Contrasting lives, new aspirations

Social and economic conditions were improving for large sections of Irish society during the early years of the 20th century and the increasing prosperity fuelled a growing desire for political independence.

When he introduced the Irish Home Rule Bill to the House of Commons in 1912, British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith reminded his audience that it was 19 years since one of his predecessors, William Gladstone, had introduced his second and last Home Rule bill: “I take up the narrative” he said, “where Mr Gladstone was obliged to leave it”.

While Gladstone’s Home Rule initiative had been voted down by the House of Lords, in the intervening period, other initiatives had been taken by the British government that went a considerable way towards satisfying different sections of the population. Old-age pensions gave a weekly payment to those aged over 70, for example, and most Irish farmers owned their own land, some 11 million acres having been purchased as a result of the land acts of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The underlying strength of the farming community was reflected in the stability in the number of farms over 15 acres and a decline in agrarian unrest. By 1912, Irish agriculture was producing nearly 50 per cent more than it had in the 1840s, and this production was divided among a smaller group.

The National University of Ireland Act of 1908 seemed to reflect an increasingly confident Catholic Church that had succeeded in achieving some of its demands in the area of third-level education. There was much idealism and attachment to the notion that this generation of students needed to apply itself to the promotion of Irish nationalism and the building of a new, self-governed Irish state.


Such sentiments were displayed in the National Student magazine, which was first published in May 1910. Contributors argued that students in UCD needed to prize their status as university students and direct their energies towards the regeneration of the country; that they were, in effect, Home Rule leaders in waiting. They were, of course, an elite group; the total number of students in UCD in 1910/11 was 695.

Information gleaned from the Census returns of 1911 is a reminder of the extent of poverty and premature death at the other end of the social spectrum. Overall, the death rate in Dublin in 1911 per thousand people was 22.3. In London it was 15.6. In Dublin in 1912, 26,000 families, roughly one third of the city’s population, lived in one-room dwellings. The decay of the city was epitomised by Henrietta Street, on the north side of the city, where an astonishing 835 people lived in just 15 houses.

In 1911 there were 125,783 female indoor servants in Ireland, of whom 47 per cent were under the age of 25 and 92 per cent were unmarried; domestic servants comprised the largest group of employed women outside of the manufacturing sector. They usually worked 16-hour days with just one half day per week off. In rural areas, live-in farm labourers were generally paid only twice a year and their wages were often given to parents who would give them a small amount of pocket money. A typical working-class diet in 1912 consisted of bread, rarely with butter, and stewed tea. Meat was a rarity, except for cheap bacon, and vegetables, with the exception of cabbage, were also rare. Fruit was a luxury seldom seen.

It is not as easy to get information on the lifestyles of the better off, as they were not the subject of official reports. There were in the region of 25,000 civil servants in 1912, the vast majority of them working in the post office and a career as a policeman was regarded as respectable employment for farmers’ sons.

What was particularly striking in terms of career options was the big increase in the proportion of Catholics in the professions.

In 1861, for example, 28 per cent of barristers were Catholics; by 1911 the figure was 44 per cent. The greater prosperity of Catholic communities (who in 1912 comprised 89.6 per cent of the population of the 26 counties of what later constituted the republic) was also reflected in the increase in the number of priests; in 1840 there had been an estimated 2,200; by 1911 the figure was 4,000, despite a halving of the population.

Even more striking was the increase in the number of nuns, from 2,000 in 1861 to 8,800 in 1911. Catholicism was asserting itself vigorously and sometimes aggressively in the public and private spheres. Catholic associations, sodalities and publications were thriving and confident.

Energy and agitation were also apparent in other realms. The trade union movement was beginning to make its voice heard and there were lively debates about government and politics, law and order and health and welfare.

Trade unionist Louie Bennett of the Irish Women Workers Union inaugurated the Irish Women’s Suffrage Fe deration in 1911 and in 1912 the first edition of the Irish Citizen, a weekly suffrage newspaper, appeared.

The commercial importance of towns had been enhanced by better communications and between 1891 and 1911, Belfast’s population had risen by half, an indication of the success of the city’s shipyards. There were 330 trams in Dublin, operating on lines that ran for 60 miles around the city; part of a public transport system that was one of the most impressive of any city in the world, and bicycles had become a very popular mode of transport. Social life was vibrant and varied, with a great interest in sport, music, dance, conversation, theatre and language. Fair days, race meetings and religious holidays were honoured traditions.

In rural areas house visiting was the most common form of social interaction and match-making was a priority in January and February as there was little work to be done in the fields during winter.

Then, as now, drunken brawling was a public order problem, as alcohol remained central to Irish social life. In 1910 there were 2,462 charges of drunkenness in the Dublin Metropolitan police district. The first Irish cinema, the Volta Electric Theatre, had opened in Dublin in 1909 and music hall comedy and pantomime were popular as was amateur sport. While hunting, shooting and fishing were more conspicuous displays of leisure for the better off, blood sports like cock fighting, though illegal, survived in working class areas.

Soccer was the most popular sport in Dublin and by 1912 there were 31 pitches in use in the Phoenix Park. Cricket was more popular in the wealthier Dublin suburbs. Extensive rail travel facilitated the development of national GAA competitions and the bedding down of the organisational structures of the association. It had also got stricter; in 1911 it made ineligible for membership “all who participate in dances or similar entertainments got up by or under the patronage of soldiers or policemen”.

While emigration from Ireland in the period 1901-1910 was a substantial 346,000, this was considerably less than the figure for 1891-1900, which was 434,000. There was widespread criticism of economic policies and nationalists often insisted that a Home Rule Ireland would strive to achieve a fairer distribution of the tax burden. British government expenditure on Ireland exceeded revenue, but taxation was higher in Ireland than Britain in relation to income, particularly as a result of indirect taxes on consumer goods such as tea, tobacco and whiskey.

As the poor consumed relatively large quantities of these, a contemporary observation, quoted by economic historian Louis Cullen, was that “Ireland was not poor because she was overtaxed but overtaxed because she was poor”.

Diarmaid Ferriter is Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD