From the late nineteenth century many well-connected people, including politicians associated with the national cause, were slum landlords. In an economically underdeveloped city, owning property was one of the few ways of making money. Owning pubs was another. The city was poor and, notwithstanding the evidence all around that it had once been prosperous, it remained poor for most of the twentieth century. Visitors in the 1950s often described Dublin as shabby and some even found this a charming relief from the rapid modernisation occurring elsewhere. Others just found the place dull and dirty.
If Dublin had not been poor and if the decades after independence had seen an early Celtic Tiger we would be living in a very different city, one for which it might be quite difficult to feel any positive emotion.
Dublin of the Future was published in 1922. The main author was Patrick Abercrombie and his views were well received by the new authorities. In an interesting new book, Modern Dublin, Urban Change and the Irish Past 1957- 1973, Erika Hanna describes Abercrombie’s vision as articulated through two plans he drew up for the city. In his grandiose designs he presented a city of imposing new edifices, wide straight roads and resolutely modern designs. The poor from Dublin’s infamous slums were to be removed to the periphery and the areas where they lived remodelled for a new “black coat” population. (Presumably, the black coats belonged to middle class office workers and professionals.)
Abercrombie found inspiration for the future of Dublin in the overhaul of Paris undertaken during the second empire. As a good modernist he was moved by the possibility of massive physical and social engineering. The new city would be bright and modern and would be designed and conceived as a single entity worthy of the “capital of a modern country”. In other words it would be a fraud that not only obscured the city’s mostly haphazard past but which also made outlandish claims regarding the values of a citizenry whose ordinary human needs would disappear in the glare of the new order.
The city centre was to shift to the west of Dublin Castle and it was to feature an extensive new metropolitan complex located at the top of Capel Street. A Catholic cathedral and a central station were to form its core. Straight roads would run from this new centre forming a symmetrical pattern with the cathedral and transport hub at the centre. This modernist celebration of the confessional state was to displace if not marginalise Georgian Dublin, which was the city’s only previous effort at large scale planning and which had celebrated the eighteenth century Dublin Protestant elite who, in the process of their self-aggrandisement and enthusiasm for wide streets and flat-fronted buildings had flattened much of the medieval city.
Perhaps we were lucky to have been saved by our poverty from Abercrombie’s extravaganza. One result was that the tenements continued until the 1960s, when a few of them fell down. This dramatic event caused a moral panic among the city fathers who unleashed an inspectorate which went around nailing condemned notices to buildings left, right and centre. The notices gave the occupants seven days to evacuate but did not tell them where they should go.
Dublin was still poor in the 1960s but demolition was within the available budget. After failing to engage in any meaningful planning since 1922 the state finally stirred itself to conduct a campaign of demolition, which is now usually seen as the greatest single act of destruction that has ever befallen the city. But there were some side benefits. The Spy who came in from the Cold was shot in Dublin as it was ‑ ironically ‑ the only city the producers could find which resembled one which had been bombed. Erika Hanna’s description of the demolition derby is worth reading:
The most significant moment in the evolution of housing in Dublin in the 1960s was the dangerous buildings scare of 1963-4. Shortly before 5 a.m. on the night of 2 June 1963, an 84-year-old man and his 83-year-old wife were ‘hurled to their deaths from their beds’ and seven other people were trapped as their tenement collapsed in Bolton Street, in the former Gardiner Estate area of the city. In the week that followed, many were evicted from similar buildings in the locality by panicked dangerous buildings inspectors. On the night of 4 June, eight terrified families, including eleven adults and nine children, were given a moment’s notice to evacuate a dangerous four-storey tenement building in Upper Buckingham Street, while at Bolton Street a Dublin Corporation building inspector summoned by the tenants took one look at a 30ft long crack which had appeared in a gable, and ordered everyone out. The next day, sixteen people were ordered from 20 Upper Dominick Street, the occupants being rehoused in Coolock, Cabra, and the Fatima Mansion flats, and Corporation officials were also called as rubble fell in 3 Henrietta Street, where sixteen families were living. However, the timbre of media coverage of events and the rate of removals changed fundamentally when, on 12 June, another tenement collapsed on the other side of the city, causing the deaths of two young girls.
The residents of these tenement areas immediately responded with anger at their poor housing conditions, and made demands for new houses. As demolition gangs tore down the remains of the two collapsed houses in Fenian Street, extra Gardai had to be brought in to keep order as an angry crowd clamoured for faster provision of new homes. On 13 June, about forty women, many of whom were pushing prams, and a large number of children, from the Fenian Street, Hogan Place, Macken Street, Lincoln Place, and Brunswick Place areas of the city marched to the City Hall with the intention of making a protest to the City Manager. They carried banners bearing the slogans ‘Clear the Slums’ and ‘Don’t wait for the Houses to Fall’. They failed to see the City Manager, so then marched through College Green and Nassau Street to the Mansion House in Dawson Street, where a deputation was received by the Lord Mayor, Alderman J. J. O’Keefe TD. When the Lord Mayor visited Fenian Street later that afternoon, he was mobbed by the crowd; in spite of his assurances that everything possible would be done to find accommodation for the homeless, the protest continued, and Gardai had to ensure his safe departure.
