Credit: National Library of Ireland on The Commons @ Flickr Commons

From Land Reform to Local Housing: A brief history of housing in Ireland

Children near block of flats, Corpus Christi feast-day, Coleraine Street, Dublin Photo Credit: Picryl under CC licence

The claim that all improvements in living conditions are illusionary distractions was pioneered first by Lenin in What is to be Done? and updated as part of new left ideology in the 1960s by Marcuse and the Frankfurt School of Marxism. It still forms the basis of current identity politics in which the traditional working class is just one of many oppressed groups, and by far from being the coolest.

Housing and other necessities are not then regarded as ends in themselves, but as potentially disruptive factors. A housing crisis then is a means to an end, the end being social disorder that will lead to political crisis that will benefit the left.

Such thinking also demonstrates contempt for the ability of ordinary people to secure such material improvements through their own actions, and the workings of an open democratic society.

Evictions were a regular occurrence

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It also is ignorant of the extent to which democratic movements motivated by both Christian and left wing reformism genuinely thought that improving the conditions of working people was a moral imperative. And more to the point, that most working class people prefer the “economistic” gains in living standards derided by Lenin and his followers to being part of the bloody experiments of déclassé bourgeois monsters.

It also fails to recognise that capitalist economies uniquely had the surplus wealth and the democratic channels to ensure that the improvement in living standards was provided without class revolution ever having been a serious proposition. Indeed, there is no example of where a western working class movement chose the Marxist left when there were a range of other options that did not entail social collapse followed by complete state control.

The only successful working class revolution based on the power that workers had in the factories and shipyards was the Polish revolution that led to the overthrow of the Communist Party and hastened the collapse of Soviet Communism itself.

The Marxist prediction of inevitable impoverishment was indeed one of the first of its mystical predictions to be demolished. And that is without mentioning the fact that where socialism did capture state power, that it was universally incompetent for a whole range of economic and political reasons to provide the sort of living conditions, including housing, that were the norm in the democracies.

Likewise, radical supporters of free market solutions need to recognise that there are some things which the market cannot provide unhindered by any other criteria than profit. No one has seriously argued in almost two hundred years that sewerage, water supply, health, education or policing ought to be run solely by private enterprise. There is no reason then why rapacious investment funds ought now to be trusted with the ultimate control of housing.

The British administration in Ireland began to address public housing as part of the outworkings of the land reforms which transferred most of the ownership of agricultural land to the people who lived and worked on the land. Prior to that a tiny class of the descendants of colonial settlers owned almost all of the land in the country.

That social revolution was motivated not only by the need to pacify Ireland by removing the main economic and social force that threatened revolution in the late 19th century, but also by British Liberalism’s own desire to neutralise the power of the landed aristocracy.

State intervention in land reform then was motivated by the interests of British capitalism as well as a reformist realisation that the living conditions of huge numbers of working people in both islands required radical improvement as an end in itself.

In Ireland, this began as part of the rural land settlement, particularly after the Wyndham Land Purchase Act of 1903 which hastened the transfer of millions of acres to Irish tenant farmers. The transfer of land also raised the question of where a large agricultural work force was to live, as many were still in poorly constructed cabins. That gave rise to a series of Labourers Acts which facilitated the construction of 48,000 rural cottages before 1920.

Original 1906 Labourers’ Act Cottage (as pictured in 1977)

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Urban housing, remained in large part, a slough of disease and despair. Local authority housing had been encouraged by the Housing of the Working Classes Act (1890) but by 1914, Dublin Corporation had only built 1,400 units. In that year, a report showed that of more than 90,000 tenement dwellers almost 70% were living in very poor conditions, usually in one room, with an average of almost 15 people per unit.

A 1919 Act was to have initiated the building of over 60,000 new homes in Ireland before 1922, but by that stage, the southern part of the country had won independence.  Despite the commitments in the Proclamation and the Democratic Programme, the first Free State government was far more cautious when it came to any kind of social or economic initiative.

