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Housing for all, 1920s style: Big problems, complex solutions

By 1922, in response to a widespread housing crisis, the notion that housing was bound up with a stable society and good citizenship had taken hold

As contemporary housing provision in Ireland has increasingly taken on the characteristics of a “wicked problem”, it is often tempting to look with nostalgia at the past. In truth, the rose-tinted view of past housing provision by the State and local authorities belies the complexity and nuances of its almost 150-year history. While historic housing problems and their solutions are not directly comparable with those of the present, it is nevertheless interesting to explore the circumstances which led to the provision of homes to many and gave rise to distinctive streetscapes and communities.

State involvement in Irish housing began in the countryside. Indeed, by the early 20th century, Ireland was considered to be well ahead of its European counterparts in terms of rural housing for the “labouring classes”. By contrast, urban intervention lagged behind significantly, despite the clear severity of the housing problem. A slow move away from laissez-faire ideology and towards intervention in housing provision over the course of the 19th century was hampered by cumbersome and ineffective legislation. Dublin became notorious for its substandard housing, particularly in the form of one-roomed tenements, although poor conditions were not confined to the capital, but were widespread across urban Ireland. The earliest arguments in favour of intervention focused on public health concerns, as discussed in our book Building Healthy Homes. Death rates in the urban slums were appallingly high. It was felt that adequate housing with access to clean air, light and sanitation would ease the situation. Less attention was paid to the underlying issue of urban poverty and structural inequality. Low-income families would struggle to pay rents and — as was found across the country in the 1920s and 1930s — affordability of new housing schemes would become a major problem.

At the birth of the Free State, urban local authorities had been building housing for almost 40 years, although the scale of construction was relatively small, with just 8,750 urban dwellings completed. Before the outbreak of the first World War, an inquiry had found that solving Dublin’s housing problem would require at least 14,000 dwellings, a number which had continued to grow in the intervening period. The housing problem which faced Dublin — and the Free State as a whole — a century ago had taken on new characteristics as a result of the upheavals of the previous decade. This was no longer just an issue faced by the urban working classes. There was a shortage of housing for all classes because of a hiatus in construction caused by wartime conditions and postwar price inflation. Even the promise of the new 1919 Housing Act had done little to stimulate house-building, with only 800 houses completed. The need was extreme. The new government was faced with nothing short of a housing crisis.

It was in this context that one of the first acts of the provisional government in March 1922 was to announce a £1 million grant for housing. The figure might have made for attractive headlines but, spread between 71 local authorities across the country, the reality was less impressive. Ballina Urban District Council completed 10 houses under the “million-pound” grant, while in Athlone, where it was estimated that 2,000 people required housing, just 11 houses were built. In fact, only 2,000 houses were built under the grant nationwide. Far more important than the actual construction figures, however, was the fact that the new government had signalled its intent: housing was essential.


While earlier debates about local authority housing had emphasised public health, the new Dáil recognised that the issue extended far beyond physical benefits, and was linked to the whole question of nation-building. The “duty” of the “native government” to tackle the question was emphasised. In 1923, as the country emerged from civil war, it was further argued that better-accommodated workers would be more able to help in the work of reconstruction. Labour TD William O’Brien suggested that the government could not afford to ignore “the housing question”, as it could potentially “pull down the strongest State they can build up”. Parliamentarians frequently asserted the need to do better than the previous administration. The notion that housing was bound up with a stable society and good citizenship had clearly taken hold. In 1924, WT Cosgrave, then president of the executive council, summed up this attitude by stating that “no populace housed as so many of the people of Dublin are can be good citizens, or loyal and devoted subjects of the State, no matter what the State may be”.

While already mooted in the prewar period, the ‘garden suburb’ came into its own in the 1920s

The well-intentioned desire to address a significant problem, to do better than what had been done before and to begin to build a new nation, was immediately challenged by the scale of the housing problem and the complexity of its solution. As Building Healthy Homes demonstrates, local authority housing schemes were invariably slow, costly and complex undertakings, sometimes hindered by sectional interests. Nevertheless, the renewed emphasis on the housing question coincided with the increasing popularity of a new approach to tackling its solution. While already mooted in the prewar period, the “garden suburb” came into its own in the 1920s, and its positive impacts are still evident in the suburban housing schemes which were completed in Dublin and many smaller Irish towns.

The belief that a new type of housing should be provided, the suburban house (or “cottage”) with garden, built at low densities (typically 10 to 12 houses per acre) on a healthy greenfield site, was the result of a number of factors. Within Ireland there was the generally negative perception of tenement or block flat-type housing and the belief that it led to the persistence of slum conditions. More broadly, these new standards were in keeping with the modern town planning movement which had been taking shape since the end of the previous century.

While suburban garden estates were widely promoted, particularly by middle-class organisations and bodies as diverse as the Mothers’ Union, the Catholic Church and the radical Tenants’ Association led by William Larkin, the solution was not universally accepted. In Dublin there were ongoing arguments that moving people from the city centre would take them from their communities and result in additional costs for the new residents, which they could ill afford. In other parts of the country too, there were cases of residents opposing the clearance of their homes, both due to place attachment and because of an inability to pay higher rents for improved accommodation. As is the still the case today, there was constant debate about housing — whether flats or houses were preferable, what was the appropriate number of rooms per dwelling, where the new housing should be located, what form of tenure was most desirable. Councillors wanted to provide decent housing for the “working classes”, but did not want to alienate the ratepayers who comprised the majority of their voters. The degree to which rents should be subsidised was an ongoing concern. If the authorities built dwellings which came within the income range of poorer tenants, there was a danger of recreating bad housing, but placing a continuing burden on rates was not desirable.

One of the distinctive features of most local authority housing built in Ireland in the 1920s was that it was sold to the residents either by outright purchase or, more commonly, through a “tenant purchase” scheme. This shift towards owner-occupation was largely a result of the highly challenging financial situation. Local authorities were trying to ensure that they availed of grant money and provided as many houses as possible, without burdening the rates. Sometimes the best way to do this was to sell off the houses built. Dublin Corporation opted for a tenant purchase model, first practised at Fairbrothers’ Fields, although a proposal to sell off existing corporation cottages had already been in discussion as early as 1920. The fact that “working class” residents could now aspire to own their homes was less an ideological statement than it was a pragmatic one.

Dublin Corporation’s scheme at Marino, now a very popular and highly regarded location, reflects the multiple pressures and concerns outlined above. In common with many housing schemes of the period, its evolution was protracted, but from the start, the corporation argued for the desirability of making the scheme a model one. It would show what could be done and serve as an exemplar, not just for local authorities, but for all builders. However, because of high construction costs, combined with the cap on all-in cost to avail of government grants, the main frontages of the site were not built by Dublin Corporation as originally intended. Instead, these prime sites were reserved for private developers (including public utility societies) who could afford to build to the higher standards desired by the corporation. This idea proved highly successful and what was originally another pragmatic solution became a core element of corporation housing schemes well into the 1960s.

By 1925, it was found that 22,000 families in Dublin were living in single rooms, although many were earning good wages, because of the housing shortage

Marino was the largest housing scheme to date, built at a then-unprecedented scale. With its low density, attractive open spaces, architectural diversity including variety of house types and building materials, Marino was indeed a model scheme, which was highly praised by a visiting deputation of the Garden Cities and Town Planning Association in 1928. Along with the subsequent corporation development at Drumcondra and the new 100-foot road (Griffith Avenue), it was described as “an asset of which the citizens may well feel proud”. Some 4,400 applications were received for the first 248 houses at Marino, despite the high purchase rents. All successful applications were from households of at least eight people. By 1925, it was found that 22,000 families in Dublin were living in single rooms, although many were earning good wages, because of the housing shortage. Dublin Corporation could therefore argue that building good-quality tenant purchase housing would alleviate pressure on the housing market — although it was effectively catering to the lower middle classes rather than those in greatest need.

By the late 1920s, however, the government recognised the need for policy change. A 1929 Department of Local Government and Public Health survey into housing conditions in urban areas demonstrated the need for an attack on Ireland’s urban slums, and thereafter the focus of funding would be on the most vulnerable members of society. Grants focused on lower-cost four-roomed houses where the all-in cost per house was not to exceed £350 (less than half that of Marino). Already the aspirational standards of the early 1920s had to make way for a more pragmatic vision. Subsequent legislation in 1931 and 1932 reinforced the emphasis on slum clearance and increased the rate of construction. Between 1932 and 1939, some 23,142 dwellings were built by urban local authorities in Ireland, more than two-thirds of all housing in these areas and a significant contribution to the overall national housing stock.

Through its various initiatives, the State was involved in the provision of more than 120,000 dwellings from 1923 to 1940. This impressive figure includes all housing which received State grants, including public, private and “self-help” housing, and reflects the belief, as expressed in a 1933 report of the Department of Local Government and Public Health, that “it is only by the co-operation of all sections of the community that the conditions under which so many of the inhabitants of our cities and towns live can be effectively remedied”. Despite significant difficulties and much criticism at the time, the housing policies of the 1920s and 1930s ensured that large numbers of families were rehoused in modern dwellings which, with their distinctive appearance and layout, reshaped Irish cities and towns.

Dr Ruth McManus is associate professor at the school of history and geography in Dublin City University and co-author, with Dr Joseph Brady, of Building Healthy Homes: Dublin Corporation’s First Housing Schemes 1880-1925 (Four Courts Press)