• Did the Church Street Disaster undermine the trade union movement in 1913?

    At about 8.45p.m., as dusk approached on the night of Tuesday 2nd September, 1913, two houses, Numbers 66 and 67 Church Street collapsed, killing seven people. For more information on the Church Street Disaster see my blog posted on the Dublin Tenement Experience Living the Lockout website, or see my book Darkest Dublin.

    The question I want to ask here is, to what extent did the Church Street Disaster fuel the events of the 1913 Lockout in Dublin? I feel that during the recent debates and commemorations that have taken place to celebrate the centenary of the Lockout, the role of the Church Street Disaster and the Dublin housing crisis in undermining the trade union movement in their fight against the employers continues to be overlooked.

    The link between the housing and labour crisis of that year is reflected in the fact that one of those killed in the Church Street Disaster, Eugene Salmon, was at the time locked-out of work in connection with the dispute at Jacob’s.(i) The Church Street Disaster on September 2nd took place only days after some of the worst disturbances of the labour strikes of 1913, which saw the deaths of two men during a baton charge by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Many people questioned the use of force on that occasion:

    “In every urban slum, in every rural slum, in every poisonous and insanitary house, the divine laws and the natural laws of life are broken…Why when the slums houses collapse and bury those who lived in them, why when report after report upon the housing of the poor has fallen on deaf ears, why when the divine law and the divine order have been broken and trampled on, why such indignation about the breaking of a police regulation”. ii

    Contrasting the actions of the police on that occasion, one letter, signed A Dublin Citizen, to the editor of the Evening Telegraph, hailed the heroism of the firemen on the night the houses collapsed on Church Street:

    “Truly, we men ought be grateful to them [the Dublin Fire Brigade] for having vindicated the proverbial manliness of Irishmen at a time when the appellation was jeopardised by the action of the uniformed hyena men who infest our streets beating the dying on the roadway and ill-treating the inoffensive citizens”. iii

    In 1913 there was no such thing as the mass media that we have today. When we talk of the media in 1913 we mean the newspapers, and the newspapers were very influential in shaping the discussion of the day. In general the mainstream newspapers had little or no sympathy with the labour cause. Instead they readily embraced the slum crisis in Dublin as a more worthwhile one. While the city councillors had been calling for an inquiry into the police action at O’Connell Street on the weekend before the Church Street accident, The Irish Times felt:

    “A tenant slum is a far worse menace to the lives of our citizens than the baton of the most infuriated policeman. The two houses in Church Street killed seven persons by their fall. For how much sickness and misery were they responsible”. iv

    Another commentator wrote:

    “Decently housed men would never have fallen such a complete prey to mob-oratory….The Church Street disaster has focussed public attention to a certain extent on the reality of this evil” v.

    On 18th September a case came before the courts in which two brothers, William and Patrick O’Leary were accused of throwing stones at police. The two men and their families lived in a one-room tenement on the third floor at 2 Marlborough Place. William O’Leary lived in this room with his wife and six children. Also in the same room lived his brother Patrick, whose only child was dying of consumption. The next day The Irish Times featured an article entitled “O’Leary’s Rooms”:

    “We ask our readers to consider that front room on the third floor of 2 Marlborough place from the aspects of economy, health, humanity, decency, their personal interests and the larger interests of the city. Is it economy to house the workers of Dublin in surroundings which make a clear mind, a strong arm and a cheerful heart – the essentials of good work – utterly unthinkable!….The poor child who is dying is not merely a grave danger to its six little cousins pent within the same four walls. It is a menace to the well cared and well fed children of every comfortable citizen of Dublin”. vi

    This is a good example of the newspapers shifting the spotlight from the labour cause to the housing issue.

    There were slightly different political reasons why Sinn Féin was more concerned with the housing conditions than the labour cause. Their newspaper argued:

    “The vile and destructive methods of demagogues posing as labour leaders in Dublin will not divert the minds of honest and intelligent men from the fact that the poorest section of the population of Dublin has suffered and are suffering under an abominable grievance in regard to the houses in which they are forced to dwell.”

