Ramping up home building isn’t impossible - we’ve done it before

From 1948 to 1964, roughly 137,000 dwellings were built with State aid, 63,000 of which were by local authorities

Tá Éire ag Forbairt (Ireland is Building) was the confident title of a gleaming brochure issued by the first coalition government in 1949. It sought to contrast “the past” with “the present and future” by juxtaposing a photograph of inner-city tenements with a housing scheme in Sallynoggin, Co Dublin, designed by architect Dáithí Hanly, which involved the building of 1,000 houses – a mixture of semidetached and terraced units – on a 400-acre site.

The brochure was introduced by Michael Keyes, the Labour Party minister for local government, and Noël Browne, the Clann na Poblachta minister for health, announcing “the resources of the nation are being used to erect within 10 years 110,000 dwellings, costing £100,000,000″, and that “for success in these plans, more skilled workers are needed than are available at present in Ireland. We must bring back numbers of our craftsmen who left Ireland in less favourable times”. The great undertaking, it was promised, “will ensure full and constant employment for workers in all branches of building and in attendant industries” who “will live and work among their own people and they will enjoy the happiness of knowing that every day’s toil is given to freedom’s splendid task: the rebuilding of Ireland for our children’s children”. Copies were also distributed in Britain to entice Irish emigrants home.

The targets were subsequently compromised; “less favourable times” belonged to the future as well as the past, as the scale of emigration from Ireland in the 1950s underlined. But a mockery was not made of the ambitions. From 1948-1964, roughly 137,000 dwellings were built with State aid, of which 74,000 were provided by private enterprise and 63,000 by local authorities.

The promises of that era were partly about a necessary shift in political focus to prioritise social issues. Browne, aged 32 when elected in 1948, was intensely dedicated to the eradication of tuberculosis and the building of hospitals, and delivered on many of his promises. It is hardly surprising his name was attached to the housing drive, given the close association between health and decent housing. Labour leader William Norton, as minister for social welfare, also succeeded in ramping up welfare payments.


Housing was particularly urgent given that only 1,460 houses had been built under State-aided schemes in 1947. The following year, the Fine Gael minister for finance, Patrick McGilligan, although demanding spending cuts, accepted that housing was “entitled to special consideration on social grounds”. Joe Blowick, the Clann na Talmhan leader and minister for lands, also achieved much in land reclamation, while also stepping up rural electrification. That government is often more remembered for controversial episodes – particularly the row over maternity services that led to the resignation of Browne, and the declaration of the Irish Republic, which formally came in to being 75 years ago this week.

That coalition’s efforts are a reminder of how measures to improve quality of life in a few targeted areas can yield significant results relatively quickly in an ideologically disparate government. There was another dynamic at work in 1948; the impetus to, in the words of the opposition parties after 16 years of unbroken Fianna Fáil power, “put them out”. Housing shortages also featured prominently as a theme of that year’s general election campaign.

But there was also the danger of over-promising, and the impact of currents beyond domestic control, including international war and inflation. Such enduring themes bring us back to the 1949 brochure and towards the current promise of new Taoiseach Simon Harris to preside over the building of 250,000 houses in five years. Also relevant are the declarations of Sinn Féin, who in 2015 said it would build 100,000 “social and affordable homes by 2030″ and in 2022 promised to build 100,000 public homes over five years in government. Government and Opposition should consider the ambitions of 1949, not just regarding targets, but in relation to the balance between public and private housing.

As to skilled labour shortages, we are back to the future regarding construction workers, given the planned marketing campaign to lure home such Irish workers abroad; an estimated 50,000 of them are needed. Where are they going to live while building?

A report of the National Youth Council of Ireland on 18-29 year olds, State of Our Young Nation, published this week, suggests housing is the most pressing concern of 67 per cent of them. It would be interesting to know, too, what they think of the meaning of the Irish Republic on its 75th birthday. While the focus in 1949 was on political sovereignty, a sense of the imperative of a decent social contract looms larger now. Auction politics around housing are inevitable, but “freedom’s splendid task” should prompt more realism and honesty, whether it’s “put them out” or “keep them in”.