VOICES FROM THE NORTH INNER CITY

Tenement Life


Decline into Tenement Slums

In its 18th century heyday, the North Inner City was a fashionable area boasting an impressive variety of fine two, three, and four-storey Georgian buildings. It was home to the rich and famous of the day, including wealthy merchants, lawyers, and others of their class.
Architect James Gandon lived here for a time to be close to the site of the Custom House, which began construction in 1781.  His address was 7 Mecklenburgh Street.  By the late 19th century, this street had become the heart of the Monto red light district and the surrounding area had deteriorated into an expanse of overcrowded, disease-ridden tenements where people lived in squalor.
So what led to this massive decline in the fortunes of the North Inner City?

The James Gandon designed Customs House

The James Gandon designed Customs House. Courtesy of the National Archives of Ireland.

 

Mass Exodus

The Act of Union of 1801, which abolished the Irish Parliament in Dublin in favour of direct rule from London, marked the decline of Dublin’s fashionable status. It prompted a mass exodus of wealthy citizens, either to the growing suburbs or back to England.

Hive of activity

Within a few years, Mecklenburgh Street Lower had become home to numerous small businesses, including  dairies, printers, carpenters, plasterers, boot makers and dressmakers, who set up shop in basements, ground-floor rooms and in the back lanes off the main street.

Deterioration and Decay

Under the pressure of poverty throughout the city, the area went downhill fast. The fine houses gradually turned into slums.

Some of the wealthy left their houses to be run by agents, who promptly became profiteering landlords and converted the once large rooms of the houses into many small rooms where they packed in as many poor families as they could.

Many of these families had arrived in the North Inner City seeking refuge from the Great Hunger (1845-49) which devastated parts of rural Ireland. They had no choice but to deal with slum landlords when they were seeking shelter.

Some of the destitute were forced into begging or stealing to survive. Some women resorted to prostitution to feed their children and to pay the high rents. The alternative was to risk ending up in the workhouse of the South Dublin Union on James’s Street, a place which struck fear into the hearts of Dubliners.

The decline and deterioration of Mecklenburgh Street was replicated across the North Inner City as the once glamorous Georgian houses became slum dwellings for the poor.

20th Century Tenement Slums

In the early part of the 20th century, a third of Dublin’s population lived in city centre tenement slums.

In 1911, the capital had the worst housing conditions of any city in the United Kingdom.  According to official classification, 22,701 people lived in ‘third-class’ houses which were termed as unfit for human habitation.

Life for the poor of the city was an endless cycle of cast-offs and scavenging, dependent on the unwanted possessions of the rich. They scoured the streets and bins for old bottles that they could sell for a penny or old clothes that might fit some member of the family – in fact, anything at all that might help them survive. Children would search the ash bins of the well-to-do for half-burnt cinders to heat the house.

Collapse of Church Street Tenements

On 2 September 1913, two tenement buildings on Church Street collapsed killing seven people, including three children.

This sparked a Dublin Housing Inquiry into the housing conditions of the working classes in the city.   Its findings, published on 7 February 1914, presented a picture of appalling poverty in the tenement areas of Dublin.

The Inquiry also found that some sitting members of the Corporation – three aldermen and a councillor – were owners of slum houses. Each one owned several houses in the city that were unfit for human habitation but where people were living. Some had no water and in others, the drains were not properly trapped or ventilated. These slum landlords were also claiming tax rebates for their houses.

Tenement interior

Tenement interior, Longford Street, Dublin. © The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland.

 

Extracts from Dublin Housing Inquiry Report 1914:

98 Persons in One House

“There are many tenement houses with seven or eight rooms that house a family in each room and contain a population of between 40 and 50 souls. We have visited one house that we found to be occupied by 98 persons, another by 74 and a third by 73.”

“The entrance to all tenement houses is by a common door off either a street, lane or alley, and, in most cases, the door is never shut, day or night. The passages and stairs are common and the rooms all open directly either off the passages or landings.”

One Shared Outside Tap

“Most of these houses have yards at the back, some of which are a fair size, while others are very small, and some few houses have no yards at all. Generally, the only water supply of the house is furnished by a single water tap, which is in the yard. The yard is common and the closet accommodation (toilet) is to be found there, except in some few cases in which there is no yard, when it is to be found in the basement where there is little light or ventilation.”

Shared Toilet

“The closet accommodation is common not only to the occupants of the house, but to anyone who likes to come in off the street, and is, of course, common to both sexes. The roofs of the tenement houses are, as a rule, bad . . .”

Human Excreta

“Having visited a large number of these houses in all parts of the city, we have no hesitation in saying that it is no uncommon thing to find halls and landings, yards and closets of the houses in a filthy condition, and, in nearly every case, human excreta is to be found scattered about the yards and in the floors of the closets and, in some cases, even in the passages of the house itself.”

“There was eleven us and me, Ma, and Da. That was 13 of us in one room.”

“The house we lived in was home for eight families, four on the bottom and four on the top.

We had one room in which myself, my sister, my three brothers and my parents lived.  The rent was two shillings and sixpence a week.

No toilets or water

The room was fairly big and inside the room were two beds, one stretcher bed, a table and chairs, a cabinet and a dresser.  There was a big open fireplace which my mother did the cooking on.  The room was lit by paraffin lamps.  We had no toilets or water in the room.  They were all out in the back yard.

Toilet in a bucket

If you wanted to have a wash, you had to bring a bucket of water up from the back yard and pour it into a basin.  In the night-time, if you wanted to go to the toilet, there was also a bucket in the room in which to go as there were no lights in the yard.”

ELLEN COMISKEY - BORN 1913, EMERALD PLACE

“My father was killed in the First World War. We left East Arran Street and moved into Corporation Street around 1916.

