Early 20th century Dublin Slums

By 1900, the population of Dublin was over 400,000 and it was often described as “the second city of the British Empire”. However, this growth in population also brought an increased level of poverty. The city was infamous for its large number of slums and tenements: almost 26,000 families lived in 5,000 tenements. Of the 5,000, over 1,500 had been condemned as being unfit for human habitation. Over 20,000 families lived in a single room, whilst another 5,000 had only two rooms.

In 1901, the infant mortality rate in Dublin was 168 deaths per 1000 babies born, whilst in the rest of Ireland it was 101 per 1000 births. Even in London the infant mortality rate was better: 148 per 1000 births. The other factor in Dublin’s high death rate was tuberculosis. The death rate from tuberculosis was 50% higher in Ireland than it was in England and Scotland, and the vast majority of these deaths occurred in poor families, especially those living in a single room.

By 1913, the situation had declined further; one third of Dublin’s population lived in the slums, 30,000 families lived in 15,000 tenements. Every year, an estimated 4 million pledges were taken at pawnbrokers. Poverty in Dublin was maintained by the lack of employment opportunities for unskilled workers. Before the creation of trade unions in Ireland, unskilled workers lacked representation and because there were many more workers than jobs, the unskilled workers often had to compete with one another for work every day. The job usually went to the worker who agreed to work for the lowest wage.

The development of trade-unionism

James Connolly
Public DomainJames Connolly
The employment opportunities open to unskilled workers in Dublin were completely controlled by their employers. If a worker was suspected of trying to organize his co-workers, his chances of future employment would be all but destroyed.  

A first step towards increasing the rights of workers was taken when James Larkin created the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), the first Irish Trade Union which had both skilled and unskilled workers as members. The ITGWU became increasingly popular and spread to other cities in Ireland. Between 1911 and 1913, its membership soared from 4,000 to 10,000 and it had its first taste of success after winning several strikes by carters and railway workers in 1911.

Another important figure in the rise of the trade union in Ireland was James Connolly. In 1896, he established the Irish Socialist Republican Party and became involved with the ITGWU in 1910. In 1912, Connolly and Larkin formed the Irish Labour Party, which was supposed to represent the workers in the Home Rule Bill debate in Parliament, which never actually happened.

In August 1913, William Martin Murphy, a highly successful businessman from Co. Cork, sacked over 300 of his workers who he suspected of being members of the ITGWU. This was followed by strikes by the workers on Dublin’s tram system at the end of August. The bad feeling between both sides escalated and the ensuing industrial dispute was the most severe in Irish history. Many employers locked out their workers and employed black-leg labour from Britain, whilst the workers had to try and survive on hand-outs from the Trades Union Congress. The strikers used intimidation and mass pickets against the strike breakers, and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) baton-charged workers’ rallies. In August 1913, the (DMP) killed two workers and injured hundreds more during a rally on Sackville Street (present day O’Connell Street). This was followed by a worker being shot dead by a strike breaker. Larkin, Connolly, and an ex-British Army Captain Jack White decided that enough was enough and established a worker’s army, the Irish Citizen Army to protect workers’ demonstrations.

The battle for independence

In 1914, Ireland seemed almost within touching distance of self-government, with the British government’s intention to pass the Home Rule Bill. However the outbreak of the First World War led to the Home Rule Bill being put to one side and led some Irish nationalists, including John Redmond, leader of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Parliamentary Party, to call on nationalists to join the British Army. This caused a split among Irish nationalists; thousands of Irishmen did join the British Army (predominantly from the working class where unemployment was high), but others refused and prepared instead to fight for Irish Independence.


The Easter Rising

General Post Office Easter Rising Plaque
Public DomainGeneral Post Office Easter Rising Plaque - Credit: Kaihsu Tai
On Easter Monday, April 1916, around 1,250 Irish Republicans under the leadership of Padraig Pearse took control of strategic strongholds in Dublin, including the Four Courts, St Stephen’s Green and the South Dublin Union, and established their headquarters at the General Post Office on O’Connell Street. The Republican forces were made up of Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army of James Connolly. It was on the stairs of the General Post Office that Pearse read the Proclamation of The Republic, which declared that Ireland was a Republic free from British rule. The Republicans managed to hold their positions for a week, before Pearse decided to surrender in order to avoid further civilian casualties. During the rising, much of the city centre had been decimated by shell fire and 450 people, around half of them civilians, had been killed and a further 1,500 injured.

This rebellion was not popular amongst the general population of Dublin; however public opinion changed dramatically in favour of the rebels when the British military executed 16 of their leaders.

In December 1918, Sinn Fein, the party taken over by the rebels, won the majority of Irish parliamentary seats but refused to take their seats in the British House of Commons. Instead, they chose to assemble in the Lord Mayor of Dublin’s residence and proclaimed the existence of the Irish Republic and themselves its parliament.

War of Independence 1919-1921

The War of Independence was a guerrilla conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Army. In Dublin, the IRA waged an urban guerrilla war against the British military and police. This began with small numbers of IRA men (known as the Squad) under Michael Collins assassinating police detectives, and developed into much larger operations, including regular gun and grenade attacks on the British military. The British forces, particularly the Black and Tans, often retaliated just as brutally, including the burning of Balbriggan, a town just north of Dublin in September 1920.

Hogan Stand in Croke Park
Public DomainHogan Stand in Croke Park - Credit: Tolivero
The bloodiest day of this war, was Bloody Sunday on 21 November 1920, when in the early hours of the morning, Michael Collins’s Squad assassinated 14 British agents. In retaliation, the British forces opened fire on a Gaelic football game in Croke Park, killing 12 and injuring 65. That evening, three Republican activists were arrested and killed in Dublin Castle.

Following a truce declared on 11 July 1921, a negotiated peace known as the Anglo-Irish Treaty between Britain and Ireland was signed. This created a self-governing Irish state known as the Irish Free State, but included only twenty-six of the counties of Ireland, rather than all thirty-two; the six counties of Northern Ireland were to remain British.