Iveagh House / The Iveagh Hostel – Since 1905

The construction of Iveagh House was to form a prominent element of Edward Cecil Guinness’ plan to completely regenerate the area between St. Patrick’s Cathedral & Christ Church under the Dublin (Bull Alley Area) Improvement Act of 1899.

Iveagh House (later called the Iveagh Hostel) on Bride Road, a massive hostel for single men, was completed in 1905. Five storeys in height with a basement, and almost 61 metres in length, Iveagh House was one of the largest residential buildings in Dublin. Conducted on the same principles as houses built in London under the direction of Lord Rowton, Iveagh House was very similar to them in design. Messrs. Joseph and Smithem were the architects assisted by Kaye, Parry & Ross. Messrs. Samuel H. Bolton & Sons, a well-known Rathmines contractor, was responsible for building Iveagh House as well as the dwellings nearby and almost all the building materials were Irish.

Described on completion as “a palatial workmen’s hotel” it contained 508 cubicles on the four upper floors while on the ground floor were public facilities including a dining room, smoking room & reading room. Ample sanitary facilities, a wash-house and barber’s shop were among the many amenities. A striking feature was the amount of light and air in the vast building, achieved by the outline plan, like a letter “E”, and an immense number of windows, each of the 508 cubicles had its own window.

Each cubicle measured 7ft 6 inches x 5ft. The divisions were made with wood finished at a distance of 18 inches from the ceiling so as to secure ventilation without interfering with privacy. The walls of the passages and indeed much of the interior were lined with glazed tiles.

The Hostel soon became a well-known welfare institution, making a major contribution to the alleviation of accommodation needs among the homeless of Dublin. It should be remembered that in the early 20th century Dublin was an exceptionally harsh place for the poor and contained perhaps the largest proportion of abjectly poor people to be found in any European city of comparable size. It seemed that the Hostel gave better value for money and greater freedom than other institutions for the poor and homeless established in the city.

Rents at the Hostel were low at 7d per night or 3/6 per week from 1909 to 1926 and 10d per night or 5/6 per week up to 1940, and most agreed that the facilities were better and more varied than in other institutions. All types of adult men were housed in the hostel but principally labourers, many of them newly-arrived rural migrants seeking work in Dublin.

  • Opened:
  • Total Rooms
    508 (Cubicles)
  • Rent
    10d nightly (1909 - 1926)
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Although routine was strict, there were no attempts to interfere with the private lives of residents in the Hostel any more than required by a partially-communal life. The right to privacy was indeed a basic principal in all the Rowton Houses. For example, residents had separate bedrooms and personal lockers and, while meals were available, all residents could bring in their own food and cook it themselves if they so wished. Gambling and alcohol were forbidden but the Hostel eschewed the characteristic Victorian compulsion “to dole out charity with an improving Christian homily”. This was for many a congenial feature of the place, and it reflected not only Rowton’s principles but the conviction of the first Earl of Iveagh that the Trust must not indulge in proseltyising and scrupulously avoid any sectarian bias.

Inevitably the Hostel became a target of Dublin wit, proclaimed as “the last refuge of boozers” for example, and in card rooms alluded to as “the only destination for a player who has lost his shirt”. Dublin women were said to detest the Hostel as it rendered their husbands too independent by providing a refuge from the spouse’s tongue! But perhaps there was general recognition that the Hostel served a vital humane purpose in the city sparing many from a truly miserable predicament.

In May 1919, there was a strike of the Hostel staff which led to temporary closure of the building. When the residents were turned out, their plight won wide public sympathy and the strikers were widely condemned.

The Hostel was a popular place for demobbed soldiers including some who were suffering from “shell shock”. After the First World War several old soldiers were well-known in the Liberties, including a character called ‘grenade’ who threw imaginary hand grenades during his fits.

Most residents used the Hostel as a temporary base but some had long term attachments and came to regard it as their home. There was invariably a quota of genuine down-and-outs, men who would not or could not work, others perhaps dependent on meagre allowances from embarrassed relatives. Rumour had it there was often “a small class of persons of superior education” among residents, and even the relatives of peers fallen on hard times. Dubliners doubtless delighted to exaggerate the number of such people and their status, but allegedly, duchesses and titled ladies had been observed visiting their unfortunate relatives. However, the conventions of the poor were dominant in the Hostel; residents, remarked The Irish Times, had to be dressed in character, and if not a working-man must never advance a step beyond the ‘shabby-genteel’. The first Lord Iveagh must have been a skilled master of disguise, since it was said he frequently paid unexpected visits to the Hostel and inspected the workings of the place, but was not recognised by residents.

Several men who became well known literary figures stayed in the Hostel, including novelist Liam O’Flaherty and the poet Patrick Kavanagh. O’Flaherty was invalided out of the army in 1917 suffering from shell shock and stayed in the Hostel on his return to Dublin. Patrick Kavanagh makes no reference to the Hostel in his works but he stayed there after his arrival in Dublin from Monaghan in 1939 and had a high opinion of the place. Val Vousden, popular poet, playwright and a regular broadcaster in the early days of Radio Eireann, lived for a long period in the Hostel, making no secret of the fact.

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Considerable fluctuations occurred in the number of lodgers, reflecting a variety of factors. During the Great War 1914 – 1918, there was a sharp fall in demand for rooms at the Hostel as many of the customary users were recruited into the armed forces. At the end of the war however, demand rose sharply, owing to demobilisation and an acute housing shortage in the country generally. From 1918 – 1926, the level of demand was notably high; the average number of residents per night exceeded 500 and virtually all available rooms were regularly filled.

The level of demand fell off in the late 1920’s, stabilised somewhat in the early 1930’s but subsequently declined again, a trend sharply accentuated by the Second World War when, as in 1914-18, many of the lodgers served in the British forces. Capacity levels were restored in the immediate post-war years but in the 1950s, a time of general economic stagnation, there was again a trend of decline in the number of residents.

In the early 1940s disquiet was expressed from time to time among the Trustees about falling receipts at the Hostel and special efforts were called for to encourage permanent lodgers by increased attention to their welfare. However, little physical change occurred in the Hostel until the 1950s. The Hostel was then running at a considerable financial loss but a sustained programme of improvements was nevertheless carried out. In 1954 steam boilers were converted to oil fuel, permitting central heating of the cubicle floors as well as improved washing facilities. In 1956 the entire building was repainted and the public rooms redecorated; in 1957 the second and fourth cubicle floors were completely redecorated and the electric wiring in the building entirely renewed in 1958. By 1960 the Hostel was charging 3/3 per cubicle per night or 16/3 per week.

There was a noticeable improvement in the level of use in the 60s associated with economic prosperity and increased employment for labourers in the city, as well as the improved hostel facilities which attracted residents. Demand at the Hostel was in the right direction but receipts still did not cover the expenses of the enormous building. In 1969 the cubicles on the first floor were refurbished, reducing the number from 127 – 117. Differential charges were then introduced.

In the 1970s the number of residents began to decline steadily, a trend which continued in the 80s. The average number of lodgings per night fell from 438 in 1970 to 282 in 1980 and 109 in 1987. Clientele was not only much reduced in size but changed in character. Many of the men staying in the hostel had been made redundant; the younger ones were able to move away from Dublin to find employment but the older residents were left behind to form the basis of a relatively settled community.

A declining number of lodgers in the 70’s combined with inflation and rapidly rising costs seriously worsened the financial situation of the Hostel. Heavy deficits were incurred, which would have been unmanageable without Corporation and Government grants. Financial support from various arms of Government was first received in 1975. Although the Hostel could not be run on an economic basis the Trust felt a strong responsibility to the remaining body of residents and obliged to keep the Hostel running. Demand was far from capacity levels but nevertheless not insignificant. In the early 1980s well over 100,000 beds were let in the course of a year.

If the Hostel was to continue, then it had to be put on a better financial footing. This would involve progressive conversion of the unused portions of the building to new uses consistent with the changing accommodation needs of the time. Simultaneously, the special requirements of the ageing residents had to be catered for and general facilities improved despite the adverse financial situation.

Taken from The Iveagh Trust – The First Hundred Years, 1890 – 1990 by F.H.A. Aalen.