Credit: Dublin City Library and Archive

ON THIS DAY: 15 JANUARY 1921: Homelessness in Dublin becoming more acute

Dublin's poor circa 1918. Photo Credit: Dublin City Library Archive

The St Vincent de Paul Society who ran a Free Night Shelter in Dublin City centre released figures for the year to date. They indicated there were a total of 16,785 admissions the previous year year (1920), a 5,180 increase on the year previous to that. In addition the number of free meals supplied has increased by 9,401 to reach a new total of 26,801.

The Annual Report issued by the shelter documented a breakdown of the people seeking their support and services. They were not all elderly or sick. The numbers included labourers, skilled artisans and clerks who were down on their luck or may have just survived a severe illness and could not get by.

The report highlighted that people were living week to week – in fact a large section of society – they were unable to save during times of good health and employment to carry them through hard times like a fall in work or trade.

‘One cannot be surprised to find among them cases not of depravity, but simply of neglect’, the report stated. ‘For them a visit – a stay of a few nights in the shelter – is a great grace.’ Their time there ‘revives memories of early instructions’ and activates in them ‘an energising love for God which is so easily awakened in our Irish working class.’

‘The cost of food, fuel, lighting, and living expenses had all increased substantially and the Society are forced to make urgent appeal for help in this Christlike work.’

The continuing homeless and housing crisis in Dublin started in the 1870’s and the ruling British authorities failed to act in any meaningful way. In 1911 Dublin had the worst housing condition of any city in the UK. It had extensive slums in previously fashionable streets and squares such as Henrietta Street and Mountjoy Square. As the wealthy moved into the suburbs over the course of the previous century, their buildings were left to the rent-paying poor.

The tenements in inner city Dublin were over-crowded and dangerous .There were no facilities; whole families were squeezed into a room of one of these buildings and the families had a large number of children. It was reported that 835 people lived in 15 houses Henrietta Street alone. The families were dependent on casual labour and were often unemployed, unable to feed their children. Often times the houses were freezing and the tenants did not have money to buy fuel; a fire would be lit only at night to conserve fuel and everything that could be burnt was burnt. The women living in the house looked after the communal areas and scrubbing the floors and the stairs was a daily occurrence. Though times were very hard, there were strong families with a strong sense of communities with former tenement dwellers saying that everyone looked out for each other and trusted one another. Everyone was in the same boat; clothes and food were shared amongst everyone.

Dublin city in early 1900’s

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There were slums all across Dublin and nearly 26,000 families lived in inner city tenements, the vast majority of these were confined to one room. Often times, cousins and wider family members shared accommodation, helping with rent and other chores.

Death was always around the corner; infection, disease and poor diet meant that tenement dwellers died young and there was a very high child mortality rate. The tenements were in effect dangerous slums and though Dublin Corporation employed men to inspect the buildings, disasters still took place. The Corporation was rife with corruption. There were several reports of buildings collapsing leaving all or some of the dwellers dead. On Tuesday, 2nd September 1913, two Dublin tenement houses in Church Street collapsed and 7 people in the adjoining house died; it sparked a public outcry and a inquiry was commissioned by the state.

Freemans Journal reporting on the tenement house collapse

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The Dublin Housing Inquiry was set up 1913 and they issued a damning report. It found that 16 members of the Corporation owned tenements and that there were many failures in regulating against themselves. According to Dublin city archives 3 of them in particular were named;  Alderman O’Reilly who owned 9 tenement houses, Alderman Corrigan who owned 19 and Cllr Crozier who owned 18 such houses. There were also other members who owned between 1 and 3 houses each. Ironically most of the Corporations own sanitary officers had condemned most of these properties as unfit for human habitation. They did, eventually, knock down some buildings but nothing in the scale that was needed.

The major Churches, religious organizations and charities were often overwhelmed with the on going crisis. Children were taken into care for stealing food, orphaned or abandoned; the sick, unemployed, widowed, or the orphaned had to rely on the charity of strangers, many ending up in Mountjoy prison for begging or vagrancy. Hospitals were run by both Protestant and Catholic organizations or religious orders to help the sick and in particular for childbirth to improve the high levels of death in childbirth.


Nuns giving out bread to Dublin’s poor Photo credit: RTÉ archive

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In 1918 the poverty and living conditions were no better, the 1st world war still raging (though soon coming to end) and it meant there was a shortage of food and supplies which affected everyone.  This year in 9th November the SVP launched an appeal for funds, the Day of the Dublin Poor, to help the suffering caused by poverty and want in the city.

The SVP was founded in 1844, a Christian voluntary organization whose focus was and is on a practical approach to dealing with poverty through person to person contact.





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