Kieran’s Our City, Our Town Article,
Cork Independent, 27 October 2016
Remembering 1916: The Sting of Poverty
Continuing on from last week’s column on the work of Fr Aengus MacSweeney, who lectured during 1916 across the city on the poverty conditions within the city’s slums – during his fieldwork, he found that that the total weekly income of 354 of the 1,010 families he studied did not exceed 19s.
Of those earning under 19s per week, Fr MacSweeney described vast poverty; “All the persons living in these houses were miserable looking; the grown people had starvation written on their faces, while the children, and strangely enough the very young, were almost naked. The rooms of these tenements were dark, with evidence of decay in every part of them, and as poverty was telling its tale on the countenances of the inmates, neglect and the evident and absolute disregard of the landlord were registered on the walls, the windows, the doors, the staircases, of the houses themselves. Personally I do not think that you could find more poverty and so great neglect in any place, and confined to so small an area, as existed in this row of tenement houses”.
To get a further idea of the standard of poverty for the 354 families in Fr MacSweeney’s study, he detailed five examples from his notes taken during his investigation. His first example was a labourer who was married with ten children – all living in two rooms and a kitchen and who paid rent of 2/6. There were six other families in this house. There was one water tap and one water closet for all. The family was very poor with two daughters and son working but their wages were small. His second example was a widow – who lived by charing or cleaning, had three children to support and paid 5/6 for a small house, which was kept clean and tidy. His third example was a porter – badly paid, his wages were increased by contributions from relatives, and has five children. His fourth example was a quay labourer – married, and who had two children and paid 3/- rent; his house was clean and tidy. His fifth example was an army pensioner – he could not get work, was married, had seven children; the rent was 5/-; his family was very poor.
As for clothing of his impoverished class, Fr MacSweeney noted “threadbare rags”. The clothing of most of the people was sufficient enough to protect them against the changing conditions of the seasons; “These families live in one constant struggle, from weekend to weekend, striving to make ends meet. Living just above that state of poverty that stings deeply and tends to demoralise its victims…they were living from hand to mouth and ever standing dangerously near the abyss of extreme poverty”.
Fr MacSweeney visited a lane off one of the city’s public thoroughfares, and close to the city centre. He described a square that had the appearance of decay. It was nothing more than a narrow lane leading from one street to another. It contained fourteen or fifteen houses, all of which were tenements. Those houses were badly constructed and dirt and neglect had given them that decaying look they had from the outside. As for the interiors, the houses with few exceptions were ill-kept to the last degree; the entrance to each house was through a small hall with two rooms at either side which were dark and small, and as, far as Fr MacSweeney could judge, impossible to keep clean, for the floors were damp and saturated looking. At the end of the hall was a narrow stairs leading to the rooms above, of which there were six, all equally small equally dirty, and equally foul smelling. There was a small yard, about 10 feet by 6 in size in size. There was a small yard, about 10 feet by six feet in size, with one water closet and one water tap, which do duty for the whole house. Each house had at least four families, and some of these were larger than the average. In one of these tenements there were seven families occupying eight rooms.
In another tenement house Fr MacSweeney he found a family of thirteen persons – father, mother, and eleven children whose ages ranged between four and seventeen – all living in two rooms and a “hole called a kitchen”. There were four other families in the same house, one room being occupied by a married couple, the remaining five rooms by three families with children; he calculated five persons to each of these three families – a total of thirty people living in eight rooms, and for sanitary accommodation having one water tap and one closet.
In a third tenement house, it was three stories high, and contained about eight rooms. Fr MacSweeney described that families who occupied more than one room in these five or six tenements were certainly in the minority, and yet there were numbers of children about which pointed to overcrowding, and to a very serious extent too. Here a father and mother and six children occupied one room in which they slept and worked and took their meals and washed. In addition to the overcrowding, there was extreme poverty accompanied by extreme neglect and dirt. Behind each tenement was a miserable yard bestrewn with all kinds of refuse, with one water closet and one water tap for each house.
Cork 1916, A Year Examined by Kieran McCarthy & Suzanne Kirwan is now available in Cork bookshops.
867a. 867a. North Cathedral area c.1910, one of the centres of slums in Cork City (source: Cork City Library)
867b. Map of slum laneways off Barrack Street, 1900 (source: Cork City Library)