There was my mother, myself and four brothers in that one room. There were also five other families living in the house, and each one of them had a lot of children. There was only one toilet for the whole house.  It was terrible.

If you took cramps in your stomach and you wanted to go to the toilet, you had to run down to the back yard. Maybe somebody else had been using the toilet before you and he did not care which way he left it. Sometimes the toilet would be left in a terrible state. They would want you to clean it up after them. We kept a bucket in the room which you had to use in the night-time. We had no water in the room. We had to go down to the back yard to get it.

We had no electricity in the houses. All we had was an oil lamp. You could buy a pint of oil for one and ha’pence in the local shop.”

JEM KING - BORN 1911, EAST ARRAN STREET

“I was born in Sheriff Street in 1932. It was a small village then.

The front of Sheriff Street was all two-storey tenement houses which had very large families in them.  There was no space.

Frozen Water

We had to go down to very cold yards in the winter to go to the toilets.  Then you used to have to carry up buckets of water to have a wash.   Either that, or you washed yourself down in the yard under the tap.  Sometimes, when you turned the tap on, you just got a load of ice.

Slopping Out

You used to have the toilet in the room – the bucket! – and you’d have to go down and empty those, which wasn’t very nice.

TESSIE DOWDALL - SHERIFF STREET

“The shagging landlord didn’t give a tuppence about us. I never seen him.

He had another man collecting the rent money off my mother. When he called to the door, he never said anything only “good morning” and hold out his hand for the rent money. That’s all he ever said to her. My mother used to say, when she would be looking out the window and she would see him coming up the street. “ah here’s old good morning coming for his rent”.”

ELIZABETH DILLON - BORN 1915, CORPORATION STREET

“I remember when I was about nine years old, I used to go to the dump, or “the Sloblands”, as we called it, which was just past the North Strand.

We used to watch the horses and wagons which used to collect the rubbish around Dublin, going out. We would go out with our buckets and sacks (sometimes I had an old pram), and we would go through the rubbish. There would be lots of children out there doing the same.”

BILLY DUNLEAVY - BORN 1907, CORPORATION STREET
Tenement interior

"Decent people living in terrible conditions, there was no toilets at all. It wasn’t the people’s fault. Far from it. Whoever owned them were really bad."

MICK O’BRIEN - SEAN MACDERMOTT STREET

“My mother used to send me up to Grenville Street Lane to get a bale of straw for sixpence.  I would bring it down to my mother and she would put it in a mattress cover.

Most people used to have a straw mattress in those times.  The straw would last a few weeks and you would have to change it again. People could not afford a spring mattress.

“Fancy Bread”

I used to go to Kennedy’s bakery in Parnell Street to get the “fancy bread” (day old bread sold cheap).  I would bring a pillowcase with me to carry the bread in.”

PADDY OGLESBY - SEAN MACDERMOTT STREET

“Granny Whelan had a big old Victorian ringer with a big handle on it.

She used to keep it in the pram shed in the flats.  When she pulled it out she put a big metal bath underneath it. Then the women from the flats would bring down their washing in basins and the Granny Whelan would put the washing through the ringer for them.  I could not believe the amount that came down to her.”

ROBERT SHERIDAN - ST. BRIGID’S GARDENS, SHERIFF STREET

“I lived in one room to the front of the house with my mother and father, four brothers and two sisters. There were eight other families living in the house.

You couldn’t leave your children alone in the rooms because it was too dangerous. There were no locks on the doors, except for a bolt on the inside of the door that you could push across at night. The windows did not lock right, the staircases were falling apart. The men of the house nailed timber across the missing hand rails so the children wouldn’t fall through them.

In our house, there must have been forty children. I remember in the night time, the screams of the young babies crying out for food was terrible. The mothers knocked on the doors of their neighbours looking for milk.”

MARY BYRNE - BORN 1920, WATERFORD STREET
Children, Co. Dublin, Ireland

"Me Ma used to go over to the Iveagh Market and the Daisy Market to buy us clothes. She also used to get the flour bags out of Boland’s Mill and we had to stop in and rip them up so me Ma could boil the crest off to make bed linen with them. Sometimes you’d see a woman’s shift hanging out on the washing line and it would have ‘Boland’s Best’ on the front of it!"

BIDDY HEFFERNAN - COMMONS STREET

“In our family, there were nine children, but one died.  The whole family lived in one room, although we had a scullery and a toilet.

We had two beds – one single and one double – and we used to make a bed on the floor.  They were innocent days.  The oldest ones slept in the single bed and another slept on the floor. My father and mother and the younger one slept in the double bed.  I was only about 16 or 17 then.”

TRISHA FARRINGTON NEÉ CONNOR - CORPORATION BUILDINGS

“The neighbourhood was full of poverty. Everyone had it.

The rent was only 2s 6p but you were lucky to be able to pay it. I saw many an eviction in the district. The bailiffs would arrive at your house with their henchmen, they would break down the door and throw all your belongings out onto the road and out you’d go after them.

But that would not happen today, be God – if they tried that now you would have a lot of neighbours to help you stay, particularly the old neighbours and their families. They would not let it happen to you now. They would stand by you.”

BILLY DUNLEAVY - BORN 1907, CORPORATION BUILDINGS

"At the end of 1942, the flats were absolutely fabulous. The people that lived in the flats used to keep them spotless.  Every morning, they swept down the stairs.  You would see the people out washing their windows and polishing their brass hall door knockers.  The people were very proud of their flats."

CHRISTINA KELLY - LAURENCE’S MANSIONS

Do you have family memorabilia or stories about life in the North Inner City? We’d love to hear from you: