Dublin: A City At War
The city was beset by problems other than conflict in the run-up to the Rising, poverty and moral decay chief among them, writes Padraig Yeates
Mr Alfie Byrne was elected MP to the British House of Commons for Dublin Harbour in a by-election on October 1, 1915, but lost his seat in 1918. In the 1922 elections, the first to be held in Ireland after the Treaty, he was elected to Dáil Éireann for the Dublin Mid constituency. From then until his death he was an Independent TD, except from 1944 until 1948 when he was a member of the Seanad. Alfie Byrne was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin a record ten times between 1930 and 1955. The by-election caused by his death was won by his son Patrick Byrne.
Dublin in 1916 was very much a city at war. There were uniforms everywhere. Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army contingents regularly marched and drilled with weapons through the streets. The British garrison was relatively small but there were always troops on leave from the Curragh, not to mention the constant flow of men to Britain and the front, and the counter flow of casualties arriving in the port, whence they were discreetly taken by motor ambulances to the city’s hospitals for treatment and rehabilitation.
War reports filled the newspapers and, if shortages of paper, ink and lead had reduced these drastically in size, they accentuated the prominence given to bulletins from the front, which increasingly included photographs of Irish officers killed or missing in action.
The war proved a mixed blessing for patrons of the performing arts. Ironically, the outbreak of war witnessed the eclipse of military brass bands and their replacement on bandstands in parks and other places of public entertainment by pipers and Irish traditional ensembles that were now becoming more fashionable.
However, British soldiers were among the chief patrons of the music halls and of their new rivals, the cinemas. The questionable morals of some shows had led to the emergence of vigilance committees by 1916 involving all of the Christian churches. Even if respectable citizens refused to patronise plays such as Five Nights and films such as the Circus of Death, the posters advertising them left little to the imagination.
Unfortunately, the city council had omitted to appoint censors under the 1909 Cinematograph Act in order to save the ratepayers money and there was no provision to do so in the 1916 budget. Censorship of the theatre was pointless as many of the shows were financed by the War Office to entertain the troops and had been passed by the military censor.
Respectable Dubliners of all religious and political persuasions were outraged by the cultural contamination of the war’s underbelly. Ladies’ patrols established to police the “low saloon” of O’Connell Street were staffed by Catholic and Protestant moral vigilantes, assisted by DMP escorts.
The war also forced itself into the consciousness of Dubliners in more ubiquitous ways. The U-boat threat in the Irish Sea had driven up the price of marine insurance which, in turn, increased the cost of imports such as sugar, tea, coal and oil. Homes had to rely on slack-laden coal from Scotland that replaced the high-quality anthracite of south Wales, now diverted to the war economy. Turf and wood replaced some of the shortfall in the home, but businesses using electricity from the corporation’s power station reduced opening hours, hospitals lowered ambient temperatures and the corporation itself postponed investment in badly needed new plant to keep costs down.
Nor was Dublin benefitting from employment generated by slum clearance programmes in Britain, introduced to sweeten the bitter pill of total war. By the time the legislation was extended to Ireland, the funds had all been assigned by the exchequer, Dublin’s housing crisis worsened.
Not surprisingly, the city council became increasingly critical of the war effort and of the failure of the Irish Party leader John Redmond to secure either funds for housing or war contracts. Large employers such as Guinness and Jameson’s were urging employees to join the colours because beer and whiskey were being taxed out of existence. Guinness’s offered men half-pay if they joined the army because it was cheaper than employing them full-time. By the time the war was over it would have paid more than £76,000 to employees at the front.
(Half-pay was based on what they earned in the brewery, irrespective of the rank held in the army. Managers, professionals such as accountants or engineers, as well as senior supervisory staff, could expect to be given commissions. However, most employees were unskilled manual workers who would join as private soldiers and might aspire to become NCOs.)
Unlike Belfast, Dublin lacked industries that could feed the war machine. Anti-profiteering taxes introduced by the British government were levied on all profits exceeding the average in the three years preceding the war, but a combination of foot and mouth in 1912 and the Great Lockout of 1913-1914 meant Dublin firms had depressed takings in these years, adding to their woes.
However, it was possible to make war pay, as the Dublin dockyard showed. By 1916, it had expanded from ship maintenance and repairs to manufacturing gun platforms, paravanes and freighters. It even developed a shell factory that employed local women and gave preference to war widows. But then the dockyard was run by a couple of emigre Scots and the workforce was a curious amalgam of craft workers from Belfast and the Clyde, many of them Orangemen and their Dublin counterparts who had traditional links to the IRB.
In the lead-up to the Rising, the yard was used surreptitiously to manufacture munitions, many of which were stored in Liberty Hall where the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and the Irish Citizen Army were based. Despite the conflicting political allegiances of the workforce, there was little of the sectarian tension that marred the Belfast yards. Practically the entire workforce contributed to the Prince of Wales fund and British war bonds, so that putative Irish rebels were investing in a British victory. But then many of the men who turned out on Easter Monday thought they were engaging in nothing more than a routine route march.
