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A Tale of Two Cities: A Short Social History of Early 20th Century Dublin
Dr. Diarmaid Ferriter, Boston College
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What I want to attempt to do this morning is to give you some indication of how the census returns for Dublin in 1911 can be used as a tool for social historians to try and recreate Dublin as it was lived and experienced in 1911.
The Dublin census returns for 1911 were digitized by the National Archives of Ireland last year; a project that enthralled both professional and amateur researchers because it afforded that golden opportunity to try and seek not just ancestors but also answers as to how the city evolved, as to how the city's inhabitants lived and died and how they went about their ordinary lives. I want to just give you a brief overview of what some of those ordinary lives would have involved.
When this project was launched, I was reminded of a book that I had first come across in the late 1980s when I began studying history in Dublin. It was called The Gorgeous Mask and was a book published by the Trinity College Dublin History Workshop as a collection of essays on Dublin in the 18th and the 19th centuries. The title of the book was borrowed from the observations of one of Dublin's most famous residents in the 18th century, Jonathan Swift, who was Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, a man of letters, polemicist, politician and somebody who had a deep and abiding concern for the poor of Dublin City. He made a reference to Dublin City being "the gorgeous mask of Ireland's distress" in the 1720s when he was writing about his surroundings.
He wrote a lot more about poverty in Dublin between 1725 and 1735, and he repeatedly asked one overriding question: What shall we do with the foreign poor? This was a reference not just to those from outside of Ireland, but particularly those from rural parts of Ireland who, during the bad winters in particular, travelled to Dublin in order to seek work, shelter and food. We heard a lot yesterday about the life-changing voyages that many people made during the famine years from Ireland to Canada and other places, but there was also that internal journey within Ireland to the country's capital city for those who were seeking some kind of solace and relief from distress. Jonathan Swift asked that question about what could be done with them in the context of them being a drain on the resources of Dublin and the concern they generated with regard to public order.
Jonathan Swift also referred to "the extravagant drunkenness of the sturdy poor of Dublin", a reference to the public manifestations of a side of Dublin life that many in Swift's position did not necessarily want to see.
Swift, along with other writers in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries were also aware that Dublin was a city of many contradictions. There was considerable wealth in the city that, at that stage, was regarded as the second city of the British Empire; there was splendour and beautiful buildings that had been built or remodelled according to the latest canons of architectural taste. But alongside this there was much squalor and considerable distress behind the gorgeous mask, behind the façade.
In many respects, Dublin in 1911 was still the "gorgeous mask" of Ireland's distress, and much of that distress can be traced through the 1911 census returns for Dublin. You can also, of course, trace the splendour and the wealth that still existed there in the early 20th century.
It was still a significant city. It was a small city. It was an elegant city. It was a city that had a population of 477,196 people. There were many fine public and civic buildings, which, of course, were a reminder of its status as the second city of the British Empire, but at this stage, in 1911, many of those buildings were just a reminder of a different era, and the architectural legacy of the imperial connection. Dublin in 1911 was not so much the second city of the British Empire as the first city of nationalist Ireland. To be aware of the political importance of Dublin in 1911, we do need to be conscious of the extent to which its politicians were beginning to challenge British rule in Ireland.
In the heart of Dublin city you still had Dublin Castle and all that it represented. That was the home of British rule in Ireland. In examining the symbols and the substance of British rule in Ireland in 1911, you need to be conscious of the pride and the sympathy that still existed for the British Empire despite the fact that there was something of a nationalist resurgence.
Sean O'Faolain for example, one of 20th century Ireland's greatest writers, referred to the tremendous pride he felt when growing up because of the Irish role in the British Empire. He said, "I gloried in all its trappings." He referred to the reverence for kings and queens and the dukes and the duchesses and, in particular, the visibility of the soldiers who were such a prominent part of Dublin life at the turn of the 20th century. It was a city that was still distinguished by its Georgian heritage and architecture as well and the certain elegance there that was associated with that. If you consider places in Dublin city like Marion Square, for example, or Fitzwilliam Square; if you consider the gracious parks that we associate with the city and the townships on the outskirts of the city, you can see that sense of a city of historic nobility.
And there were those in Dublin in 1911 who were lucky enough to be comfortable. In the novel, Strumpet City by James Plunkett, a book which is set in the Dublin of this era, there are references to a character called Belton Yearling, who used to take the tram or the train from Kingstown, which was on the outskirts of Dublin — it's now known as Dún Laoghaire — into Dublin City, and he talked about all the joyous things that he saw on his way into the city; the yachts with their coloured sails, the blue shape of Howth-Hill, a sense of the August bathers at ease with themselves — this idea of a city that was very lucky to be so close to the sea. And he also talked about the environment in Dublin; the soft, salt-like air and, in particular, the easy conversation of its inhabitants. Belton Yearling clearly loved his city.
