A city under maximum pressure
IRISH HISTORY: Pádraig Yeates’s latest book in his series about Dublin during its most turbulent decade is absorbing and beautifully written
City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-21 By Pádraig Yeates Gill & Macmillan, 340pp, €20
On November 10th, 1919, a Dublin newspaper vendor, James Hurley, was wrongly identified by an ex-serviceman as the person who had attempted to murder a detective from G division, the intelligence branch of the Dublin Castle administration, on Cuffe Street. Hurley had no involvement with Sinn Féin and was himself a veteran of the first World War. Nonetheless, he was convicted on the evidence of his identifier, and he would have been hanged if his alleged victim had died. He was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, released during the truce in 1921 and killed during the Civil War while helping a wounded soldier to Jervis Street Hospital.
This is one of the many stories of ordinary lives disrupted by violence in Pádraig Yeates’s absorbing and beautifully written new book in his series about Dublin city during its most turbulent decade. The series began with Lockout, the definitive history of Ireland’s biggest labour dispute, and continued with A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918, which illuminated the city during the period when more than 25,000 of its inhabitants served in the first World War, and the 1916 Rising and its aftermath began to change everything for the city and the country.
The new volume begins in the wake of the 1918 election, in which some women could vote for the first time and which gave Sinn Féin a clear majority.
We are now in the territory of practical change from one administration to another, as Dáil Éireann was established in the city in 1919 and began to demand allegiance from local authorities, including Dublin Corporation, and to set up a shadow administration to run the country in opposition to the old regime. The three years covered were marked by considerable violence, as the authorities made the disastrous mistake of drafting in the Auxiliaries to help the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police counteract the increasingly sophisticated violence perpetrated by the IRA under the command of Dick McKee and later Oscar Traynor in Dublin, and ultimately overseen by Michael Collins.
Yeates covers the big, violent events, such as Bloody Sunday and the burning of the Custom House, in some detail, but the real focus of the book is on the difficult day-to-day business of keeping the city operating in the face of strikes, the withholding of funding from the local government board for essential services, a curfew that put extreme strain on the city’s lighting system, disputes with higher officials in the corporation and, not least, enormous claims for damages inflicted by both the IRA and the Auxiliaries (responsible for many more than the IRA).
Yeates has fruitfully mined the contemporary minute books of Dublin Corporation for the period, and presents a fresh, interesting account of how revolutionaries actually deal with government when the rhetoric has to stop and hard facts must be faced.
After the 1920 municipal elections, Sinn Féin and Republican Labour held a majority of the seats on Dublin Corporation. The rest were held by the Municipal Reform Association (a combination of unionists and some former Irish Parliamentary Party members) and Independents, as well as PT Daly’s Trades Council Labour Group, which , presaging things to come, had split with William O’Brien’s Republican Labour Group. This meant that O’Brien and Daly, two of the ablest people on the corporation, were at each other’s throats for most of this period.