Ireland Under Coercion, Revisited: Dublin slums

This is post 5 of my work-in-progress blog serial about the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and background material are available at the project landing page#IUCRevisited 

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“[In the 18th century,] “the Irish landlords were more fond of living in Dublin than a good many of the Irish nationalists [are in 1888].”
–William Henry Hurlbert

Hurlbert’s first three days in Ireland were spent in Dublin, mostly talking with unionist M.P.s and government administrators such as Arthur Balfour. He also took some time to explore the city:

“During the day I walked through many of the worst quarters of Dublin. I met fewer beggars in proposition than one encounters in [some parts of London], but I was struck by the number of persons–and particularly of women–who wore that most pathetic of all the liveries of distress, the look of having seen better days. In the most wretched streets I traversed there was more squalor than suffering–the dirtiest and most ragged people in them showing no signs of starvation, or even insufficient rations; and certainly in the most dismal alleys and by-streets, I came upon nothing so revolting as the hives of crowded misery which make certain of the tenement house quarters of New York more gruesome than the Cour des Miracles (17th century Paris slums) itself used to be.”

A German map of Dublin from 1888, the year Hurlbert visited the city.

Dublin’s growth was stunted after the Irish parliament was dissolved by the 1800 Act of Union. As History Ireland explained:

The removal of the parliamentarians, who would now leapfrog Dublin en route to Westminster, had two immediate effects. The first was that the elegant townhouses built as the urban residences of the Ascendancy became redundant (a century later many would be tenements); the second was that the service industries and consumer culture that had developed around the parliament were stripped away. This social and economic hammer blow, when combined with newly established absentee governance from London, precipitated Dublin’s long decline from second city of the empire to provincial center within the U.K. And within the U.K., Dublin’s primary function was as a transit point for the export of food and people, and the importation of British goods: a perpetual motion driven by the imperatives of Britain’s industrial centers, and which also starved Dublin of the wherewithal to develop its own manufacturing base. In the mid-19th century this economic stagnation was accompanied by one of the most significant social developments in the city’s history, as the emergent Catholic (and remaining Protestant) middle classes abandoned the city between the canals and relocated to new townships such as Clontarf and Rathmines. In the vacuum left behind, the tenements flourished.

As poor, post-Famine rural residents packed the once elegant Georgian townhouses, the wealthy targeted the structures for salvage. In his book, Hurlbert reported that Dublin-born M.P. Lord Ashbourne (Edward Gibson), author of an 1885 Irish land law known as the Ashbourne Act, spent his free time poking around the city slums “to look up some fine old wooden mantelpieces and wainscotings … A brisk trade it seems has for some time been driven in such relics of the departed splendor of the Irish capital.”

It wasn’t until the September 1913 collapse of two houses on Church Street killed seven people that serious attention was focused on Dublin’s dismal tenements. Photographer John Cooke produced a series of startling images about the city’s squalid living conditions, which he titled “Darkest Dublin.” The substandard housing, however, persisted into the second half of the 20th century.

Hurlbert did not name the streets or neighborhoods he visited on his walks. Church Street and other “between the canals” locations photographed a quarter century later by Cooke were within a mile or so of the Kildare Street hotel where Hurlbert stayed through 3 February 1888. Then, with Lord Ernest William Hamilton, he boarded the 7:25 a.m. train for Strabane, leaving behind the Dublin slums.

John Cooke photo of Dublin tenement life in 1913.

NEXT: Sion Mills

NOTES: This post is based on pages 59 and 72 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Dublin, Cork and Belfast population figures have been removed from the post as I update the figures.

Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan