Lockout, part 2: Dublin Then and Now


Dublin 1913 – 1993


by Des Derwin

The past is a foreign country, it has been said. Certainly most working-class people in Dublin, employed or unemployed, can thank their lucky stars that they live in 1993 and not 1913. Social conditions for masses of slum dwellers were then plausibly compared to those in Calcutta. The statistics are dire, but not dry, as presented in the accessible pages of “A Divided City” by the Curriculum Development Unit, or the works of James Connolly.1

Eighty rears later, still within the lifetime of a very few individuals for whom the period is a living memory, the physical city of Dublin is as different to-day as the average standard of living of its present proletariat compared to the mass misery of those who waged the heroic and desperate struggle that was the 1913 Lock-Out,

The city has been transformed by the unhappy destruction of its original integrity and much of its architectural inheritance, the happy destruction of its old slums, by the depopulation of the inner city and expansion to suburbs and far-flung housing estates where most working-class people now live. Dermot Bolger describes, in “Invisible Dublin”, travelling,

“from the heart of a crumbling city awash with folksy nostalgia and rotting buildings out into the new worlds, the colonies of children and cement tucked away in the distance.”2

Workers lives were transformed by industrial expansion and technological advance, by welfare provision, better housing, diet and healthcare, by education, consumer goods, contraception and more leisure time; in line with the enormous growth in the wealth and production of Western society, especially since the Second World War. Or, rather, a bit behind it, as Ireland joined in, especially since the early Sixties.

Tenement housing in 1913

Tenement housing in 1913

But the past is not really a foreign country. Because the improvement in the lives of those who produce the wealth is not just a matter of receiving a portion of that wealth. To a great extent the material advances “enjoyed” by workers to-day – where they are not still living like casual labourers in the Dublin of 1913 – were won by their’ own political and trade union struggles. Or by democratic and social movements, such as the woman’s movement, in which labour, at least intermittently, exerted its clout,

Those who dismiss trade unionism to-day, and particularly militant trade unionism, as a dinosaur, forget that to get us, out of the Jurassic Era of capitalism organised labour had to be forged in struggles like 1913. And that labour abandons that organisation at its peril.

For in a sense, the past, as any foreign country, can be revisited. Witness, wage cuts in Waterford crystal and Aer Lingus. Witness, the ‘Dirty Dozen’ cuts in social welfare, That what we have we can lose is known to even redundant Gateaux and Ranks worker as it is to every citizen of that other city with a famous event around 1913 – Sarajevo

Poverty may be relative, but it still hurts, sickens and kills. And poverty aplenty exists, and expands as the system which has flourished since the days of 1913 restructures or recedes. As acknowledged by the Combat Poverty Agency, “the main factor which contributed to the rise in child poverty in the, 1973 – 87 period was rising, unemployment, especially long-term unemployment.”3

With all the advances in living standards Ireland still fares relatively badly compared to most of Western Europe. In 1986 Irish living standards were 53% of the EC average, but by 1990 this had risen to 63%4. Blinking at that quantum leap? Other measurements are not so optimistic. A UN report for 1992 indicated that Ireland was the poorest nation in Western Europe, with the exception of Spain. Ireland had the second highest unemployment rate in the western industrial world and the rate of car ownership was approximately half that of the German figure.5

In 1991, 1.39 million people in this state relied on social welfare for all or part of their weekly income.6 Not all of these are ‘poor’, but many area. In 1987 nearly 23% of households with children fell below a 50% relative poverty line (less than half the average disposable household income). This compared to 12% of such households in 1973.7 A 1990 report places 19.5% of people below the 50% poverty line.8

Poverty may be relative, but what shocks most is cases of large-scale lack off basic needs or pockets of poverty intolerable by any standards, Then we think of 1913 as not so long ago and far away,

In July Dublin Corporation’s housing committee released an assessment of housing needs surveyed on the day of March 31st 1993. Households in need of accommodation rose from 4,377 in 1991 to 5,152 this year, a 20% increase. Homeless individuals sleeping rough or in hostels rose from 1,351 to 1,651, an 18% increase. A further 2,430 local authority tenants are living in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation.

Of the households on the housing waiting list, 2,856 have incomes below £4,000 per year. Of these, over 1,754 include children. Focus Point say the figures are inadequate and that their clients increased by 47% between 1991 and 1992. Their own 1991 survey suggested that up to 6,000 individuals were passing through the city’s hostels each year.9 Although there will be 500 new local authority housing starts in the city this year, the number of dwellings completed by Dublin Corporation in the whole country fell from 1,753 in 1983 to 6 in 1989.A further 59 were built up to mid-91 10

Also in July this year a Dublin Corporation report showed that more than 60% of its housing stock needs refurbishment and that more than 80% of local authority tenants in the city depend on social welfare.11 Behind this latter figure lies not, only the growth of unemployment but also the creation of ghettos of the unemployed. Cuts in local authority house building force anyone with a reasonable income into private housing.

