Dublin between the defeat of the 1916 Rising and the resurgence of the revolution after 1917 was a grim place for many of its inhabitants. A Local Government Board report in 1917 on the health of mothers and children stated that the infant mortality rate in the city was 160.3 per 1,000. 9% of children born in the city died before they reached the age of one. To put that into perspective it was around twice the current child mortality rate of even the most impoverished and conflict ridden African countries.
In one week alone, in April 1917, eighteen children had died of measles in Dublin. Destitution haunted tens of thousands and unemployment was a virtual death sentence, but even having a job was no guarantee of surviving the grim streets on which Big Jim Larkin had once thundered witnessed the daily crucifixion of Christ. In the first week of April, 1917, the St. Joseph’s Night Refuge on Cork Street run by the Sisters of Mercy had taken in 539 women workers and their children.
There were those who thrived like cockroaches on the city’s misery. The women who ran the brothels with the help of male thugs, or “bullies” as they were known in Dublin parlance, seem to be partly glorified in Joyce’s Ulysses. They were anything but romantic rebels against convention. One of them was Eliza Mack who ran a brothel in Mecklenburgh Street. She lived at 85 Lower Tyrone Street which became Railway Street. In the 1901 Census, her “lodgers” are variously listed as a dressmaker, lace maker, waitress, milliner, housemaid and servant. They were all aged between 21 and 32, Mack was 50, and all other than perhaps the servant were prostitutes.
None of the women in the house were born in Dublin and two of them were English. Mack herself was born in Cork, which lends credence to the belief that most of the women working in the “kips” were originally from outside of the city and had been forced by one means or another to work for the likes of Mack. As they aged and their looks faded like Dicey Reilly they moved to cheaper rougher establishments and eventually onto the streets. Becky Cooper was another of the main brothel keepers who also had a house on Mecklenburgh Street. Some have speculated that Joyce based his Bella Cohen on Becky Cooper, although curiously there was a 58 year old Anne Cohen who lived at 14 Mecklenburgh Lane in 1901.
Cooper’s brother, John “Chanters” or “Shankers” Ryan, who was a Military Policeman was shot dead by the IRA Squad in Hynes pub 19 Lower Gloucester Place on February 6, 1921. He had been the tout who had led the Auxies to the house on Gloucester Street, now Seán MacDermott Street, where Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy were staying on November 20, 1920. Ryan lived on Railway Street and Gloucester Place connected it to Gloucester Street.
Among those others who fed off the desperation of the poor were the moneylenders. On November 20, 1917, two moneylenders, a mother and daughter Josephine and Mary McMahon of 2 Lower Gardiner Street were fined a total of £30 for charging exorbitant interest rates – calculated at 1300% over the year – and having kept the papers of women who were married to soldiers to ensure that they would repay what was owed from the “separation” or “ring” money. In one case a woman who had borrowed 23 shillings – £1 3s – was liable to pay back £4 12s.
One of the causes of lack of money was the high cost of housing, even for those who were working. Apart from that the standard of housing in Dublin was bad. That did lead to the Corporation to propose a number of housing schemes in the city, but they were not greeted with much enthusiasm by anyone. Land owners demanded high prices for sites, and others objected to the poor quality of the housing proposed.
In September an inquiry by P.C Cowan of the Local Government Board, who wrote a report on the housing situation in Dublin, assessed the application of the city authorities for a £191,150 loan to build houses. The standard set for the homes does not sound very attractive. They were to consist of three rooms, with a nine foot by seven foot bedroom with no provision for hot water or baths as they were deemed to be too expensive. There were to be 26 houses per acre which both the Tenants Association, who argued for a maximum of ten, and the Dublin Watch Committee, believed was too congested and would create new slums. Rents were set at between 6s and 10s a week, which was thought too high for many on low incomes.
As the extension of a limited franchise to women seemed increasingly likely, a meeting in the Mansion house on March 14 1917 proposed that the enfranchisement of women be made an integral part of any solution of the “Irish question.” The meeting was supported by a disparate range of organisations; from the Irish Catholic Women Suffrage Association to the Conservative and Unionist Suffrage Association. Mrs. De Burgh Daly of the Church League for Women Suffrage referred to the fact that some Dublin women were earning as little as 10 or 12s a week, and some girls as little as 6s, and that that alone entitled them to an “unanswerable claim to a share in the government of the country.”
The Unionists and Redmondites, fearful of the outcome of an election held on a much wider franchise, began to equivocate on the whole issue of the expanded franchise, including for women. There were even proposals that Ireland be excluded from the new legislation so as not to threaten the status quo. It was alleged that the Irish Tories and Redmondites were attempting to apply pressure on Lloyd George to hold any new general election on the old register.
