James Connolly


The Re-Conquest of Ireland


Chapter III
Dublin in the Twentieth Century

Someone has said that the most deplorable feature of Irish life is the apparent lack of civic consciousness. It is, indeed, strange that the people of a nation, which has shown indomitable determination in its struggle for the possession of the mere machinery of government, should exhibit so little capacity to breathe a civic soul into such portions of the machinery as they had already brought under their control. That this phenomenon is explicable in a manner not at all to the discredit of the citizens of the towns and cities of Ireland is quite true, but true also is it that a full and generous admission of the adverse influences that have hindered or retarded the development of a civic or municipal, as distinguished from an aggressive or even selfsacrificing national patriotism, does not absolve those citizens from the duty of labouring to overcome our national failing in this respect. An Irish municipality elected by the male and female voters under the present suffrage ought to be, in its public activities, breadth of outlook, and comprehensiveness of ambition for the social well-being and mental enrichment of its inhabitants, a centre of pride to the Irish race, and a shining example of the possibilities of the future of Ireland under free and self-governing institutions.

Its failure to do so, if it does fail, will not, indeed, vitiate the strength of the claim for national independence, but it will unquestionably weaken the powers making in that direction, as well as sadden the hearts of those who, amidst the struggles of to-day, require the mental aid to be derived from an idealising of the human elements with whom they are allied, and upon whom they hope to build the future.

An almost complete change in the intellectual view-point of the mass of the Irish people would be required to establish, in its proper place and relative importance, the modern conception of the function of public bodies as a governing factor in Irish municipal politics. It would necessitate such a change as would impel the public to regard such public bodies, not so much as offensive weapons to be won from a political enemy in order that he may be silenced, but rather as effective tools to be used in the up-building of a healthier social edifice in which to give effect to the needs of the citizens for associative aids to their individual development and culture.

This is, indeed, the needed point of view. We require in Ireland to grasp the fact that the act of voting at the ballot-box is the one act in which we get the opportunity to give expression to the soul of the race; the act in which we give a tangible body to our public spirit. The ballot-box is the vehicle of expression of our social consciousness; by means of it we collect all the passions, all the ideals, all the desires, all the ambitions, all the strengths, all the weaknesses, all the integrity, all the corruption, all the elevating aspirations, and all the debasing interests of the population, and make of them a composite whole which henceforth takes its place in history as the embodied soul of the race at that period of its development. A people are not to be judged by the performances of their great men, nor to be estimated spiritually by the intellectual conquests of their geniuses. A truer standard by which the spiritual and mental measurement of a people can be taken in modern times, is by the picture drawn of itself by itself when at the ballot-box, it surrenders the care of its collective destiny into the hands of its elected representatives.

The question whether such elected persons have or have not the power to realise the desires of their constituents scarcely enters into the matter. It is not by its power to realise high ideals a people will and must be judged, but by the standard of the ideals themselves. A people with high ideals of collective responsibility and public virtues it is politically impotent to realise, will necessarily rank higher in the scale of humanity than a people in full possession of political power, but destitute of public spirit and civic virtue.

Up to the passing of the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898 there existed no means by which the democracy of the Irish towns could be tested in order to ascertain the measure of their civic patriotism. The Local Government of Ireland was exclusively in the hands of the propertied class. The Municipal Councils outside of Belfast were elected on a restricted property qualification, and whatever evils existed in the urban districts were no more under the control of the mass of the people than if they had been resident in Timbuctoo or Terra-del-Fuego.

Indeed, by means of the Parliamentary franchise, the masses in the Irish cities could conceivably exert a determining influence on the fate of countries at the extremest limits of the earth, while unable to seriously affect the lighting or paving of the streets in which they lived. At such a time the propertied Irish patriot would occasionally refer to the unhealthy, squalid condition of Dublin, for example, as an evidence of the evils resulting from British rule; evils which would assuredly disappear before the beneficent hand of a popularly-elected Irish administration. Nor can we wonder at such a belief. Assuredly it was within the realm of probability, that a people suffering under the smart of intolerable conditions caused by a misuse of political power and social privilege should, at the first opportunity, set itself to the task of sweeping away such conditions by a public-spirited use of their newly-acquired control of municipal powers. The concept of the Irish nation as an organic whole, each part of which throbs in fullest sympathy with every other, and feels in the movements of its public administrative bodies, the pulsations of its own intellectual heart-beats, a concept vaguely outlined in the dreams of patriotic enthusiasts, poets and martyrs of the past, might reasonably have been expected to take form and substance in miniature, with the establishment of popular control over cities in which hundreds of thousands of Irish men, women and children passed their lives.

