Tales from bedsitland: a grubby rite of passage for young Irish

Irish Times readers share their experiences of shared toilets and one-bar electric heaters

 

Banned finally in 2013, bedsits often provoke nostalgia amongst their one-time occupants – even if the conditions were often grim.

The often-maligned bedsit was as much a rite of passage for generations of renters as it was a place to stay – a feature of Irish life when money was tight and standards were less than exacting.

Their possible return as a solution to the housing crisis has provoked a wave of reminiscences from Irish Times readers.

Many of those remember unscrupulous landords; damp, cramped conditions; meter slots for electricity; one-bar electric heaters; pay phones in the hallway and the dubious pleasure of having to share toilets with others.

Yet bedsitland can also provoke a twinge of nostalgia. Bedsit dwellers were by definition not encumbered by mortgages or families. They were usually young, frequently broke and – through choice or necessity – willing to endure conditions their older selves would never countenance.

The writer Amanda Bell stayed in a bedsit in Harcourt Street while studying for her finals in TCD in 1991.

The place was so small she could make breakfast, eat it and then wash up “without getting off the bed”. The windows were barred, the carpets sticky and it was so cold she wore a hat to bed at night.

Her parents worried about the fire safety in the house, “but at 22 I was oblivious to such concerns”. It was 10 minutes’ walk to college and it cost £25 a week.

Freelance journalist Conor Kane remembered his Rathmines bedsit was about as big as a hotel room, with a two-ring cooker and a shower.

It was so grubby he learned to swim at Rathmines swimming pool which had as much to do the with being able to use the showers as anything else. Still, the bedsit cost him £27 a week and was 15 minutes’ walk to college. Needs must.

Closet with a bed

For £20 in the 1990s Tim Walsh got himself a closet with a bed, mini-fridge and an electric kettle. He needed 50p pieces for the shower when he got home from work at 2am, and the pay phone on the wall never ceased to trill at the most inappropriate time.

“Eventually, I moved into a proper flat on Richmond Street South with my own toilet and shower. That cost me 40 quid a week. Like a palace compared to that bedsit,” he said.

Most people who have ever been a student or lived away from home at a young age have stayed in a bedsit or know somebody who did.

Irish Times travel editor Joan Scales lived in a bedsit in Clapham, south London in the 1970s. The first place she looked at had a large hole in the floor. Don’t worry, the landlord breezily told her. He would put a table over it.

“I did find a somewhat presentable bedsit for £10 a week nearby in a house shared with five other girls,” she remembers. “In a funny way it helped me become much tidier. There was so little space that I had to hang up my clothes as I took them off.

“We shared a tiny kitchen on the first floor, with two fridges and a cooker; you ate in your room. The toilet was on the top floor and a bit of a hike from my ground-floor room. There was a bathroom with a gas geyser on the ground floor, and no shower, just a bath.”

Jasper Murphy was a student in UCD during the 1980s and now runs McCarthy’s Bar in Fethard, Co Tipperary.

He fled from one bedsit in Townsend Street in Dublin, where the bathroom window was ringed with barbed wire, to a bedsit in Ranelagh which had two beds in it.

When he explained to the landlord that he and his friend wished to have separate rooms, the landlord exclaimed “no problem”.

‘No ventilation’

Mr Murphy continues: “And the following day when we returned from college, he had put a wall into the already tiny room and made it two rooms. The front one had the window. The back one had no natural light, a kitchenette and a toilet. And no ventilation.

“Which we pointed out to the landlord. ‘No problem,’ he replied once again. The following day while we were at college, someone hammered a hole in the external wall and put in a fan.

“We stayed there for a while and the flat across the hall became vacant. We literally jumped across the hall without telling the landlord. It wasn’t much bigger, but it was better.”

Helen Farrell from Lucan lived in a three-storey bedsit on the North Circular Road in Dublin. Back in 1995 it was known as “murder mile” and criminality also extended to teenagers doing late-night donuts in stolen cars on the waste ground outside.

She recalled: “The carpet was a 1960s red pattern that reminded a friend of a diagram of blood corpuscles, and always smelt stale, no matter how many Shake n’ Vacs I carried out.

“There was no central heating, just a Superser that shot out a flame well past its safety grating when lit, and a raw cold crept into my bones that winter that seemed to settle in for the long haul.

“I was never alone there as I always had the company of the see-through book-lice that lived on the cream wallpaper. I introduced the first and only smoke alarm to the property but doubted it would make much difference on the third floor.”

Foldout couch

Gavin Crowley remembers the loneliness of living in a bedsit off the South Circular Road as a mature student in the late 1990s. His bed was a foldout couch.

At 25, he was too old to share with younger students and preferred to live on his own. Bedsits were often the only option for those on a budget who wanted to avoid what Jean-Paul Sartre called the hell that is other people.

One day Gavin lost the only key to the front door. As his landlord was not available, he accessed his living quarters through a window. Once, he was late with the rent and feared his landlord would use the missing key to evict him.

He remembered: “I was paranoid that the landlord would put me out of the place if he knew what was happening. So I ended up going through this vicious cycle of meeting him with the cash, not asking about a new key and continuing to go in and out of the front window. Ridiculous I know.”

Galway native William Tritschler said he had spent much of his life working in the Third World “but the dingy, soulless, hopelessness of bedsits can beat it all”.

Bedsits reminded him of “grubby gaberdine coats and small, compressed cardboard hand cases. Why was it always raining?”

He for one has no nostalgic hankering for their return. “Bedsits were banned for a reason. The authorities completely failed to guarantee decent standards for people in this type of accommodation,” he said.

“They also failed to protect the public from rip-offs by landlords. The chances of any future improvement in this direction is just not possible. I hear the cash-register bell ringing.”