When it was put to Brendan Behan that the Guinness family had been very good to the people of Dublin, his response was that the people of Dublin had been very good to the Guinness family. To some his wit may seem a little curmudgeonly.
These days there tends to be a positive attitude towards philanthropy. When Warren Buffet and Bill Gates initiated the Giving Pledge, President Obama invited them to the White House, indicating his clear approval. In this gesture the Democratic president revealed himself as closer to the Republican Herbert Hoover than to Republican Theodore Roosevelt, both presidents in an earlier era when philanthropy was a political issue. In the early years of the twentieth century Theodore Roosevelt attacked the “representatives of predatory wealth” who sought to influence education policy through donations, but within two decades the mood was changing.
In the 1920s Hoover was enthusiastic about the potential of private charity to relieve poverty, hunger, ill health, educational deficits and similar problems. And indeed the pot of wealth from which it was possible to draw was not small. The number of American millionaires increased from around one hundred in 1870 to a standing army of forty thousand by 1916. Presumably the number grew further in the1920s.
However, the limits of philanthropy were reached in the wake of the 1929 crash. Private charity proved insufficient to prevent the mass poverty and social destruction which followed. One of the things which also followed was a change in the political mood, and with The New Deal came a new political morality. The millionaires’ money came to be seen as “dirty” and their motives suspect.
Actually, criticism of “robber baron” philanthropy was a long established theme in US working class political discourse. Andrew Carnegie, who funded numerous libraries in Ireland and elsewhere, was a steel magnate in the US and one with a great hostility towards organised labour. In the 1890s there were frequent lockouts of workers at his mills and he was duly reviled for his behaviour. At one point, twenty of the forty-six US towns to which he offered funding for libraries declined his money on principle. In the depressed 1930s there was a widespread belief that the rich were giving in order to legitimise their wealth and generate acceptance of social inequality.
The major philanthropic projects of the Guinness family were undertaken in the same general era but, in attempting to understand them, US interpretive models are of little use. In order to make sense of Guinness philanthropy, we must turn to underlying political dynamics in Ireland rather than to those of the very different United States.
Neither the existence of individuals with great wealth nor pronounced social inequality were in any sense new phenomena in Ireland. There would have been little need to dream up projects to legitimise them as they were already a fundamental part of the social fabric. It’s also worth remembering that in Ireland there was nothing remotely comparable to the “Land of the Free” idea which was central to US identity.
So, what form did Guinness philanthropy take and how can the family’s activities be understood? By 1889, Edward Cecil Guinness was the richest man in Ireland. Arthur’s son, Benjamin Lee Guinness (1798-1868), father of Edward Cecil, financed the rebuilding of St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1856 with a contribution of £150,000 and began the restoration of the adjacent Marsh’s Library. His brother, Arthur Edward, Lord Ardilaun, (1840-1915) finished the library restoration and financed the construction of a new wing of the Coombe lying-in hospital in 1877. Arthur Edward’s most famous philanthropic gesture was the purchase of a thirty-acre site at St Stephen’s Green from the local inhabitants which he had landscaped and handed over as a city amenity in 1882. Edward Cecil Guinness donated the back garden of his Dublin city centre home ‑ Iveagh House ‑ to University College Dublin in 1908 and it is now a public garden.
The largest Guinness project was the development of dwellings for the city’s working poor. The Guinness trust’s first undertaking in this area was the building of two blocks of dwellings at Thomas Court adjacent to the brewery at James’s Gate and containing 118 flats. Three larger blocks of 336 flats followed at Kevin Street. The trust’s third scheme, at Patrick Street, was its largest. Extensive slums were cleared to facilitate large-scale building in the Patrick Street/Bull Alley area. Between 1901 and 1904 it provided 350 flats in eight five-storey T-shaped blocks. There were also twenty-six shops, a six-storey hostel to accommodate 508 homeless men, a community centre, a children’s care facility and a public swimming pool with twenty-seven private baths, a public park with a park keeper’s house and a market built in Francis Street to house local traders displaced by the development. The idea was to house poorer working people, irrespective of where they were employed, as opposed to relatively prosperous artisan workers. In contemporary terms the amount of money expended was eighty-one million euro.
The results constituted an impressive contribution to the city, yet is was said by some in Dublin that the only reason the Patrick Street project was undertaken was because Lord Ardilaun was offended by the sight of the poor as he made his way in his carriage through Patrick Street towards the cathedral on Sunday mornings. This somewhat mean-spirited proposition reflected the deep divisions between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Dublin. One feature of this division was that for some the other side was rarely seen as capable of doing anything much that was worthwhile.
In the early twenty-first century it is perhaps possible to offer a more nuanced explanation of Guinness philanthropy than that which exists in the oral record. The various projects of the Guinness trust constituted a focused intervention in a city in no small difficulty and from which it is possible to discern the philanthropists’ idea of what the city might become. It is by no means a negative vision.
The ambition for Dublin implicit in the activities of the Guinness trust was of a respectable city dominated by the Protestant and Catholic middle classes, adorned with many impressive civic amenities and supported by an industrial economy providing employment to well-housed workers. Politically the city was seen as situated in an economically functioning Ireland that was in political union with Britain. In a decade which commemorates the struggles that culminated in the winning of extensive political autonomy in Ireland, it is worthwhile acknowledging that certain unionists had a positive developmental vision for the city.
The impulse involved could be described as an expression, in more democratic times, of a non-nationalist patriotism which originated in the exclusivist eighteenth century. Unionist patriotic visions for Dublin and Ireland did not of course prevail; the vision which did win out being closer to that espoused by Behan. And as is often the case, the victor tends to occupy a little too much of the historical stage thereafter. In Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century Ireland, Linda King remarks on the scant scholarly interest in the activities of the Guinness/Iveagh Trust, which is not entirely surprising.
At this remove from the heady events of the early twentieth century perhaps, as one strolls along leafy Bull Alley or samples the delights of the Dublin Food Fair in Iveagh Gardens, it is possible to reflect on the substantial benefits the city enjoys from the legacy of cultural forces that did not “win”.
Source: Information on the Guinness Trust and Iveagh Trust was taken from Philanthropy in Nineteenth Century Ireland, edited by Laurence M Geary and Oonagh Walsh.