If it has not taken form; if to-day the cities and towns of Ireland are a reproach to the land and a glaring evidence of the incapacity of the municipal rulers of the country, the responsibility for the failure lies largely with those who, in the past, had control of the political education of the Irish masses, and failed to prepare them for the intelligent exercise of those public powers for which they were taught to clamour. That they were not prepared, and that no effort is therefore being made to give form and substance to any conception of civic patriotism, is only too evident to those who are even casually acquainted with the majority of Irish cities. A glance at the condition of Dublin, for instance, reveals a state of matters sadly eloquent of the woeful lack of public spirit in those who are responsible as municipal rulers, and those who, as electors, tolerate such rulers.

The following comment of The Medical Press, upon the occasion of the conferring of the Freedom of the City upon Sir Charles Cameron, gives in concise form the facts relative to the health of Dublin in 1911, and is useful also as an illustration of the opinion of enlightened outsiders upon our municipal progress, or lack of progress, and as a comparison with the cities usually reckoned the least progressive in the world:–

In the resolution conferring the freedom of the City on Sir Charles Cameron, says The Medical Press, it is stated that Dublin can now boast of comparative freedom from almost all of the malignant diseases which assail mankind.

If such a boast were made it would be a lying one. Again reference is made to the “excellent state of public health” which “now obtains in Dublin”. Let us get to facts. According to the latest returns, the death-rate in Dublin was 27.6 per 1,000. This was the highest of any City in Europe, as given in the Registrar-General’s list, the next highest being that of Moscow – 26.3 per 1,000. In Calcutta, in the presence of plague and cholera, the rate was only 27 per 1,000. Again, in the first six weeks of the present year, there were 63 deaths – ten a week – from four infectious diseases – scarlatina, typhoid, diphtheria and whooping-cough. Yet this epidemic is what an Alderman of the City – generally well-informed – airily described at a public dinner the other day as “trifling”.

The thoughtful reader cannot but be impressed and saddened by the comparison drawn, in the above extract, between Dublin and such cities as Moscow and Calcutta. That it should be possible to draw such a comparison, or any comparison but a favourable one, between the capital of Ireland governed by its citizens and a city ruled autocratically by the liberty-hating officials of Russian Czardom is bad enough, but that an even more unfavourable comparison could truthfully be drawn between Dublin and an Asiatic city inhabited by a population destitute of civic power or political responsibility, and unacquainted with the first laws of hygienic teaching, is surely so much a humiliation that it should fire every Irishman and woman with a fierce eagerness to remove such a stigma. Lest some of our readers might think that the English source from which this extract is taken may possibly be unduly influenced by national prejudice in its criticism (a most unfair assumption), we may quote the declaration of the Medical Officer of Health in question in his remarkable Letter to the Lord Mayor(of Dublin) in 1909. The comparison he draws is even more useful, as the towns instanced possess the same municipal powers, and are elected upon the same franchise as Dublin. He says:–

It must be admitted that the general death-rate is far in excess of the mean death-rate in English towns.

In 1908 the mean death-rate in the 76 largest English towns was 15.8. The death-rate in the Dublin Registration Area was 21.5, the rate in the City being 23. The rate in the Metropolitan Area is that which in fairness should be compared with the English rates. The highest urban death-rate in England – namely, 19.8 – was in Oldham.

A comparison of these figures of Sir Charles Cameron with those cited in the first quotation, would seem to point to an actual increase in the death-rate of 1911 as compared with 1908. Viewed from another standpoint, the figures in both quotations prove the continued and needless sacrifice of life in Ireland. Accepting the English figures as the lowest at present obtainable in the present state of knowledge, and in the efficiency for social purposes of our political institutions in our present hands, it follows that there is permitted in Ireland a state of matters which involves, as its necessary result, the ceaseless slaughter of precious human life. Other figures quoted by Sir Charles Cameron seem to show that it is upon the poor that the main burden of such slaughter falls, as the death-rate is nicely proportioned to the special status of the inhabitants of Dublin. The higher the social status the lower the death-rate, and the lower the social status the higher the death-rate.