After the second collapse, the already panicky responses of the dangerous buildings division now ascended in key. On 13 June, while Neil Blaney ordered a public inquiry into the collapses, inspectors ‘dealt with’ about fifty houses as an emergency measure in the Fenian Street, Grattan Street, Hogan Place, Holles Street, Kevin Street, Upper Dorset Street, and Coleraine Street areas. Notices were nailed on doorways informing the residents that the buildings were condemned and they had to leave within seven days. In the three weeks following the first collapse, the Corporation received over 1,500 phone calls regarding unstable buildings, and 156 houses were evacuated because of their condition. This necessitated the displacement of 520 families. However, owing to the housing shortage, the Corporation was only able to offer 200 of these families new accommodation. At an emergency meeting to discuss the housing crisis, Dublin City Council voted unanimously that the City Manager, Tom O’Mahony, and the Lord Mayor should approach the Minister for Defence, the school authorities, and the Red Cross to seek accommodation. It was decided that if this was not successful, authority should be given for the use of the Mansion House for housing those evicted by the dangerous buildings operations.
When the inquiry reported back, it revealed how years of poverty and neglect of the city, combined with the recent wave of structural modernization, was putting increased pressure on the built stock. While the exceptional weather conditions which had preceded the two collapses were noted ‑ a long period of heat, accompanied by drying winds, and followed by one of the worst thunderstorms within living memory ‑ the report also made frequent reference to the cumulative stress placed on the Georgian city by new constructions and new materials. In the case of Bolton Street, the collapse occurred because the house next door was being demolished to be replaced by a petrol station on the same site. Its chimney had already lost much of its structural strength because long-term use had resulted in the burn-out of its mid-feathers (the chimney’s interior structural supports); thus when the next-door demolition removed lateral support a heavy rainstorm was enough to make the house collapse. At Fenian Street, the long winter of rainfall had completely saturated the brickwork, so when the moisture quickly evaporated in the hot weather “nothing was left of the bricks except powder”. The heat had also caused the timbers in the house to become swollen and to push the walls outwards as they expanded. Mr Culliton, head of the dangerous buildings section of Dublin Corporation, added that this process had been exacerbated by the introduction of reinforced concrete roads, producing a greater transference of traffic vibration than from cobbled streets.
As the inquiry blamed the weather, the degrading yet unseen structural condition of chimneys, and the modernization of the capital’s infrastructure, it suddenly became clear that any house in the city of a similar construction could have been equally affected. The crisis of confidence in the structural viability of Dublin’s extant built stock precipitated what has become known as the dangerous buildings crisis of 1963-4. During the eighteen months which followed the Fenian Street collapse, around 1,200 of Dublins Georgian terrace houses and mews were destroyed, mainly in the north and east of the city. This process was ultimately accelerated by the latterly notorious Exempted Development regulations of the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act 1964, which, in an attempt to speed up the process, exempted demolition from construction work which required planning permission. The crisis had a sudden impact on the housing situation and land-use patterns within the city. Indeed, the housing problem was so severe that by February 1965, Dublin Corporation could only offer accommodation to families where seven or more were inhabiting one room, while in 1966, Uinseann MacEoin estimated that in the three previous years the dangerous buildings clearances alone had been responsible for the loss of 10,000 people from the central area.
This operational work by the Corporation was reinforced by a moral panic in the press regarding the condition of the city. Ailtire warned in the aftermath of the collapses that ‘only the most determined drive by the authorities can clear up the mess of the dangerous and largely insanitary slums forming the major portion of our glorious Georgian heritage’, while G. K. Ingram, writing in Hibernia, took a similar position:
We have been recently and dramatically reminded that old buildings can kill. As a result we can never again look at them with quite the clear starry eyes of the preservationist, for whom the past is always to be preferred to the present. The question of what we may put in their stead is a separate issue; but let no one deceive himself but that the present situation is extremely grave and perilous.
Sam Stephenson also took the opportunity to further his own cause in Fitzwilliam Street, writing to the Irish Times to speculate about the full-scale reconstruction of the city, and wishing ‘a plague ‑ bubonic or other approved ‑ on the preservationists’.
Despite the almost frenzied condemnation of the extant city as dangerous and the amply documented poverty and overcrowding of city centre housing, there was a significant minority of city centre residents who resisted Dublin Corporation’s attempts to remove them from their homes. In late July 1963, for example, a group of sixty adults and eighteen children refused to leave their condemned Georgian houses in Jervis and Wolfe Tone Street, located to the west of O’Connell Street. During this time, beds, sofas, and chairs were piled up on the pavements beside the houses, and the evicted slept under temporary shelters on the pavement. This stand-off between Corporation and residents took place because they had been offered either no accommodation or unsuitable accommodation by Dublin Corporation.