The history of public housing in Ireland is, in many ways, a history of failure. Donal Fallon takes us for a trip in his De Loreon and introduces us to a champion of social housing who designed beautiful European art deco buildings for the city that still stand out as visionary models today.
Regarded as a legacy of British rule, slumdom still defined much of the heart of inner-city Dublin in the decades following independence. When the Fianna Fáil aligned Irish Press newspaper launched their important investigative series into the conditions of tenement Dublin in the 1930s, it was British imperialism and not local landlord greed which took the blame.
This over simplification of the past ignored figures like Alderman Joseph Meade, a Dublin Corporation councillor and Lord Mayor of the city, who played no small part in the subdivision of Henrietta Street homes into tenements in the late nineteenth century.
The failure of Dublin Corporation to tackle the tenement crisis was influenced at least in part by the fact many councillors were themselves slum landlords. Just as the Dáil today is home to a staggering number of landlords, the political class in the early twentieth century could also be found fumbling in the greasy till. A housing report in 1913 shocked Dubliners, by revealing how three councillors (all so-called nationalists) owned sixty-one tenements and second-class houses between them.
While the first Free State housing schemes in Dublin at Marino are deserving of study and represented progress, it was really the 1930’s which brought about the beginning of a real war on the slums. Cumann na nGaedheal’s Housing Act, introduced in 1924, had championed the middle classes who could afford affluent suburbia. Between 1923 and 1931, fewer than two thousand houses were built annually with State financial assistance, a contribution that was akin to pissing into Hell to lower the temperature with regards the housing crisis.
The Fianna Fáil party had made the slums an election issue in 1932, and rode into power on a wave of working class support. The idea of Fianna Fáil as something of a socially democratic party may surprise readers today, but this was a party with a leader (Dev none the less) who promised to make “the resources and wealth of Ireland … subservient to the needs and welfare of the people.”
The tenements frightened the powers that be. In 1936, one Archbishop made the pages of the national press with his sensationalist claim that “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 born and lived in a slum and unemployed, I would be a revolutionist.”
No figure emerges from the tale of the 1930s as heroically as Herbert Simms, Dublin’s Housing Architect from 1932. Simms championed good quality public housing in the city, drawing his influences from the continent.
Today, beautiful art deco housing schemes dot the city on both sides of the Liffey, standing testament to the vision of a man who tragically took his own life eighty years ago next year. Overworked and under-appreciated, it is only in recent times that Simms has emerged once more, championed by housing campaigners and historians as an example to emulate.
Simms, a Londoner, entered the service of Dublin Corporation in 1925, a young veteran of the First World War. A scholarship allowed him to study architecture at Liverpool University, and from the beginning his interests were focused on public housing. Achieving the rank of Housing Architect in 1932, he told one meeting that “they were now trying to do in one generation what should have been done by the last four or five generations.”
Architect Ciarán Cuffe has said of Simms that “his buildings were innovative, and well built. He had an eye for detail and a strong understanding of what was happening elsewhere in Europe.” In particular, Simms looked to the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, which were visited by Dublin Corporation employees eager to learn from public housing there.
What Simms gave us, best encapsulated by the Chancery Park housing scheme behind the Four Courts, was very much in the beautiful Art Deco style of those cities. He believed that “flats should last at least 200 years…providing they were properly maintained.” How much of Celtic Tiger era Dublin apartments will survive two centuries?
Of course, some argued this was not enough. Rather than building small housing schemes in the city, we needed to look more towards suburbanisation. While schemes like Cabra and Crumlin did alleviate some of the problems of the tenement city, they also alienated many, leading Brendan Behan to quip that there was no such thing as suburbia, only Siberia.
Poorly served suburbs lacking amenities were not the way forward. 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.’ Subsequent decades would prove this true.
In September 1948, Herbert Simms took his own life. He left behind him a suicide note claiming that exhaustion had pushed him past the brink of sanity. Ernest Taylor, the City Surveyor, paid tribute to Simms, by writing that “by sheer hard work and conscientious devotion to duty, he has made a personal contribution towards the solution of Dublin’s housing problem, probably unequalled by anyone in our time.”
On the same day they reported the death of Simms, the Irish Press carried news of a three year old boy who had died of scarlet fever in the tenement home of his family home, as “there was no room for him in a hospital.”