Thursday 14 January 2016

Housing and Morals – Dublin 1914

The Housing Committee of the Dublin Corporation has issued a statement, with a memorandum by the chairman, in reply to the recent report of the Departmental Commission on the housing of the workers in Dublin. It is not a very hopeful document. Since no effective machinery exists, or is likely at present to come into existence, for restraining the Corporation from dealing as it likes with the question, it goes far to destroy the fair promise of reform that came into view with the Departmental Commission's report. One of the most important of the recommendations, it will be remembered, was the gradual clearance of the slum areas and the erection of cottages in the healthy outskirts of the city. The Corporation, apparently, will have none of this. It insists that its present housing policy is the best and most practical in the present circumstances. That policy is one of tinkering with existing slums, of pulling down tenements here and there to erect new ones on the same or similar sites — in a word, of dealing with the question piecemeal.

The Corporation is reluctant to look economic facts in the face. It asserts that the main cause of the social evils of Dublin is the dire poverty of the greater part of the working classes. This is true enough. But it is a simple waste of words to say that "If work and wages were plentiful and ample the solution of the housing question would be simple." Of course it would; but work and wages are not plentiful and ample, and, as long as Dublin is a city of little manufacturing enterprise, so that the larger portion of the working classes are unskilled labourers, work and wages are not going to be plentiful and ample. If nothing is to be done until these conditions are altered, nothing will be done until long after the children of the tenement-dwellers of to-day have grown up and died in the appalling surroundings that now exist. It is regarded by the Corporation as unjust that the casual labourer should be removed to a healthy habitation in the outskirts of the city, because this would make him live at a distance from his chances of employment, and add to his expense and labour.

It does not seem to occur to these critics that, even if this consideration were wholly true — which it certainly is not — what the labourer and his family would gain in health, comfort, and cleanliness by their translation to the suburbs would more than recompense them for any incidental inconvenience. A secondary objection is raised to the proposed removal of the slum-dwellers to the suburbs. It is asked whether the small traders who cater for the wants of the workers must also migrate and open new shops, which might conceivably put them to more expense than they could afford. The plaintive dilemma is suggested that they must move or starve. It is more fair to ask, must the honest worker suffer so that the parasitic middleman may be protected? As a whole, the rejoinder of the Housing Committee displays a sad lack of imagination and vision.

One part of this document is more or less irrelevant, and, indeed, tiresome. This is the part where the chairman finds that the references in the Commission's report to immorality in Dublin "left a bad taste in his mouth." The Commissioners are told that this is dangerous ground, and that they should have been more careful when they trod it. It is not true to say that their report conveyed the impression that the tenement houses in Dublin generally are "haunts of vice." It did say that the dense overcrowding and congestion, and the almost entire absence of any decent privacy, necessarily and inevitably conduced to immorality; and this is perfectly true. The Corporation apologists go on to develop a general brief for the morality of Dublin. We are told that the figures submitted by the police of "crimes against morals" are very small, that the morality of the Irish people is extraordinary, that it is proverbial throughout the world, and much more to the same effect.

A vast amount of sickly cant is, and always has been, talked about the astonishing virtue of the Irish race. When it is intended to apply to Dublin such talk is really ludicrous. Whether the housing question has little or much to do with it, the fact remains that Dublin has been severely criticised.

The attempt to "vindicate the good name of Dublin" by calling in aid the police statistics of "crimes against morals" is not convincing. Everybody knows that the police are grossly lax in their duties in this connection. The remedy for this state of affairs may lie in various directions, but it certainly does not lie in the direction of shutting one's eyes to facts, and saying that Dublin is a paragon of virtue among cities. The people who say that it is demand evidence to the contrary. One wonders whether business or pleasure has never taken them through the chief thoroughfares of the city just after nightfall.

The Church of Ireland Gazette, 29th May 1914.

Images: Blackpitts, Dublin, 1914 (top) and other images from the Dublin Housing Enquiry 1914.

No comments:

Post a Comment