Thus, in the Annual Report for the year 1903 he gives the death-rate in Dublin according to the classes represented in the population as follows:–


Per 1,000

Professional and Independent Classes


Middle Class


Artisan Class and Petty Shopkeepers


General Service Class and Inmates of Workhouses


In a still minuter analysis he gives the figures of child mortality amongst different classes of the population as follows:–

Professional and Independent Classes



Deaths of children under 5 years


Proportion of deaths of children per 1,000
of the population of the class


Middle Class



Deaths of children under 5 years


Proportion of children's deaths per 1,000
of the population of the class


Artisan Class and Petty Shopkeepers



Deaths of children under 5 years


Ratio of those deaths per 1,000
of the population of the class


General Service Class and Inmates of Workhouses



Deaths of children under 5 years


Ratio of the deaths of children per 1,000
of the population of the class


Thus we have a steady increase in the death-rate from its lowest point – amongst the professional or independent class to its highest point – amongst the street hawkers and casual labourers. This was for the year 1905.

A table showing the death-rate according to the four quarters of the year shows also that the number of deaths in Dublin is highest in the first three months – January, February and March – the winter months when the severity of the season makes its worst ravages amongst the poor, too enfeebled by hunger and cold to withstand its shocks.

Thus the high death-rate of Dublin is seen to be entirely due to economic causes, to rise and fall with economic classes. The rich of Dublin enjoy as long an immunity from death as do their kind elsewhere; it is the slaughter of Dublin’s poor that gives the Irish metropolis its unenviable and hateful notoriety amongst civilised nations.

Now, what is the cause of this terrible state of matters, this hideous blot upon the Irish name? The original causes are many, but the one cause of its continuance is the lack of public spirit amongst the municipal rulers, and that again is only possible because of the want of proper training in democratic ideas amongst the mass of the electors. Democracy, as a reasoned-out faith, has not had in Ireland yet the proper political or social environment in which to grow; whatever democracy there is is instinctive and spontaneous, and is not the result of sound political teachings or the outcome of deep reflections upon the growth and development of social or political institutions. Usually the democrats of Ireland have been rebels against political tyranny; the necessity of keeping up the fight for the establishment of the political machinery through which Democracy might express itself, interfered with, and indeed destroyed, the possibility of developing as a theory or philosophical system those democratic principles which inspired the rebels personally. And as the fate of the rebels was generally an unhappy one, the masses of the people have had no opportunity of assimilating democratic thought except in the fitful flashes of political oratory, or the almost as ephemeral pamphleteering of our more brilliant revolutionists. This is indeed the only assignable reason why our working-class voters as a rule use so badly these rights for which so many of our bravest and noblest fought and toiled and agonised during the long dark night of our past.

In awakening the working class to a realisation of the necessity of using their votes for the purpose of social regeneration, to make the city in which they live be an aid to their individual uplifting and to their physical and moral strength, it should ever be borne in mind that the representative institutions of that city should, as we have already said, be an expression of the soul of the race, and that, as the soul directs the activities of the body in a clean or unclean direction, so shall our representative governing bodies make for or against clean living in clean habitations in a clean city.

It is well to remember that the Conquest never interfered with the right or power of the individual in Ireland to grow rich by betraying or surrendering the nation; it was only against the nation and those who had identified themselves with it that that Conquest was directed. Hence the reversal of the Conquest implies the assertion of the rights and powers of the community (city or nation) over against those of the individual. The Conquest was, in Irish politics, the victory of the capitalist conception of law and the functions of law – the Re-Conquest will be the victory of the working-class conception, the re-establishment of the power of the community over the conditions of life that assist or retard the development of the individual.

On the Statute Book to-day there are certain laws giving to the Dublin workers, through the Corporation, powers over the conditions of life in their city. These powers, if properly and relentlessly utilised, would go a long way towards remedying that fearful state of affairs already cited, and would also be in direct accord with the general movement to re-establish the true Irish nation. The Corporation has the power to close and demolish insanitary houses, unless they are put in a state to satisfy the Board of Health. It has the power to execute necessary repairs to tenement houses, and compel the owners to pay the expense, if these owners refuse to execute the repairs themselves. It has the power to make bye-laws governing tenement houses, and can thus enforce the efficient cleaning, lighting, renovating and building of such houses according to the most modern hygienic ideas. This, of itself, could be made sufficient to revolutionise completely the tenement house system in the city. It has the power to build houses, and any money it borrows for that purpose does not affect its legal credit or borrowing powers as a municipality. It has the power to acquire land for the purpose of creating cemeteries, and can thus put an end to the scandalous robbery of the poor practised by the Catholic Cemeteries’ Committee at Glasnevin.

These powers it already has; but other powers are needed and must be demanded, if the workers of Dublin would make the most of their inheritance. As the further powers required for Dublin are also required for the rest of the country, it would be unwise to develop that portion of our plan now, before dealing with the evil state of matters with which we find ourselves confronted all over Ireland as a result of our political subjection and social disorganisation in the past.