    The paper concluded that Sinn Féin, contrasting the track record of labour representatives on the Corporation, was the only political party that “ever really attempted and really did something for the herded tenement dwellers of Dublin”. (vii) Commenting on the Dublin riots at the end of August, Arthur Griffith wrote:

    With luxury and extravagance flaunting themselves on all sides, there are unplumbed depths of misery and sordid grinding poverty in every fetid court and alley in Dublin and other Irish cities, want and disease in every crumbling tenement. Smouldering discontent and a sullen sense of enduring wrong, shared by a large section of the population, do not make for stability and progress”. viii

    On October 4th 1913 James Larkin gave evidence to the Askwith Inquiry, and to the amusement of those in the room, he contrasted the slum conditions in Dublin with the conditions in Mountjoy Prison, where he had been imprisoned at the time of the Church Street Disaster. He directed the following scathing comments at the employers in the room:

    Let them take the statement made by their own apologist. Take Dr Cameron’s statement that there are 21,000 families—four and a half persons to a family living in single rooms. Who are responsible? The gentlemen opposite would have to accept the responsibility. Of course they must. They said they control the means of life; then the responsibility rests upon them. Twenty–one thousand people multiplied by five, over 100,000 people huddled together in the putrid slums of Dublin”. ix

    Generally, however, the labour leaders did not make use of the slums as a political weapon. In the summer months of 1913 Larkin had been setting the foundations for the conflict with employers about workers pay and conditions, and by the end of August the positions had become irreversibly entrenched. Even before the Church Street Disaster, and the subsequent public outcry regarding housing conditions, Larkin had nailed his colours firmly to the mast, and he was not about to change tack. To rally to the universal call for improved housing might deflect attention from the battle at hand. This is clearly evident from Larkin’s own newspaper, The Irish Worker. In its edition of September 6th, four days after the Church Street Disaster, there was no reference at all to tragedy. However, later in the month, an article did appear in that paper, under the pen of William Patrick Partridge. In this article Partridge singled out the heroism of Eugene Salmon, and argued that his death was a direct result of poor pay and working conditions:

    From the debris of the fallen houses in Church street they bore the hero’s lifeless body – this time it was that of a boy of 17 years who worked in the factory of the sweater, Jacob, and who, through the miserable wages paid by this exploiter of the working classes, was compelled to risk his life in the tenements of the city … A few hours previous he had been dismissed because men refused to betray the hero leader, Larkin, and desert the faithful ranks of his gallant little Union fighting the fight of the oppressed and defenceless of the city. Young Eugene Salmon returned to the death-trap he called home, and as the mountain of blinding debris piled around him the young hero saved his baby sister and five others of the family…

    Young Salmon, the hero, was a member of the Union led by the hero, Larkin”. x

    Partridge’s attempt to make parallels with young Salmon’s heroism on the night the houses at Church street collapsed, and the heroism of Larkin’s bigger struggle on behalf of the Union, made no significant reference to the housing crisis. Indeed, Larkin and the Union arguably made a gross miscalculation by ignoring of the potential of the housing issue to strengthen their hand. With the middle classes united in their condemnation of the slums, Larkin had an opportunity to graphically show how this was a direct result of poor working conditions. However, if Larkin felt that the slum issue might undermine his own cause, by not taking ownership of the housing debate, he effectively gave employers such as William Martin Murphy a free reign to use the Church Street Disaster and the housing crisis to portray an empathy with the working classes.

    This is evident from the way in which the Church Street Disaster and the slums became embroiled within a debate raging amongst the Dublin intelligentsia. In 1908 Hugh Lane had established a Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in temporary premises on Harcourt Street. For some time Dublin Corporation had attempted to secure funds in order to commission a permanent home for the gallery – a building designed by Lutyens that would span the River Liffey itself. Some commentators felt that the monies needed for the gallery would be better spent on improving the housing conditions of Dublin’s citizens. Leading the charge was none other than William Martin Murphy, owner of The Irish Independent, and the driving force of the employers’ lockout.

    The day before the Church Street Disaster The Irish Times published a letter from Murphy, beginning with the sentence “like the poor the Art Gallery we have always with us”, in which he stated that his offer to provide the costs for housing the gallery at an alternative site had been snubbed by the Lord Mayor. This then seems to have been the true root of his antagonism towards the proposed gallery. It was only after the Church Street Disaster that Murphy justified his position on the gallery in terms of money being wasted at the expense of the housing conditions of the poor.

