Irish Roots


June 16th, 2014

Records for Bloomsday

John Grenham

Sometimes the biggest obstacle to getting the best out of a set of records is your own entrenched presumptions about what they really contain. For years I had a blind spot about electoral records, lazily assuming that, before the advent of universal suffrage in the 1920s, they covered only a tiny, propertied elite. Working on the Dublin City Library and Archives electoral lists from 1898 to 1916 (dublinheritage.ie/burgesses) has opened my eyes.

The first thing to be said about these records is that the originals are unusable. In the printed volumes, each year has 140 subsections, adding up to about 2,000 pages, with most of these subsections cutting across the same streets and even the same households. And there are no indexes. So it is only when the lists are digitised and searchable by street and name that they become accessible.

But then they are extraordinary. The right to vote in local elections was vastly expanded in 1898, with the creation of an entirely new class of voter, the "inhabitant householder", who possessed no property, and so paid no property tax, merely having a stable address. This covered the vast standing army of Dublin's manual workers, surviving precariously, most of them occupying multi-family tenements.

And here they are in these lists, living in the great belt of city-centre slums that arced around from East Wall, Monto and Gardiner Street through North King Street, over to the Liberties and down through York Street to the Quays: household by household, room by room, year after year. Joyce's Dublin emerges vividly, stinking, dingy and overcrowded to a degree that is impossible to imagine now. The genesis of Dubliners and Ulysses becomes much clearer when you grasp the terrible inescapable intimacy enforced by these teeming streets.

Currently online are the years 1908, 1909 and 1910. In the autumn, 1911, 1912 and 1915 will go live. The project is part of Dublin City Council's 1916 commemorations, so the full set will be available before April 2016.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishroots(at)irishtimes.com.

Current column

2014

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2011

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