Infection & Disease

Overcrowded tenements, poor diet, squalor and shared outdoor sanitation was a breeding ground for disease.
In the early 20th century, Dublin had one of the highest infant death rates in Europe and it had the highest overall death rate of any city in Britain and Ireland.
The poor of the inner city slums fared the worst.
In 1909, the death rate in the affluent southern suburbs was 16 per 1,000 compared with 24.7 per 1,000 in the North Inner City.
Tuberculosis (TB) was the biggest health threat, killing more than 12,000 people a year nationally. Many of these were in Dublin, where the disease spread easily through overcrowded tenements, mainly among those in the 15-25 age group.
Tenement child article

“I had five children: Pat, Rosaleen, Josephine, John and Angela. I buried Rosaleen when she was five years old. She died of pneumonia. During the coal strike, I burned chairs and just about everything to keep the room at the temperature the doctor said.”


“Tuberculosis was everywhere  –

– and there was four or five children in bed with it and they would have gotten it from their mother and father.

There were no hospitals that would take them in and they were sent out to Clonskeagh but it wasn’t a hospital.  It was a place with little huts in a field where they used to put them until they got well.”


“During that time (the war years, 1939 – 1946) there was an outbreak of the scabies, a kind of louse that hatched under the skin of all human beings, it gave off a terrible irritation and sores.

When you went to visit anyone, if that family had scabies, you brought it back to your family and it went from one to another, till the whole area was infected.

The Minister for Health at the time opened up the Iveagh Baths and all individual families had to go for those special baths.

We were actually scrubbed with very harsh brushes and then an ointment, which was very severe, was rubbed into the skin. Although we were relieved of the irritation, we had very sore bodies.

Our tenement rooms were so small the walls surrounding the room were made with plaster and horse-hair, a nesting place for bugs at night. That was the time they came out and everyone would start scratching. They also gave off a terrible smell.

The Minister at the time suggested we place a lighted candle in the centre of the room, which gave off a sulphur aroma, which meant we had to vacate the room for a few hours. When we returned in the evening the bugs were gone.

It was not till the 1950s a treatment called Malathion dust was invented. It really was a great thing for getting rid of the bugs.”

Tenement interior

Tenement interior, Upper Tyrone Street, Dublin City. © The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

Tenement interior

Tenement interior, Upper Tyrone Street, Dublin City. © The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

"When I was very sick (I got pleurisy), I was sent to the South Dublin Union Hospital. My God, it was a terrible place to be in. People use to say when you went into that hospital, you never came out alive. It was a place where they sent you to die."


“When people were sick they used to send for the dispensary doctor, Dr Grimley. I remember when I was sick, he was sent for.

When he would come up to the house he used to use the end of his coat to put around the handle on the door to turn it. And when he would come into the house, he would shout, “Where is the patient?” When he saw me, he would say,” Quick, give me a spoon,” and when he got it he would stick it down my throat, and tell me to say, “Ahhh.”

And when he would be feeling my head to see if I had a temperature, he would first put a hankie on my head, then he would put his hand on the hankie to feel my head. He was always in a hurry but he never forgot to wrap his coat around the handle of the door when he was leaving the house.

Then one day Dr Grimley was not around. I don’t know if he was sick or what, but they sent this other doctor in his place. Word spread around the street that the new doctor was a Protestant. The people were afraid to send for him when they were sick. They used to say that he would make you change your religion when he called to see you. When he passed them by on Railway Street they would bless themselves. Sure, all he was interested in was helping the people that were sick.”


“The great Kathleen Lynn did endless work in St. Ultan’s Hospital for the care of the tiny infants.

She took them in under her care with very meagre rooms and treatment, assisted by Dr. Kathleen Barry, sister of Kevin Barry. They were wonderful angels of mercy, as they knew the plight and the poverty of the people all over Dublin.”

Street View, Cumberland Street North, Dublin

Street view, Cumberland Street North, Dublin. © The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

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