    Within a week of the Church Street Disaster Murphy wrote a letter to the editor of The Irish Times in which he castigated the Corporation for squandering money on the proposed gallery:

    “It is revolting to think that the week of the Church Street holocaust, for which the Corporation, as the authority … is responsible, should be the time selected for calling another special meeting of that body to force on against the wishes of the vast majority of the citizens the discredited project of spending money in building a picture palace over the River Liffey…The bad housing condition in the city, which is the cause of the Church Street disaster, is the question of questions for Dublin”. xii

    The following day Murphy used his own paper, The Irish Independent, to make another attack on the Corporation:

    “Yesterday the Corporation provided another comedy for the citizens in connection with the Art Gallery site. This performance would be extremely laughable but for the deplorable calamity in Church Street”. xiii

    A few days later the paper returned to the issue and, noting that the proposed Art Gallery was not defined as a Dangerous Building, argued that:

    for the £22, 000 proposed to be squandered on an impossible Art Gallery the Corporation might provide 210 families with 110 decent, comfortable houses”. xiv

    On the 16th September The Irish Independent reproduced five photographs of slums, entitled “Dublin’s Crying Evil”. The extended caption claimed:

    Our photographs give an idea of the appalling conditions under which the Dublin poor are obliged to live. The Church Street Tragedy, with its holocaust of humble victims, should have taught our Corporators a lesson, but heedless of the warning, they spend their precious time discussing egregious Art Galleries and Continental Art Schools. Meanwhile, there is danger of the Church Street Tragedy been repeated at any moment in many parts of the city”.

    The following day the paper published three photographs of Dublin slums, beneath the heading “And they still think of Art Galleries!”.

    The editorial of Sinn Féin made a sarcastic retort:

    The poor are indebted to the pictures for the discovery of their deplorable condition. The unemployed – the homeless – the occupants of rickety tenements, were without hope in the world until a home for the pictures was contemplated. The poor but for this chance may have died in ignorance of the wealth of love for them which lay hidden and unknown in the hearts of their fellow citizens”. xv

    Patrick Pearse called on the rich men “who knew all about everything, from art galleries to the domestic economy of the tenement room”, and who claimed £1 a week was enough to “sustain a Dublin family in honest hunger” should give up their wealth and see for themselves the reality of living in slums:

    “I am quite certain they will enjoy their poverty and hunger…When their children cry for more food they will smile; when their landlord calls for rent they will embrace him; when their house falls upon them they will thank God; when policemen smash their skulls they will kiss the chastening baton…in the alternative they may see there is something to be said for the hungry man’s hazy idea that there is something wrong somewhere”. xvi

    In conclusion, I would argue that the Church Street Disaster, and the consequential interest taken by the newspapers in the housing crisis in Dublin, had a profound impact on the trade unions attempts to challenge the employers. By not using the housing crisis as an additional weapon in their arsenal, they effectively handed over the issue lock-stock and barrel to the media, and in particular William Martin Murphy was only too happy to take on the role as defender of the disenfranchised tenement dwellers of Dublin, if only to convince the middle classes that housing, and not workers rights, was the core issue at stake. With the middle classes convinced that a solution to the housing crisis was of primary importance, the employers had a freehand to play hard ball with the trade unions. Arguably, if Larkin and the trade unions had used the Dublin slum issue highlighted by the Church Street Disaster, it could only have strengthened their hand against the employers, and perhaps the outcome of the Lock Out would have been very different.

    i Evening Telegraph, 3rd September, 1913.

    ii The Irish Homestead, Vol XX (No. 37), September 13th, 1913, 757.

    iii Evening Telegraph, 3rd September, 1913.

    iv ibid.

    v The Irish Builder and Engineer, 25th October, 1913.

    vi The Irish Times, 19th September, 1913.

    vii Sinn Féin, 6th September, 1913.

    viii ibid.

    ix The Irish Times, 6th October, 1913.

    x The Irish Worker, 20th September, 1913.

    xi The Irish Times, 1st September, 1913.

    xii The Irish Times, 8th September, 1913. Also reproduced in the Evening Herald on same date.

    xiii The Irish Independent, 9th September, 1913.

    xiv The Irish Independent, 11th September, 1913.

    xv Sinn Féin, 20th September, 1913.

    xvi Irish Freedom, 1913.



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