On the eve of the Rising, Dublin’s principal role in the British war effort was as a provider of cannon fodder and of port facilities to export agricultural produce, further increasing the cost of foodstuffs in the shops. The price of fodder in particular was a problem because the city was largely dependent on its 205 dairy yards and their 5,000 cows for milk. As the British army had first call on fodder within 10 miles of the city and the chief alternative source, the Guinness brewery, had cut back drastically on production, milk prices were coming under severe pressure by 1916.
The most surprising aspect of life in the city was that there was not greater discontent. However, the strong poll by the Labour candidate in the first Dublin byelection of 1915 to fill an Irish Party vacancy at Westminster and the victory of a nationalist outsider called Alfie Byrne in the second byelection of the year, running on an anti-conscription ticket, were straws in the wind. The loss of many Dublin reservists in the opening battles of the war had mainly affected inner-city working-class communities but the bloodletting at Gallipoli in 1915 seeped into all strata of society.
Nor did Dubliners have to rely on anti-war propaganda sheets such as the Gael or the Workers Republic for an alternative view of the war. They could hear about its realities from soldiers who were absentees or open deserters from their units. Many of these men were eventually caught because of anti-social behaviour, possibly indicating post-traumatic stress disorder, but few were surrendered to the authorities by their own despite severe penalties for harbouring deserters.
By January 1916, these men accounted for 44 per cent of all males arrested by the DMP. Admittedly, the weeks after Christmas were always the worst for soldiers failing to return to their units, but absentees and deserters in Dublin still accounted for a third of all men arrested for criminal offences during the year.
Juveniles (under 17) ran them a close second, accounting for another 25 per cent. The latter’s offences ranged from stealing sweets to highly organised gangs engaged in housebreaking and robbing coal trains. Some gangs were run by married women in the tenements who acted as receivers, a pattern of activity that long predated the Great War.
By contrast, there is little to indicate from the DMP arrest books that the force was operating in a city teetering on the brink of insurrection. When a 16 -year-old student called John Lemass was arrested for manslaughter after accidentally shooting his two-year-old brother in January 1916, there was no reference to his membership of the Irish Volunteers.
The case never proceeded to court because of “information refused” on the circumstances of the death, a not uncommon outcome to such investigations. There were only two other fatal shootings dealt with by the DMP in the first half of 1916 – both involved civilians from the country whose cases were regarded as too serious to be dealt with locally. The accused were subsequently discharged.
Less than half a dozen cases were brought against civilians in the city between January and the outbreak of the Rising for possession of service rifles. Penalties were surprisingly light, ranging from a £2 fine in the case of a widow to two months hard labour for a porter.
On the other hand, soldiers found guilty of stealing or selling rifles could face up to six months in prison or be returned to their unit for punishment. Theft or illegal possession of other military property was widespread. Cases ranged from illegal possession of a pair of soldiers’ drawers, to blankets, boots, and trousers. One case involved illegal possession of a “military donkey” by a cab driver. He was acquitted. However, a civilian arrested for wearing a British officer’s uniform in the Provincial Hotel was sentenced to three months’ hard labour.
The authorities also took a dim view of attempts to defraud the War Office. Women falsely claiming separation money could face up to three months in prison, a lengthy sentence by the standards of the day. A labourer found guilty of rape in the lead-up to Easter Week also received three months. But there were very few arrests for sexual offences and even fewer convictions.
All of the accused were working class with the exception of a barrister convicted of sending indecent communications through the post. He was also the only man (and they were all male offenders) who was sent to the Richmond asylum for treatment rather than prison.
The most frequent sexual offences related to youths loitering in the vicinity of the Royal Barracks and soldiers charged with buggery. The first category were usually dealt with by the Probation Act and the latter by fines. The handful of prosecutions for sexual offences suggests that they were of little concern to the DMP, despite a wide range of groups including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, female suffrage campaigners, trade unionists and clergy campaigning on issues of public morality. Child traders were considered to be particularly at risk but the only regular police drives in response to these concerns were routine crackdowns on brothels and soliciting.
Despite the widespread belief that the war, and particularly the British army, posed major threats to public health and morality, the number of women arrested for soliciting began to fall sharply after 1915, as did cases of child cruelty and neglect. Far from the war corrupting women, as many nationalists feared, the payment of separation allowances to soldiers’ dependants and the creation of jobs for women in the slowly burgeoning war industries provided escape routes from the poverty that bred prostitution.
The long-feared upsurge in sexually transmitted diseases only occurred after the war ended and was indeed far worse than in British cities; but it peaked in 1935, over a decade after the last British troops left Dublin. Lack of public health services and public health education proved a far deadlier enemy than the empire.
Meanwhile, the question remains, why was the DMP relatively supine in the face of blatant defiance of the law by the Volunteers and ICA? The answer is that chief secretary Augustine Birrell and his under secretary Matthew Nathan were anxious to avoid provoking a Rising. This was most obvious in the City of Dublin Steamship dispute when the employers urged Nathan to use the army against the ITGWU to break the strike. Nathan declined on the basis that the union “was not merely a Labour organisation”, fearing that a confrontation with the ICA could lead to the very insurrection he was trying to avoid.
Of course, the real breakdown in law and order occurred during the Rising, which caused major aberrations in Dublin’s crime patterns, but that is another story. Padraig Yeates is author of A City in Wartime: Dublin 1914-1918