The Irish 100 years ago: Sport-loving, price-conscious and half were under 25

Censorship, conservative morality and high cost of living made for an oppressive mix

How have historians viewed the early years of the Irish Free State? For many, state-building aside, the conservatism, disappointment and disillusionment with independence have been thrashed out and consensus found, often in contrast to the hopefulness and expectations of the previous decades.

In short, the lives of people did not improve enough for what independence had cost in those early years; and the effects of draconian legislation in a predominantly rural, patriarchal and Catholic state would echo for decades for women and children particularly.

More recently, work has focused on the effects of trauma – the trauma of war, of violence, of being outside the "respectable" classes. As historian Anne Dolan wrote in the recent Cambridge History of Ireland, "as research has developed, the 1920s and 1930s have found more and more ways to let us down". But amid this critique, as Dolan encourages, we must also consider how people lived, not only those who fought or protested, but those who went about their lives in whatever manner they could. Those that survived, or in some rare cases thrived.

Tough beginnings

The Free State emerged from the turbulence of the first World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, and the War of Independence and would begin amid Civil War. The major political and geopolitical events of the day must have occupied the thoughts of many, but so would the price of butter, local gossip, a birth or a death, money for a few cigarettes and a drink, letters, and packages from those who had left; or for some, the embarrassment and need for charity and assistance in times of distress. They slept, they ate, they fell in love, they sang a song. They prayed, they watched sport and they were keenly aware of where they stood in the grand scheme of things.


Over half the population lived in rural areas, almost the same worked in agriculture, and just under 10 per cent worked in domestic service, a figure that would decrease dramatically in the early years. Housing, the cost of living and poverty dominated many lives, as did mortality, morality and religion. In 1911, the population of the island of Ireland was almost 4.4 million – it would be a similar figure in 1956 – but there were fewer than 3 million people in the Republic of Ireland.

It was a youthful society, with just under half the population being under 25 years, but with a life expectancy of 54-55 years. It was a connected society, with over 3,500 miles of railway, about 950 train stations, more than 10,000 cars, and trams in Cork and Dublin. How long and how well you lived diverged significantly based on your geography, social class, and family size.

As Ciara Breathnach has shown, infant mortality could often highlight the most vulnerable, with 4,098 infants under one year dying in 1923, and infants born to single mothers in Dublin having a death rate of six times the national average. In mother and baby institutions, this figure was and would continue to be even starker.

In many ways, Catholicism offered a ready-made badge of separateness and identity in the new state. The 1926 census showed that Catholics comprised 93 per cent of the population, and Tom Inglis has argued a Catholic habitus – a way of thinking and acting in conformity with a systematic view of the world – permeated all social classes, but it is certainly true that women and those in marginalised groups suffered disproportionately.

While the 1937 Constitution has received much attention in recent years, in December 1921, Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith invited seven men to join the Constitutional Committee that would craft the 1922 Constitution. There were no anti-Treatyites or women invited to participate, and Collins appointed himself chairman with Darrell Figgis as vice-chairman.

It included the protection of the right to education, the Irish language and freedom of speech, as well as the extension of franchise to all women over 21 years. However, the inclusion of Article 50 meant that amendments in parliament over the coming decade would change many of the more progressive elements of the document.

A conservative state?

Economically, the focus was placed on maintaining a functioning public service, balancing the budget and establishing an unarmed police force. In 1920, £200 million worth of goods were imported and the same exported.

Externally, opinion on the Irish economy was positive, with the Economist noting how the Free State government had “restored order within its boundaries” and was in a position for its first national loan (this being a marker of success). Internally, boycotts and strikes were a feature of the revolutionary years and the early years of the state, with the postal strike in 1922 being the especially significant. In the Civil War period, the Free State regarded strikes as ‘labour irregularism’ and ruthlessly suppressed them in many instances.

The Irish pound was still tied to sterling, and while almost half the population worked in agriculture, the sector faced numerous challenges, most significantly falling output coupled with indebtedness from the first World War.