The push to sell public housing to tenants again leads to those who can afford to buy up, eventually selling up and moving out. In 1984 a £5,000 grant was introduced for tenants wishing to surrender their dwelling to move and buy. Only the worst-off are left concentrated in particular Corporation estates and flat complexes, blighted of facilities and buying power, where all the social problems akin to poverty are piled together. Particular addresses on job applications send them to the waste paper basket and the zoning’ is hardened.

Just before the 70th anniversary of 1913, Willie Berminghams ALONE published an updated account of the living conditions of many old people in Dublin. The introduction (written for the original 1978 edition) begins,

“One of the most traumatic periods in Dublin social history was the great `lock-out’ of’ 1913. Whatever about the power struggle between employers and unions, it is now generally accepted that the crisis had its origins in the cruel conditions in the city’s tenements. Few people may be prepared to accept that living conditions as intolerable as these discovered sixty years ago are still being encountered in Dublin, with the distinction that instead of mass misery the victims have been found in chronic isolation.” 12  The introduction to the revised edition (1982) includes the following cases that had come to light since 1978:

“Mr. Brady’ was found dead by relatives who discovered him half naked in an iron bed in the sparse room of his Corporation-built house. On a bitterly cold morning, a brother-in law held a shaving mirror to Jack’s face – there was no breath of life.

The old widow ‘In the Basement’ on North Circular Road, froze to death on the floor of her rat-infested flat on New Year’s Day 1979. A blocked chimney had prevented her from lighting the fire and there was no other safe means of heating the damp basement. Her mentally retarded son was taken into care for a while at Mater Hospital, but he too died in the flat a year – almost to the day – after his mother perished’.

Eddie Kirwan, an old bachelor, died in the dark shell of his house in Phibsboro early in 1982. He had lived for many years without heat, cooking facilities, running water or a toilet. Electricity had never been installed in the two-storey dwelling, that stood like a haunted house less than a mile from O’Connell Street.

Still a few days or dinners this side of death, an elderly man was found living in a plastic dustbin at the public toilets in Drumcondra, a short distance from the gates of the Archbishop’s Palaces.

Another old man was discovered sleeping in the outside basement of a deserted house in North Great Georges Street, with the daily vista of a Georgian street whose facades and ceilings were being restored with great public admiration. This modern-day Rashers Tierney bought small groceries from a local store. The shopkeeper frequently noticed rat bites around his face. If still alive, his present whereabouts are unknown.” 13

The furore around these scandals, and, of course, the activities of ALONE itself, have since led to improvements in these conditions. Yet, ten years later, they are not entirely at an end for the aged poor. Or the homeless. Last Winter a redundant army barracks was hastily opened to the homeless after some untimely deaths among their number in the city. Infant mortality rates show the dramatic advances since the days of the Lock-Out.

In 1911 about 20% of all deaths in the city occurred among those less. than a year old, nearly all of these among the poorest classes.14 In 1988 only 1.3% of all deaths in the Dublin County Borough were infant deaths.15

Overall, mortality (all ages) for the Dublin Region appear lower than the rest of the country. Areas with above average mortality were located, according. to a study of 1986-87′ figures, mainly in the inner city and the suburbs to the west and north. Clusters occurred in the Ballybough-Drumcondra-East Wall area and in the Coolock-Priorswood area. On the south side the area between Dolphins Barn and the Liffey and Crumlin showed figures above the mean.16 At birth Irish women have the lowest life expectancy in the EC with males ranked fourth lowest.17

Traveller housing in 1988

Traveller housing in 1988

In 1986 22% of all Irish Travellers lived in Dublin. A 1987 healthstudy (for the whole country, although Dublin figures are not thought to be very different) showed a life expectancy for male Travellers of 10 years less than settled males, and for female Travellers of 12 years less than settled women. The Traveller infant mortality rate was 18.9(per thousand) compared to 7.4 for Ireland as a whole. 18

In 1992 Dublin. had 29% of Ireland’s population and 32% of its unemployment. A 1991 study showed that, among married men, urban and unemployed manual workers were almost ten times more likely to show symptoms. above the psychiatric case threshold than rural non-manual workers who were at work.19 A family of two adults and two children, with an unemployed head of the household spends 25% less on food than an equivalent family living on the average industrial wage.20

The following is quoted from ‘Dublin 1992 – a healthy city?’

