I have just finished reading a book which had an unexpected but telling effect on what I had thought were my previously well informed views on poverty. I have written in the past of the Slum Clearance Programmes of the 1930s and how the young men from Athy broken down by unemployment and unhealthy living conditions enlisted in their hundreds in 1914 to escape the daily grind of poverty. It is only when I read the recently published book on Dublin Tenements by Terry Fagan, whose mother was the last corporation tenant to leave the tenements of Foley Street that I began to understand the real meaning of poverty.
‘Dublin Tenements’ published by the Dublin inner city folklore project consists of former tenement tenants recounting their memories of life in the tenements of our principal city. Reading the accounts of life in the Dublin tenements we are reminded that the housing enquiry established by the Local Government Board which reported in 1914 concluded that over 75% of tenement families lived in single room accommodation. The same report indicated that three out of every ten individuals in Dublin lived in tenements.
The measured statements of official reports don’t however give us an insight into the real meaning of poverty. It was only when I read the accounts in ‘Dublin Tenements’ that I began to understand the extent and nature of poverty as it affected families on this island in years past.
‘We had a large family and there was no electricity or gas in the room. The rooms were so small that you could only fit one bed in them. My sister slept in the bed with my mother and my father. My brothers and me had to sleep on the floor. We had a blanket to cover us and on top of that we had old coats to keep us warm. I also remember that we had to put down a coat on the floor at the bottom of the hall door in the night time to stop the breeze coming under.’
Those were the words of Billy Kearns born in 1925 who lived in Corporation Buildings. Maggie Hanlon who was born in 1924 in Elliott Place later moved with her parents to Railway Street and it was there that she lived when she got married. She reared six children in one room and recalled:- ‘We had two beds. The six children slept in one bed three girls up the top and the three boys down the bottom and myself and my husband in the other bed .....The children slept with a sheet over them and on top of that were old coats to keep them warm because the room was freezing cold.’
Overcrowding and poor living conditions created the ideal conditions for the spread of T.B. Bridie Kelly, born 1929, remembered how ‘tuberculosis was everywhere ..... if a child died at home the child would be waked on a table in the room. There would be a collection made to buy a little coffin. The child would be put into the little coffin and kept in the room for two days and two nights. They never went to the Church because they were not allowed to, whether they were baptised or not.’
Tenement families had little money and barely enough food to survive. Accounts of children with pinched faces and pale appearances facing into school without breakfast is a common feature of stories included in the book. George Reilly, born in 1920 in Sean McDermott Street recalled how ‘the poor looked after the poor with the help of the nuns. You shared your food with your neighbour ..... the slaughter houses in Moore Street used to sometimes give out the cows head and sheep’s head to the poor who came begging ..... I always remember the soup off the sheep’s head was lovely when it was boiled for hours in the pot.’
The poverty of the tenement era is not to be found today, even if in the present recessionary times there are families under severe financial strain. I was reminded of the differences between the present and the recent past on reading a piece by my brother George in a recently published book of reminiscences by pupils and teachers of Dromard in north County Longford. George was appointed principal of Moyne National School in 1961. Each of the small classrooms in that school was heated by an open fire which were lit by the principal each morning. George recalled ‘there were no firelighters in those days. My fire lighter was Benny Duffy who lived down the road. Benny was despatched home with a bucket containing a few dry sods of turf. He arrived back with a few fiery sods in the same bucket. When the first fire was up and running the other fires were lit.’ He also went on to recall how ‘the blackboard in my room was over the fireplace – a square of floor lino painted black.’
Conditions in that country school just 50 years ago were primitive compared to what we know of schools today. However, it was the brutally primitive conditions once found in the Dublin tenements which brought home to me the reality of poverty in the days preceding the Great Lockout.