The dependence on agriculture at a time of decreasing demand would see the migration of almost 150,000 workers over the coming years. As Gordon Campbell, the secretary of the Department of Industry and Commerce warned in 1927, "if a nation is to depend on agriculture it must produce mainly a population of farmers: men of patience, endurance, thrift and modest intellectual aspirations. If it produces other types, it must export them at an early age if it is not to risk the continual ferment of disappointed and distorted minds denied by circumstances their exercise."

Industrialisation was a concern, especially after partition, with the construction of the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric dam and the setting up of the semi-state Electricity Supply Board being the main developments. Running water and electricity would impact people's lives in untold ways – but this was the decade in which it began, and those results could not be seen yet. While the political and fiscal union was to be broken with independence, as Eoin MacLaughlin states, "the monetary union, through accident or design, remained intact until 1979".

Socially, what people read, watched, and wore garnered increasing attention – the censorship of information on contraception, the banning of divorce, women needing to opt in to sit on juries, the cut to the old-age pension and the increasing curtailment of women in public and private life.

In 1922, Esther Roper wrote to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington – "never had there been such a firm foundation of justice and freedom guaranteed by any country of its women citizens". Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. While the work of women's history, gender history and feminist history has done much to make women's lives more visible, it is an ongoing project, as is the need to illuminate the lives of "ordinary" individuals at a time of turbulence and change.

Everyday life

Not unlike today, cost of living was a key concern for the new State and all those living in it. In 1922, the Cost of Living and Cost of Living Committee distributed 5,000 forms for the collection of household budgets sent through schools to wage-earning households. Only 308 completed the budgets, from 112 towns, but the committee concluded that 57 per cent was being spent on food, 7 per cent on fuel and light, 17 per cent on clothing and 18 per cent on other expenses, including rent.

Inflation had increased significantly since 1914 and the cost of food in particular would put a huge strain on families and individuals. In rural areas, many people would need to sell an animal to pay off the local shopkeeper – while in urban areas, the pawn broker was a regular haunt, as were short-term loans at high interest rates.

But what were those who could afford it buying? Even a cursory glance at the local and national papers shows the range of products being advertised – cigarettes, clothing, musical instruments, life assurance, stocks. Beer, porter and whiskey grace the pages, as do many adverts for tea (2s for a lb in Fagans, Clanbrassil Street in 1923) and even wine.

While there is an awareness that too much alcohol and rich foods could cause problems, this usually led to the advertising of medical products or supplements. Cigarettes are a regular feature – Golden Blush Cigarettes, Player's Navy Cut, Ardmore Cigarettes.

In 1925, an ad for State Express cigarettes claimed they “never irritate the throat because they contain no stalk”. Below it, Angier’s Emulsion – for colds, influenza and all chest affections (sic). Gola Cigarettes asked the readers of the Irish Independent, “what constitutes a good cigarette, is it aroma or flavour?”

Ads for clothing were often to highlight sales, but fashion and fashions are also present for those for whom warmth and practicality were not the key marker – a little black crepe dress, glimpses of the 1920s flapper dress – with a drop waist and a bias-cut skirt. In May 1922 the Kilkenny People advertised “Silk Jumper Blouses, the latest London weekend fashion”, which could be directly ordered for 9s 11d (free postage).

In 1924 a gift for a lady could be a coat – tweed or velour, with or without fur. Men’s gifts included felt hats, socks, wool coats (45s) and all-wool shirts. Adverts directed at men varied from National Loan Stocks (for farmers, businessmen, men of means), to mouth organs, luxury clothing items, all dependent on your social class and income. Pockets of affluence can be glimpsed in the pages and outside – a motor car, a gramophone, expensive food and drinks.

For those outside the affluent classes, housing was also a major concern, and it’s estimated that only 10 per cent of people owned their own homes in 1922. With the new government introducing the “Million Pound Scheme” in 1922, 2,000 houses were built by 1924 for middle-income earners, with another 4,000 being built by 1926 by local councils primarily.