There were other writers who came to similar conclusions about the appeal of Dublin. If you take William Dawson, for example, who wrote a book in 1912, My Year in Dublin, he refers to Dublin as having a reputation for being happy-go-lucky and he implored people not to be ashamed of this, but to glory in it on the grounds that " It is a singular achievement to be happy anywhere in the twentieth century". So through literature, we do get a sense of a Dublin as a city at ease with itself, as a city of talkers.
There was a Dublin that was still wealthy and indulged despite the erosion of the power of the Protestant ascendancy that began, in particular, in the 19th century. The Catholic professional and business class had taken over much of the city's governments, but there were those, like Belton Yearling, who did live in the suburbs, and those who moved out to the townships. There were ten independent townships in Dublin in 1911. They were independent of city government. And they were often the places where those who felt the sands of change shifting decided to move, particularly wealthy Protestants.
If you take the religious composition of Dublin in 1911, you will see that 83% of the population was Catholic; 13% of the population was Church of Ireland or Protestant and many of the latter made their way out to these new townships. In many respects, they were the unionist strongholds on the outskirts on the city of Dublin at that stage. The move out there was facilitated by the arrival of trams, and the use of electric trams in particular. You can also get a sense of a city divided by wealth, by class and by religion when you look at the divides between the city and the township.
You also get a sense that the opportunities for mutual contact were being lessened in early 20th century Dublin as a result of these divides. In some respects, the loss of those people was a loss not just to city living, but also to municipal life, given the considerable administrative and political experience they had. They also maintained their own havens within the city centre: the Kildare Street Club, for example, a gentleman's club. There were six visitors staying there on census night, on 2 April 1911. They were attended to by 32 staff.
The creation of the townships is also a reminder, I suppose, of the impact that the move outwards had in terms of the actual creation of Dublin as a 20th century city. We often consider Dublin an 18th century city and its frequently referred to as an 18th century city. When you look at the census returns of 1911, however, you can see that, in reality, the city we know today was created in the 20th century, particularly when you look at the housing stock.
By 2002, less than 15 percent of housing in Dublin predated 1919, so we do have to be mindful of the degree to which this was a city that was created in the early 20th century as opposed to a city that was created in the 18th century. It was a city that was deliberately planned in that way; the move out to the suburbs and the idea of low density, a city that frowns at high rise living. Those formative decisions were made around this period in the early 20th century that give the city of Dublin its distinctive character today. We need to be mindful of how it differed from other European cities, but also what it had in common with other European cities, particularly this idea of a move away from the centre of the city.
There was also considerable distress, of course, in Dublin, and again this is connected to what Jonathan Swift had originally observed in the 18th century. The rhetoric of Swift still echoed in the tenement slums of Dublin, the most overcrowded slums in Europe at that time.
Dublin was, in some respects, a happy city at ease with itself, but it was also a harsh, difficult and, in many respects, judgemental city. Nobody encapsulated that better than James Connolly, one of the great icons of labour history in 20th century Ireland. He accurately said of the Ireland of his era (he was executed after the 1916 Rising), that it was "a country of wonderful character and singularly little justice," and, in this context, he made reference to the "hellish conditions" under which the poor members of Dublin lived their lives and, indeed, the conditions under which they laboured as well.
What does the census of 1911 tell us about some of those hellish conditions that were referred to by James Connolly? Well, this is where the real value of the census lies, in trying to recreate ordinary lives as they were lived, and in giving us an indication of the appalling poverty and the death rates that existed as well. There were new questions asked of women in the 1911 census. How many children had they had? How many of those children had actually survived? This is where you get evidence of some of the greatest distress. In some parts of the inner city women were losing more than half of the children that were born to them, so whatever about abstract statistics, about infant and maternal mortality, what the census allows us to do is to bring those statistics right down to the individual household level. There was an overall death rate in Dublin in 1911 per 1,000 people of 22.3. In London it was 15.6. That will give you some indication of how far behind Dublin lagged when it came to the survival of its population. There were 26,000 families living in these tenement slums. 20,000 of those families were living in one-roomed tenements. That was one-third of all families in Dublin in 1911.
The decay of Dublin, the decay of those Georgian buildings, the demise of that particular symbol was epitomized by the experience of Henrietta Street. What once had been home to a generation of lawyers, what once had been a very salubrious area of Dublin city, was now where some of those teaming hordes of impoverished Dubliners were living. There were 835 people living in 15 houses in Henrietta Street in Dublin in 1911.
There was virtually no economic growth in Dublin in 1911. If you consider the industries traditionally associated with Dublin, in particular the cotton industry; it had collapsed by the 19th century. There was still a textile industry; there were still very active looms within the Liberties area of Dublin in particular, about 200 of them still operational in 1911.
There's a wonderful story that was written by James Joyce called An Encounter, which looks at the experience of two boys who were "mitching" (local slang for playing truant) from school in the early 20th century, and they talk about the spectacle of Dublin's commerce and drinking that spectacle in. They talked about the Guinness barges, the loading of kegs of Guinness. They talk about the brown fishing fleets in Ringsend and they talk about that general commerce that we associate with the ports and with that area of Dublin that was so important for employment, particularly for adult males at that time.