Part of that was due to the fact that the new state not only retained much of the old Dublin Castle administration, but created a Senate and a Banking Commission dominated by commercial and financial interests who seemed totally opposed to anything that would create a viable, prosperous and independent state. Thus they blocked measures to promote domestic industrial development, as well as investment in housing. Even by 1939, less than 40% of commercial bank assets were invested in Ireland.

The fact that Unionist holdover, James McElligott, dominated the Department of Finance for a quarter of a century and attempted to frustrate the more innovative policies of Fianna Fáil after 1932 says little for what influence the vision of Griffith or Collins had on the likes of Cosgrave and Blythe. Ironically, the sort of old landed interests which the Liberals had taken on, and largely neutralised in Britain itself, retained much more of their influence in the Free State than they might otherwise have done, up until the 1930s at least.

The attitude of the Protestant elite was epitomised by Sir John Keane who was appointed to the Senate under the Treaty settlement and was reappointed for some reason to the new Seanad by De Valera in 1938.

Keane, in objecting to the Fianna Fáil legislation to establish the Industrial Credit Corporation in 1933 told the Senate that there was no shortage of capital in the country but that those who had it had no faith in “untried enterprises…..They do not advance their money to people who come along with all kinds of patriotic ideas and pious hopes.” Which pretty much summed up the relationship between his class and the Irish people.

Apart from retaining supporters of the Protestant elite in the Seanad, De Valera selected a Banking Commission in 1938 that was dominated by people who were certain to oppose the more radical interventionist policies favoured by his own ministers like Seán Lemass.

The English Catholic newspaper The Tablet said of the Commission: “The primal mystery, a mystery that has never been solved, is why Mr. de Valera entrusted the task of reporting on his policy to a body of men notoriously unsympathetic to him.”

The majority report of the Banking Commission claimed that government initiatives like housing and the establishment of the Sugar Company were a waste of money and contributed to a decrease in external assets. The report blamed state intervention for the lack of private construction which was a ludicrous claim given that in the first ten years of the Free State just 29,193 houses were completed compared to 132,220 in the decade after 1932.

A Fianna Fail rally in the 1930s, the banner reads ‘Tir agus Teanga’ Credit: Irish History Links website

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Over the course of the first Cumann na nGaedhael government, there were just 26,500 new houses built. 10,000 of these were subsidised by local authorities and mostly in rural areas as part of the ongoing land purchase scheme overseen by the Land Commission. The state had, however, recognised that they had to do something and the 1931 Housing Act belatedly allowed for Compulsory Purchase of land to be used for housing.

Of the more than 80,000 new homes built between 1932 and 1942, some 60% were local authority houses. That compared to just over 38% under Cumann na nGaedhael. But even the latter indicates that a government dominated by 19th century laissez faire academic economic theory realised that the private sector could not be solely entrusted with providing people with homes.

The balance of construction also shifted more towards the cities where the need to eradicate the remaining slums was a pressing social and political issue. Indeed, it became the basis for Fianna Fáil hegemony among the urban working class that only ended with their final capitulation to the financial sector in 2010.

Fianna Fáil’s proposal in 1932 for a Housing Board would have given the state a much greater say in actual construction, and part of it was to have facilitated large scale co-operative projects which were popular at the time among people who were influenced by Catholic social teaching, but suspicious of direct state ownership.

On the other side of the argument, opponents of what they regarded as too much state involvement in housing stated that the large subsidies that could be reclaimed by construction companies, and the loss of re-sale value on former local authority houses when that came to be a factor in the 1960s was a “drain on the exchequer.”

Most state-supported housing before 1932 was in rural areas, whereas 60% of the new public housing in the following decade was urban, and concentrated in Dublin. The Dublin City architect Herbert Simms was one of the driving forces behind this, and one of those who deserves more recognition perhaps as a major contributor to fulfilling at least some of the social objectives of the revolution.

Herbert Simms built over 17,000 units in Dublin and is remembered as a dedicated social innovator whose buildings are noted for their interior and exterior design. Simms designed apartment buildings that replaced tenements, giving people a new way of living.