As the 1911 census records, nearly 10 per cent of housing units had ten or more rooms. By 1926, 30 per cent of the urban population and a quarter of the rural population still lived in overcrowded housing with three or more people per room.

When it came to health, TB was still prevalent, and the 1926 census records 4,500 deaths that year. Health, welfare and choice were intrinsically linked. In 1908 the introduction of the old-age pension would have an impact on succession and the transfer of through the generations. Initially a payment of 5s for those over 70 years of age, a cut in 1924 would be vehemently opposed. Another key measure prior to independence was the 1911 National Insurance Act.

In 1923, out of a workforce of about a million, 420,000 people were insured under the Act. In 1925, the Poor Law was officially “abolished”, but many of the workhouse buildings continued to be used as county institutions. By the 1950s, 1 percent of the population would be in one of Ireland’s many institutions – and gender, class and societal norms were critical to who was placed there.

Education was one of the few areas of significant and immediate change in the new state. Immersion education and a plan to “re-Gaelicise” children were a key component of the Irish Free State. Infant classes would be taught entirely through Irish, and all other classes would receive one hour of Irish per day. By 1934 it was agreed that history, geography, music and physical education would also be taught through Irish – policies that would remain up to the 1960s. School attendance was another key issue.

From 1892 parents were required to send children between the ages of six and 14 to school for at least 75 days a year, but rural areas were excluded, as children could be kept out of school if they were prevented by “domestic necessity … husbandry and the ingathering of crops, or giving assistance in the fisheries, or other work requiring to be done at a particular time or season”. In the early 1920s parliament debated raising the age to 16 and enforcing a greater number of attendance days. The result was the 1926 School Attendance Act, which may have had very positive intentions but would be directly associated with the transfers of thousands of children to industrial schools in the coming decades for school non-attendance.

Leisure time and sport increased in people's lives from the 19th century, and by 1922 the GAA and sport more generally occupied an important place. Music also had a key status, much moving to the dancehalls in the Irish Free State, with the promotion of Irish music especially. In the US, My Man by Fanny Brice was No 1 in 1922. Cinema was a treat for most but extremely popular, and in 1922 audiences could see a range of films including What's Your Hurry, The Fighting Schoolmaster, Handy Andy, Tin Pan Alley, Why Girls Leave Home, Pollyanna, Thy Shall Soul Bear Witness and The Gamblers.

The National Folklore Collection shows us that children played many of the games we still see today – hopscotch, tip the can, boardgames, comic books. With a literacy level of over 90 percent, reading was still a pastime for many, albeit one that would be affected by censorship laws over the coming decade.

Love, sex, sexuality and marriage were complicated issues, and would become more controlled by the State in the coming years. For most in rural Ireland, the “match” or arranged marriages based often on land were the norm, while those in urban areas and in poorer circumstances could often have more freedom. Yet parental authority and consent was a must, as was the need to wait until marriage to have sex.

Even given the huge societal pressures, we know many people did have relationships before marriage, some ending in shotgun weddings, many in women and young girls being placed in myriad of Ireland’s institutions. The darker aspects of this history have revealed much about power dynamics, culture and social control – as well as revealing how restricted many people’s choices could be. It doesn’t mean they did not have successful marriages or relationships, but the parameters were rigid.

Disappointment could also be a feature of marriage. In 1923 the Northern Standard proclaimed “Burn your love letters ladies”, referring to the need to lower expectations of love once married in comparison to the courting and wooing stage – “A happily married woman can cause herself some uneasiness through reading the letters written by her husband during their engagement”.

The result of much of the restrictions on marriage and concerns for succession would lead Ireland to hold the very unusual title of having the highest birth rate in Europe in the 1950s, but the lowest marriage rate. For many, those who were gay or queer or those who had not been allowed to marry or couldn't afford to, the Irish Free State was not an inclusive one – and leaving was the best option.

Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley is Head of the Department of History, National University of Ireland Galway. She is a social historian of modern Ireland.