But in pleasing themselves with the spectacle of Dublin commerce, there is also a sense that things are about to change...the idea that there was trouble looming...the idea that unemployment was a persistent problem despite some of these well-known employers like Guinness and also the Jacobs Biscuit Factory in Dublin which employed 3,000 people, making it a very significant employer in Dublin in 1911.
If you examine the census returns for 1911 you can see the extent of unemployment. You can see the reliance of many individuals on labour that is seasonal, that is broken, that is casual. Many of the adult males were earning about 18 shillings a week through this work if they were lucky enough to get it. It's estimated that 24,000 adult males in Dublin were trying to rely on that seasonal work for 18 shillings a week in 1911. It did lead to an awful lot of disenchantment. It did lead to the rise of Irish trade unions as well, and we will forever associate the rise of trade unions, with Dublin early in the 20th century.
There were significant strikes, for example, in the year of the census, 1911. There were strikes by the bakers; there were strikes by the railway workers. They were defeated. They were just a precursor for what was going to happen in 1913 with the famous Dublin lockout, the most notorious industrial dispute of 20th century Ireland, a dispute that's very much associated with another one of these important labour characters, James Larkin. Despite the defeat of the workers in 1913 by their employer, William Martin Murphy, Larkin's memory and legacy lingered. James Larkin changed the way Dublin people and Irish people generally thought about work, about trade unions, about capitalism itself. One of our great poets, Austin Clarke, for example, talks about Larkin's name as having a place reserved "on Dublin's holiest page, scrawled in a rage by Dublin's poor".
Despite the misery and the suffering there were things about Dublin in 1911 that were very positive. We need to be careful not to overuse the word "stagnation." There was a lot of progress made with regard to water, with regard to sanitation, with regard to electricity. There was a very impressive public transport system. The move from the horse-drawn trams to the electrified trams made Dublin a very vibrant city in many ways. There were 330 trams in Dublin in 1911. They ran for 60 miles of road around the city. It was a very stirring sight if you were in Dublin in the early 20th century to see, after the theatres had closed, the crowds coming out, gathering around Nelson's Pillar, another one of those instantly recognised monuments in Dublin in the early 20th century, waiting to go home and the activity of the trams along the various lines.
There's also a sense of a vibrant city when you look at education, when you look at the evolution in education provision for girls in particular, the Dominican Convent on Eccles Street being a good example of that. There was also a very impressive network of libraries with, at its core, the National Library of Ireland, a very demonstrative and impressive building, as well as a home for many literary treasures.
There's also the names you will find in the census returns of those who are going to become, or already were, key players in many of the political, social and cultural movements of early 20th century Ireland, including Eamonn de Valera and Patrick Pearse, who were leaders in the 1916 Rising, Arthur Griffith, the founder of the Sinn Fein movement in 1905 and Sean O'Casey, the great Irish playwright and labour activist. Many of these individuals were demanding that things be done differently in early 20th century Ireland. Nobody could have predicted the kind of prominence, perhaps, that they would achieve in the following couple of years, but it's quite clear from the census returns that the principal players were in place, and we know exactly, of course, where they were working and living as a result of the census returns.
There were also things that didn't change. There were still high levels of public drunkenness. Swift's comment about the extravagant drunkenness of the sturdy poor could be as equally applied to the early 20th century as it could be to the 18th century. The activities of the Dublin Metropolitan Police were important in that regard. There were two and a half thousand arrests for drunkenness in Ireland in 1911. That will give you an indication of some of the continuities and some of the consistencies.
There was a thriving prostitution business around the region known as the Montgo region, the area of Montgomery Street around inner-city Dublin. There were an awful lot of soldiers who were feeding this business, in particular those stationed in the city's barracks. There were eight barracks in Dublin in 1911. We can learn an awful lot more about these social realities from oral histories, as well as literature, which gives you an idea of the way in which the census returns can be used and combined with other sources to create a much more vivid picture of life in early 20th century Dublin.
In finishing as I started, I will refer to the writers, in particular, who were a part of Dublin's literary life. I've mentioned Sean O'Casey. I've mentioned Sean O'Faolain. We also had, in Dublin in 1911, W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, the founders of Ireland's national theatre, the Abbey Theatre. They were staying in a hotel in Dublin, Nolan's Hotel, on the night of the census in 1911. Unfortunately, James Joyce was gone; he had left Ireland by 1911. He actually lived in Trieste at that stage.
But no writer has written more brilliantly about a city as Joyce did about Dublin of the early 20th century. He famously said that when he died, Dublin would be written in his heart despite his self-imposed exile. He also suggested that if Dublin was destroyed by some catastrophe, you would be able to rebuild the city, brick by brick, by using Ulysses as a blueprint. In other words, if you want to understand James Joyce, you have to try and understand Dublin. That's as good a reason as any to try and to get to know the history of the city, and that task is made much easier, much more fascinating and much more stimulating by the census returns of 1911.
National Archives of Ireland [www.nationalarchives.ie]