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Simms supervised the construction of thousands of what were high-quality inner city flats by the standards of the time, as well as the even more successful and socially beneficial housing estates in places like Cabra and Drimnagh in Dublin. This became the model for similar estates in Cork city.

Local authority tenants were able to buy their homes from the very beginning of large scale construction in the 1930s, and by 1973 they were also allowed to sell their own house once it had been fully purchased. By 1961, over half of the 48,000 rural cottages that had been built after 1936 had been bought. Private ownership of homes grew from less than half in the 1930s to over 70% in the 1970s.

Fianna Fáil had planned a far more extensive public housing programme from the moment they took power, but that was diluted again to a great extent by a civil service that was not only conventionally conservative in fiscal terms, but one suspects uneasy with what were regarded as moves to a more nationalist economic policy.

It also conflicted with the basic refusal of the banks to make available the investment funds that were required. In the end, that led to Fianna Fáil abandoning economic nationalism in the 1950s and opening up to foreign capital.

Within Fianna Fáil the financial elites were supported by Sean MacEntee, in particular, who deferred greatly to the civil service mandarins, and to the banks which were, not to put too fine a point on it, disinclined to support any national development. They continued to invest a huge proportion of their deposits through the London Stock market.

While many in Fianna Fáil and in society generally referenced Catholic social teaching as the rationale for more radical policies on housing, McEntee dismissed those arguments as being more like fascism or state socialism.

In the 1940s, Fianna Fáil’s perceived slackening in pushing ahead with a more extensive housing programme was one of the factors that led to the shedding of substantial republican working class support to Clann na Poblachta which became part of the Inter Party coalition in 1948 promising to pursue a more radical urban housing programme.

The 1948 white paper on housing which informed the Inter Party Housing Act set a target of 100,000 new homes by 1958, 60% of them to be built by local authorities. The new legislation included a grant of £275 for private house buyers. Local authority builds did increase significantly with more than 9,000 new builds completed in the first year.

Interestingly, those who claimed that the state intervention of earlier years would stimulate the private sector in a range of ways connected to the new economic policy of the 1950s, were supported by the fact that the majority of the 137,000 homes built between 1948 and 1964 were by private companies in the ratio of 55:45, a reversal of the pattern set since 1932. It could be argued then that state housing policy acted as a stimulus rather than an inhibitor of the private sector.

That did bring other problems as the 1960s saw the beginning of what was later revealed to have been an unhealthy relationship between politics and developers, particularly in Dublin. The vast bulk of capital expenditure on housing infrastructure remained public, at over 80%, and political patronage was clearly important in determining where much of that money was directed.

The economic growth of the 1960s which was projected to last into the next decades saw a target of 12 – 14,000 houses per year set by the 1964 white paper, legislated for in the 1966 Housing Act. Emphasis would continue to be on private construction, and the fact that 57,000 homes were completed between1964 and 1969, seemed to prove that the policy was working.


Dublin housing estate (file image)

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The accelerating demand for housing of higher standards as incomes and population grew led to a new annual target of 15 – 17,000 being set by the 1969 white paper, with an even greater emphasis on the private sector. The value of serviced land in the county had already increased by 700% during the 1960s. The 1973 Kenny Report highlighted this and future problems, but the state was content to allow things proceed as they were.

The following decades have seen two serious crises in the housing sector. These have reflected both societal change in Ireland, and the external shock of global economic factors. What appears to be different since the banking crisis of a decade ago which followed a period of over-supply, is that for the first time since the foundation of the state there is a persistent failure to meet targets for new builds.

That reflects a rapidly changing demographic that seems to be outside of the control of the Irish state. None of the main political parties seem to be willing to address that, let alone have the policies that can deliver or facilitate a housing policy that is socially cohesive. At least the earlier state did have some such vision beyond regarding the population and its needs as one economic factor in a melange in which it by no means claims primacy.


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