'The Lousy Acre'

"To see the abject squalor of Dublin in its very depths one has only to walk along by St Patrick’s, and particularly the street which joins the two cathedrals – a street consisting of two rows of tumbledown, mouldy-looking houses, reeking of dirt, and oozing with the disgusting smell of accumulated filth of many generations, with old petticoats hung up instead of curtains, and very often instead of glass in the dilapidated windows.”

The Liberties of Dublin can be considered the oldest part of Ireland’s capital; it was the home of St Patrick’s and Christ Church cathedrals, the Guinness brewery at St James’ Gate, and, in the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth, the heartland of the slum. The area’s name implies freedom, however for many this area was a prison. Considered by some as the "legacy from the days of British misgovernment", reckoned by others as a result of "inherent moral indolence" by the poor themselves; one point almost everyone agreed on throughout their existence was that, "the slums must go.

Since Dublin’s establishment in the tenth century as a Viking town, the city had prevailed through a multitude of harrowing political, social and economic transformations, with the late nineteenth and twentieth century as arguably the most rapid and seminal. Throughout these major challenges and transformations of Dublin’s structure, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Liberties, situated in today’s Dublin 8, became the stronghold of Dublin’s poor, where filth, grime, disease and economic paralysis prevailed.

One of the poorest and most dilapidated districts throughout the city’s history, the area housed some of the poorest of the working classes, packed into unsafe tenements, both structurally and hygienically, where disease flourished and money was scant. Although this was not the only area that was rife with poverty within the city’s boundaries, it was arguably the most extreme case of it.

Credit: Chloe Michelle O'Reilly, an extract from: The Iveagh Trust of Dublin: A Constructed Community, 1889-1939

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Dublin: A Crumbling Capital

Street after street and lane after lane, it was here that impoverishment and squalor thrived.

"While at every three doors is a tavern, which in the midst of these hovels resembles a palace."

Indeed, the poverty in this area was extreme. On the announcement of Guinness’s gift, the Irish Times described the living conditions of those in the area:

"Of light there is little; of air there is none … of food there is the smallest quantity … of soap and water there is what an analyst would call a “trace”; of parasites, and granular conjunctivitis, an abundance; and of bad whiskey and worse porter probably a good deal."

This description of what the poverty-stricken section of the working class faced on a day-to-day basis in their homes is an apt one. Like these slums, Dublin city was deteriorating itself, crumbling economically with rigid political and social divisions splitting into many diverse fragments. A lack of industrialisation within the city, and evacuation of prominent citizens from its boundaries, coupled with the rising tension among both class, religious and political sections, were just a handful of ingredients contributing to the fading of the city.

The process of tenement creation, and their disintegration into morbid slums, was greatly accelerated in the nineteenth century by a multitude of issues, which further fuelled the grime, stench, and wretchedness of these living arrangements. Intertwining with political, social and economic factors, class divisions and the Victorian questions of the morality of the poor were integral to both the creation of such slums, and the cautious approach taken towards eradicating them.

Although the slums can be understood as merely a poisonous circumstance of urban living in a city lacking in economic and industrial incentives, the Victorian mentality of morality, of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor as well as the prevailing political-economic mentality of laissez-faire, which strove to maintain the ‘natural’ economic and social order, only intensified the situation. Politically, the introduction of the Act of Union in 1801 was one contributing factor that gave way to the deterioration of magnificent Georgian mansions into rotting buildings divided into shacks, further aiding the deterioration of Dublin into a crumbling capital.

Credit: Chloe Michelle O'Reilly, an extract from: The Iveagh Trust of Dublin: A Constructed Community, 1889-1939

Image - Patrick Street - The National Library of Ireland

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