At a meeting on October 30 1917, presided over by Lord Mayor O’Neill, opposition was made clear to any attempt to exclude Ireland from a new electoral act. When confronted over his new stance on the issue of women’s suffrage, Redmond had apparently said that he had not changed his mind. A message from Arthur Griffith to the meeting declared that Sinn Féin “repudiated the authority of men who pretended to represent Ireland attempting to prevent Irish men and Irish women receiving their franchise which was their right.”
Although Catholic social activists supported improving the lot of working people, most of the efforts of Catholic groups were taken up with moral issues. Count Plunkett, father of Joseph executed following the Rising and who had won the North Roscommon seat as an abstentionist republican candidate in February 1917, spoke at a Catholic Truth Society conference on October 11. His main focus was on the dangers facing Irish girls who travelled to England to work in munitions factories, given that England was now a “largely paganised country.”
Fr. R. Devane spoke on the dangers of socialism. As workers acquired expanded political rights the question was whether they would abide by Catholic social teaching, or embrace atheistic socialism. The key to ensuring that they would follow the Faith of their Fathers was for the church to reach out to the working man and to “espouse the cause of the weak and oppressed.” In common with most Catholic activists, he was careful not to disparage Connolly who he said had “spoke on behalf of the oppressed through the compelling mouths of Mauser rifles,” but that what was really required was the formation of a Catholic Social League, similar to that founded in Cork.
The Cork league had been formed in July 1917 by Professor Alfred O’Rahilly in frustration at the refusal of the local St. Vincent de Paul society to seriously address issues such as the exploitation of workers in Cork. The type of “Catholic Action” decried by O’Rahilly was epitomised in Dublin by the Vigilance Association or Committee which was obsessed with “evil literature” and the nefarious impact of the theatre and cinema rather than the conditions of life of the objects of their moral concern.
In October 1917 the Vigilance Association managed to persuade Dublin Corporation to appoint two of its members, E.M Gough and A.J Murray as voluntary film censors. That was proposed by Sir Charles Cameron, who was in charge of the Public Health Department for the Corporation. He was also a leading Freemason in Dublin, and the Corporation was still dominated by members of the Irish Party and Unionists in 1917. The desire to police public morality was by no means the preserve of militant Catholics, and was a common feature of all western countries after World War I. The Vigilance Committee attended screenings of what they deemed to be immoral films and then reported them to the Corporation in an effort to persuade cinema owners to withdraw the offending items.
As the national struggle began to intensify so too did the strains produced by external events. In 1918 they were to range from the attempts to introduce conscription in the final months of World War I, to the devastation caused by the influenza and pneumonia epidemic that beset the city later in the year. All of that impacted upon the politics of Dublin with increased social tension around housing and workers wages and conditions.
At its AGM in January, the Dublin Watch Committee continued to call for more urgency and higher standards in relation to housing in the city. They were also concerned, in the spirit of civic responsibility, as were the religiously motivated guardians of public morality, with the consequences of sexual misadventure. Mrs. Tarpey said that there was an urgent need to tackle the problem of venereal disease, and that there was “something absolutely rotten” about Dublin.
Republicans also saw the need to tackle the terrible poverty that afflicted the city. A meeting of the South Dublin Guardians heard a proposal from the Wood Quay Sinn Féin cumann that part of the rates be used to buy food at wholesale cost price to be sold to the poor. The chairman said that they had no power to do any such thing. Sinn Féin had established a committee to prevent the export of food to Britain. Its Director of Food, Diarmuid Lynch had been arrested following the seizure of pigs on the North Circular Road en route to the North Wall and the boat. Matters did not end well for our porcine friends as apparently they were brought to Donnelly’s pig factory on Cork Street and slaughtered.
The Dáil continued to push such a policy and also supported the introduction of tillage rather than the rearing of animals for live export, but given the interests of many farmers in the latter, and the fact that many had done well during the war, there were obvious tensions over such notions within the movement. Such madness as buying food for the poor would certainly not have impressed the prudent bourgeois of the Dublin Chamber of commerce who demanded an inquiry into Corporation accounts as they felt that the burden of paying for the workhouses and asylums was too onerous.
Some had a sunnier view of the city despite its apparent woes. A Daily Express visitor enthused about the “streets, brilliantly lighted.. thronged with gay crowds. The men discuss Sinn Féin or sport and the women the “pictures.” The great DMP languidly stroll along with nothing to do and plenty of time to do it.” That would not last long.
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