Ireland in May 1913
Poverty was a major problem in Dublin’s inner city in 1913, with thousands of families living in overcrowded, one-room units. Photo: Walter Osborne, The Fishmarket, Patrick Street, c. 1893: Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin

Ireland in May 1913

By Dr. Will Murphy

During the last days of April 1913 the Abbey Theatre staged a one-act drama by George Fitzmaurice. In the play, facilitated by nine pairs of magic glasses that he bought from an old woman he met on the way to the pattern at Lyre, thirty-eight year old Jaymony Shanahan has escaped into a fantasy world in the top loft of the house he occupies with his mother and father in rural Kerry. The visions Jaymony has when using The Magic Glasses are, he insists, ‘better than being in the slush – the same old thing every day – this is an ugly spot, and the people ignorant, grumpy and savage.’ Instead, secluded in the top loft, he sees worldly wonders and riches; he kisses a fantastical and beautiful woman (maybe two); he leads an army that drives the Saxon ‘through the plains of Desmond, and on and on, even to the Eastern sea.’ His parents and his brothers, respectable policemen both, are ‘lighting with shame on account of’ this behaviour and so the parents seek a cure from a ‘quack’, with fatal consequences for Jaymony. Jaymony Shanahan was not alone in finding the conditions of Irish life less than satisfying in the spring of 1913, but not equipped with magic glasses the Irish population sought its sometimes conflicting answers elsewhere.

Most obviously, the prospect of Home Rule continued to generate hopes and fears. On 24 January, a large meeting of pro-Home Rule Protestants, among them W.B. Yeats and Sir Nugent Everard, had taken place at the Antient Concert Rooms, Dublin. There they passed resolutions asserting that Protestants would not ‘suffer any curtailment of their civil and religious freedoms’ under Home Rule and arguing that self-government would prove ‘the most powerful solvent for sectarian animosities.’ Within a week, however, the overlap of political and sectarian animosities was all too evident at a closely fought by-election for the constituency of Londonderry and with the foundation of the Ulster Volunteers.

The Antient Concert Rooms were located on Great Brunswick Street in Dublin’s inner city. On some of the nearby streets more than two-thirds of the premises were tenements in which the urban poor lived in over-crowded one-room units with little, if any, sanitation. As recently as 1901 36% of Dublin families lived in such housing and, consequently, in that city in 1905 the death rate per thousand was 22.3, which was considerably worse than the figure for Liverpool or Birmingham or London.

When, in the March 1913 in the journal Studies, Conor Maguire, the district medical officer for Claremorris, County Mayo, argued that if the diseases of poverty were to be eradicated in urban and rural Ireland then the first priority had to be improved housing, he was contributing to a movement that had gained some recent ground. The Labourers’ (Ireland) Act of 1906 had provided significant funding for the construction of cottages for rural labourers – 39,241 of these were built in 1912 alone – but The Housing of the Working Classes (Ireland) Act of 1908 was proving a less effective mechanism for change in municipal districts. In calling for the isolation of tuberculosis sufferers, Maguire also reflected a contemporary trend, which saw the opening of sanitoria in Antrim, Cork and Dublin between 1906 and 1912. The Liberal government had facilitated these and other social reforms – including old age pensions and national insurance – in a flurry of welfare legislation introduced since their return to power in 1906.

In 1913 the route to a better life for many remained emigration: according to official emigration returns, 405,941 people (most of them unskilled) left Ireland between 1901 and 1912. Counties in the west of Ireland, where many continued to live on small holdings of poor land, still tended to have the highest rates of emigration. For others, acquiring ownership of land and increasing the size of their holdings seemed to promise prosperity: in the nine years following the introduction of the Wyndham Land Act of 1903 4.25 million acres changed hands, mostly from landlord to tenant. This change was rapid, but not quick enough for those who had not benefitted. In 1912 the RIC reported 307 agrarian outrages and 69 cattle drives across the country. Optimism around co-operation had begun to dim somewhat, but the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, founded in 1894, had around a thousand affiliated societies in 1913 whose members still believed that this movement was a vehicle of progress.

The provision of adequate housing for the working classes was a significant problem in municipal districts. This photograph shows Bridgefoot Street in Dublin in the early 20th century (Reproduced courtesy of Dublin City Public Libraries)

The urban working-classes, meanwhile, increasingly turned to trade unionism to improve their lot: by May 1913 the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, which had been founded as recently as December 1908, had about 15,000 members. In January 1913 Richard Corish and John Lynch, the leading figures in the ITGWU in Wexford and Sligo towns respectively, were elected to sit on their local corporations. When, in August 1911, Wexford employers had locked out workers rather than recognise the ITGWU, Corish led the trade union’s campaign. This had ended, in February 1912, in an effective victory for the union. In June 1912 Lynch took a leading part in a successful strike during a dispute with the Sligo Steam Navigation Company. Another strike began in March 1913, involving the same parties and the National Sailor’s and Firemen’s Union, and on 1 May this dispute, which had precipitated considerable violence and intimidation on both sides, was ongoing.

Activists for female suffrage, who were drawn largely from the urban middle-classes, believed that the parliamentary vote for women would bring not just equality but better governance. In January 1913 the Connacht Women’s Franchise League became the latest addition to a growing number of franchise organisations while, as January became February, four members of the Irish Women’s Franchise League were imprisoned at Tullamore when they protested their ongoing ‘votelessness’ by smashing windows in government offices. Within days they went on hunger strike, demanding treatment as political prisoners.

This desire for improvement was also manifest when a series of local government bodies, often assisted by the Carnegie Trust, opened of a series of public libraries in the early years of the century. This included Youghal library, which opened in March 1913. From 1911 the reading matter of the increasingly literate population had become the subject of considerable public controversy, a controversy driven largely, though not exclusively, by conservative Catholic organisations. This theme featured heavily in the Lenten pastorals of February 1913 with Bishop O’Donnell of Raphoe claiming that the campaign had constituted ‘a national uprising against evil literature because it is alien, debasing and corrupting.’

The same guardians of public morals had similar concerns about those new spaces for popular entertainment, cinemas, into which the urban population escaped in rapidly growing numbers. On 24 March 1913 one of these ‘new picture palaces’, which could seat 500 people, opened on Rathmines Road. Spectating at sport was another, evermore popular, diversion. The final of the GAA’s Croke Memorial Tournament between the football teams of Kerry and Louth, scheduled for 4 May, generated such excited anticipation that Frank Dineen, the owner of the venue, the sports grounds on Jones’ Road, modified his stadium to increase its capacity to 10,000. Months earlier, in October 1912, Shelbourne FC had launched a limited company to fund the construction of new grounds aimed at capitalising upon this craving for sport.

If then, unlike Jaymony Shanahan, one left one’s loft on 1 May 1913 one could find an Ireland characterised by ‘the same old thing every day’, but one could also find people animated by contested ideas and ambitions, changing economic and social conditions, vibrant popular cultures, and an increasingly polarised politics.

Dr. Will Murphy is a lecturer in Irish Studies at the Mater Dei Institute of Education, Dublin City University. This article is adapted from a chapter he published in Paul Daly, Ronan O’Brien and Paul Rouse eds., Making the Difference?: The Irish Labour Party, 1912-2012 (Collins Press)

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