Dublin 1922: A Darlin' City
"A long, lurching row of discontented incurables" was O'Casey's description of the tenements which made Dublin, in the words of the socialist James Connolly, "infamous for the perfectly hellish conditions under which its people are housed".
Even Calcutta with its notorious plague and cholera was outstripped in its death rate by the Dublin of 1912. The infant mortality rate was alarming, and squalid living conditions were responsible for a third of all yearly deaths. Twenty thousand large families lived in single tenement rooms with often their only water supply, shared by as many as ninety people, a single tap in the outside yard. O'Casey shows a certain creative mercy in allowing Juno and her family to inhabit two rooms, somewhat above the worst level of desperation.
The commonest cause of death was tuberculosis, or the "Viceregal Microbe" as one Nationalist termed it, an apt name, for the eighteenth century tenements of central Dublin with their "minute vermin-like life", in Joyce's words, were ('the gaunt spectral mansions in which the old nobility of Dublin had roistered", before the Act of Union made their city a deposed capital.
Twenty-two thousand people lived in houses registered unfit for human habitation: in 1913 two large tenements collapsed, killing seven and injuring many. The Dublin Corporation were lax in enforcing Public Health laws: several aldermen themselves owned tenements and, since the Corporation at this time was solidly Nationalist, this laxity widened the rift between some of the working class and the Nationalist movement.
To this environment add the widespread destruction of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and a Civil War which in its first week alone caused £5 million worth of damage to Dublin. Add chronic unemployment which men masked by calling themselves "general labourers"; add agreements employers and publicans that workers be wages inside pubs, where they drank them away; and the social background to Juno and the Paycock becomes tragically vivid.
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Last modified: 2012-03-15