We cannot close this chapter more fittingly than by quoting with our own comments the following extracts from an Editorial in The Irish Times (Dublin) of 18th February, 1914, upon the Report of the Departmental Committee of Inquiry into the Housing of the Dublin Working Classes. Part of the Report itself is also quoted in the Appendix:–

The Report of the Departmental Committee of Inquiry into the housing conditions of the Dublin working classes was laid on the table of the House of Commons on Monday night. It is a document of almost historic importance; every word of it should have been submitted without delay to those whom it chiefly concerns – namely, the ratepayers of Dublin. The Commissioners have done their work fearlessly and well. We cannot suppose that there is in existence a more startling or arresting Blue Book. The report is a terrible indictment of the social conditions and civic administration of Dublin. Most of us had supposed ourselves to be familiar with the melancholy statistics of the Dublin slums. We knew that Dublin has a far larger percentage of single-room tenements than any other city in the Kingdom. We did not know that nearly twenty-eight thousand of our fellow-citizens live in dwellings which even the Corporation admits to be unfit for human habitation. We had suspected the difficulty of decent living in the slums; this report proves the impossibility of it. Nearly a third of our population so live that from dawn to dark and from dark to dawn it is without cleanliness, privacy or self-respect. The sanitary conditions are revolting, even the ordinary standards of savage morality can hardly be maintained. To condemn a young child to an upbringing in the Dublin slums is to condemn it to physical degradation and to an appalling precocity in vice.

These four level-headed civil servants have drawn a picture hardly less lurid than the scenes of Dante’s Inferno, and they give chapter and verse for every statement. It is a bitter reproach to Dublin that their report should go forth to the world; but it is a necessary and well-deserved reproach.

We are to blame, but the chief share of blame rests on the Corporation of Dublin. The report is perfectly fair to the Corporation. It gives it full credit for what it has done in the matter of housing schemes, and recognises the weight of its inherited embarrassments. But the Commissioners have been compelled to find that the Corporation is directly responsible for the worst evils of the tenement system. They tear to pieces the excuse so often presented to ourselves and other critics – that admitted defects could not be remedied without fresh legislation. The report finds that the Corporation has grossly abused and mismanaged its existing powers. It has utterly failed to enforce its sanitary authority under the Act of 1890. It has encouraged slum-ownership not merely by connivance but by example. The report finds that three members of the Corporation – Aldermen O'Reilly and Corrigan and Councillor Crozier – are returned in evidence as owning, or being interested in nine, nineteen and eighteen tenement houses respectively. Some of their property is classed as “third-class property”. Ten other members of the Corporation own, or are interested in, tenement houses. The report exposes the scandal of the rebate system, which was designed to encourage and reward decent and conscientious management of tenement property. The Commissioners are of opinion that in the case of some of the members of the Corporation who own tenements, rebates have been improperly allowed. They criticise sharply the "dispensing powers" which Sir Charles Cameron has seen fit to exercise. The Corporation, by its slackness and inefficiency, is directly responsible for the creation of a number of owners who have little sense of their duty as landlords. The report finds that, if the Corporation had rightly administered its own laws, it would have prevented the influx into Dublin of that large volume of rural labour which has depressed wages and intensified the tragedy of the slums. The Corporation's policy has at once increased and demoralised the miserable army of slum workers. ‘Larkinism’, in so far as it is a revolt against intolerable conditions of life, is one of the by-products of our civic administration.

The last sentence in that Editorial is typical of the general attitude in Ireland towards the Labour movement. Observe that The Irish Times declares that Larkinism is a revolt against intolerable conditions, remember that even Mr. William Martin Murphy was moved to tell the Dublin Employers that it was their sweating wages and bad conditions that produced Larkinism, remember also that no one can be found to deny that the general effect of Larkinism has been to raise wages and improve conditions, and then consider that all those who admit these things have combined and are combining to down Larkinism, and to represent it generally as the incarnation of evil, and you have a picture of the turmoil caused in our distressful country by the spectacle of the labourer organising and preparing to take his own.

You have also a typical representation of the antagonism between theory and practice. In theory they admit that conditions were intolerable, and that Larkin was justified in making war upon them; in practice they unite to defend those conditions, and to destroy the man or woman who rebels against them. How true does Charles Mackay say of the rebel before his time:–

Him shall the scorn and wrath of men
Pursue with deadly aim;
And malice, envy, spite and lies
Shall desecrate his name!


Last updated on 15.8.2003