“The Dublin sub-region recorded a net decline in industrial employment of 32.2% between 1971 and 1989. In 1971, the sub-region contained 37.3% of’ the national industrial employment by 1989 this figure had declined to 27%”. 21

Although Dublin dominated employment in the services sector’ in previous years, the growth rate since 1971 has fallen behind that of the rest of the Republic. During the period 1981 – 1989, it recorded a net gain of only 9,000 jobs in this sector.

Manufacturing growth has been regarded as a critical element in the expansion of our industrial base over the last few decades but the Dublin area has likewise performed poorly in this respect. It showed a significantly lower rate of growth in the number of manufacturing firms than other parts of the State over the period 1973-1989 (Dublin 33.4%, national 79.2%). Dublin’s share of the national total of manufacturing firms thus declined from 30.9% to 25% during this period. The net loss in employment in Irish owned firms during, the 1970s was 3,800. During the same period foreign-owned firms increases their employment in Dublin by only 230. This was in sharp contrast to what was happening in other areas.

By 1989, there were almost 25,000 fewer jobs in the manufacturing industry than in 1980. The vast majority of these losses were suffered by Irish-owned firms. During 199O there were overall net gains of 500 manufacturing jobs in Dublin, but whether or not this indicates a reversal of the previous decline remains to be seen.”

Perhaps the EC billions will make a difference. Perhaps.

In this year of 1993, the eightieth anniversary of the Lock-Out there are rich pickings for fans of the ironic. With 1913 in mind the following may produce a wry smile: the musical ‘Les Miserables’ opens in Dublin, offering, up poverty and revolt as light entertainment; Guinness, the traditional model employer of Dublin, announces plans to cut its workforce by over half; a major scandal in Dublin County Council, in relation to excessive land rezoning, effecting, the environment of Dubliners in the city and the new ‘towns’ around it, is exposed in `The Irish Times’; two dozen’ workers at Pat the Baker in Dublin engage in a bitter protracted strike hampered by new restrictive labour law and physically attacked by scabs for recognition of their union, SIPTU, the successor to Larkin’s ITGWU; the lowest number of strike days lost since 1989 (itself the lowest year on record) is announced in July; the biennial conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions accepts a consultant’s report that the unions should adopt a new approach to the new management techniques; the influential left-leaning columnist of the ‘Irish Times’, Fintan O’Toole, declares on 28th July that class war for the workers is over and that industrial and social partnership is the way forward for intelligent Irish trade unionists.

1. 1913: A Divided City’, Curriculum Development Unit, 1978.

2. ‘Invisible Dublin’ Ed. Dermot Bolger, Raven Arts, Dublin, 1991.

3. Combat Poverty Agency. Budget Submission, 1993.

4. OECD figures,based on changes in price figures. Quoted ‘Dublin 1992 – a healthy city?’, Dublin Healthy Cities Project with World Health Organisation.

5. UN Human Development Report. for 1992. Quoted in ‘Dublin 1992’.

6. Combat Poverty Agency. Budget Submission 1993.

7. Nolan and Farrell Report 1990.

8. Final report of EC 2nd Poverty Prog, 1990.

9. Irish Times, 24th July ’93.

10. Dublin Corporation Figures, quoted in ‘Dublin 1992’.

11. Draft Policy Statement on Housing Management, July 1993. (Irish Times, 30th July ’93.)

12. ‘ALONE again’, W. Berminham & L.O’Cuainaigh,. ALONE, Dublin, 1982, p.I8.

13. Ibib. ps. I3 & 14.

14. ‘1913: A Divided City’ p.54.

15. Vital Statistics, CSO, 1988.

16 ‘Mortality Patterns in Dublin’ Eastern Health Board (Johnson & Dack, 1989).

18. ‘Dublin 1992’

19. Barry et al. ‘The Travellers HeaIth Study, 1987.

20. Whelan et al. ESR1, 1991.

21 Murphy-Lawless, Combat Poverty Agency 1992. 22. Irish Times, Drudy and McXeon, 1991.

22. Paradoxically, it is projected. that Dublin will be Europe’s fasting growing city in terms of output growth in the 1990s. With a projected annual growth rate of 3.2% it is expected to come in second to Barcelona (at 3.4%) and ahead of 29 other European cities. (Cambridge Econometrics. Report on European regional prospects. Sun Tribune. 1st Aug 1993)

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