the Dublin tenements, it was pointed out by one wise lady to Kevin Kearns about the tenements of the past that “anyone that says they were good old days is a headcase. It’d make you sick to think of them.”
Any examination of Dublin Corporation housing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is ultimately an examination of total failure. Firstly, the Corporation built tenement houses beside the Royal Barracks, in an area with a fierce reputation for poverty and “immorality”, with prostitution rife in the shadow of the soldiers’ den on Barrack Street.
Following this enormous failure, the second Corporation housing scheme began with Corporation Buildings, right in the heart of Dublin’s Monto. The Corporation’s solution to the problems that abounded around the scheme? Large gates which would close at night, ensuring that prostitution and crime was out of sight and out of mind. During the 1930s, one judge remarked that the Corporation Buildings were “unfit for human habitation” and that no “Christian or civilised person” could truly emerge from being raised within them. The critics argued that Dublin Corporation was in the business of clearing slums only to build slums.
For the skilled working class in the late nineteenth century, the Dublin Artisan Dwelling Company were a gift from the heavens, constructing durable and well-designed cottages in places like Stoneybatter, Harold’s Cross and Rathmines, but the rent on the “small neat red brick homes” (as one project in the Coombe was described) was above and beyond that of a general labourer, who could only dream of living in such a home.
Beyond the Corporation and the DADC, there were others building houses in Ireland in this period. Co-operative housing projects, almost always the product of corporations, were a new and at-times controversial approach to the issue of working class housing in Dublin. Companies were now not alone providing workers with wage packets, but constructing a roof over their heads. This could, as some families learned, lead to confrontation and bitter struggle. There was no such thing as a free house, and entering into a co-operative scheme required intense loyalty.
Undoubtedly the most familiar of Dublin’s historic co-operative housing schemes to us today is the Iveagh Trust, constructed by Guinness in the vicinity of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The Iveagh Trust was the product of – naturally enough – Lord Iveagh. Edward Cecil Guinness, together with his brother Arthur Edward, had inherited the Guinness brewery from his father Benjamin and transformed it into an international powerhouse of industry, floating the company on the London Stock Exchange and retiring at the grand old age of 40, as Ireland’s richest man.
Iveagh ploughed £250,000 into building working class housing in London in the 1890s, but in Dublin the project would continue for many years, and involve massive slum clearance in the Bull Alley area. Between 1893 and 1915, the Iveagh Trust constructed over 550 housing units in the Kevin Street and Bull Alley projects, and the houses were above and beyond what the Corporation had been in the business of constructing.
In the official history of the Trust, it’s noted that the apartments in the earliest Kevin Street developments were designed in such a way that “the sun was to shine in all windows at some time of day, and there was to be a wash house on each floor with a W.C. to every two families.” Houses without amenities are little use of course, as people in working class suburbs like Ballymun would learn in later decades, and the Iveagh Trust scheme also incorporated the Iveagh Baths (opened in 1906) and the Iveagh Play House (opened in 1915).
Given the staunch Unionist politics of the Guinness family at this period in history, the philanthropy of the family no doubt played a significant role in winning the hearts and minds of Dubliners. Iveagh built affordable housing, his brother Ardilaun opened Stephen’s Green to the public, while dad (Benjamin Lee Guinness) restored Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. As parts of Thomas Street crumble today it becomes increasingly clear that the relationship between Diaego and their immediate environs is a very different one to that between the brewery and the immediate community in the time of the establishment of the Iveagh Trust. The Trust continues to function today, offering affordable low-rent accommodation to those who need it in a city where rent is only going one way.
Across the Liffey, the Merchants Warehouse Company built cottage homes in East Wall for their own workers in 1907, but forced their workforce to take up residence there, leading to it becoming known as ‘Compulsory Row’. During the 1913 Lockout over sixty families with union connections were evicted from these homes and ‘replaced’, and the street became known in local lingo as ‘Scabs Row’, with tensions between families emerging, having no doubt been carefully fostered by the employer. At the time of the evictions, The Irish Times reported that the families lifted their spirits by singing union songs and cheering for Jim Larkin.
How did these Irish examples of co-operative housing compare with international examples of the same? Perhaps the most celebrated case of a corporately funded co-op is the Bournville village established by the Cadbury’s family in the 1890s near Birmingham. They were Quakers, and firm advocates for the cause of Temperance. No public houses ever opened in the town which was about as far removed as you could possibly get from Guinness, where workers were provided with a free daily quota of booze! But it did come to include recreational areas, parks, swimming pools and football pitches.
Quakers were in the business of philanthropy here too, with the Pim family constructing red brick terraced housing for their workers in Harold’s Cross in the 1890s.
Co-operative housing has remained a feature of life in the capital, with NABCO (National Association of Building Co-operatives) for example providing 320 homes in areas including Sean McDermott Street and Queen Street. Last year it was announced that NABCO would be taking control of a site in Inchicore which was sitting empty as a NAMA ghost estate, originally developed by Liam Carroll. In a city with empty housing units while people freeze in substandard hostel accommodation or on the streets, such a move was rightly welcomed.
Looking abroad, much could be learned from La Maison des Babayagas, an innovative housing co-operative for the elderly near Paris, run on a non-profit basis and managed by those who live there.This self-management ideal has seen several such co-operatives emerge in France, with a resident of one describing them as existing and functioning “in solidarity” and being “self-managed, civic, and ecological.”
They stand as a fine alternative to profit driven housing schemes and retirement homes.
Illustration of Lord Iveagh by Luke Fallon.