Dublin tenement Experience
Powerful. Harrowing. Sad. Enthralling. Vital.
This sums up the 45 minutes spent in the company of anu productions as they tried to reflect what life was like for people living in Tenement Houses in Dubln in 1913. These houses were home to up to 100 people, with as many as 20 in one room. People in Ireland seem to have a strange relationship with our history. It mainly revolves around the fact that this is an island and at some stage we became two countries. How we view history is usurped by where we stand on this (admittedly pretty big) question. We have monuments on our main streets and our capital is littered with references to figures in our history. Get a train to Connolly or Pearse Station, walk up Sean Mc Dermott street and across Parnell Street to our main thoroughfare, O connell (look them up you may be amazed). It is there where we see the GPO, Gresham Hotel and the statue of Big Jim Larkin (let’s pretend the spire doesn’t exist for the purpose of this exercise.) We do seem removed at times from this and the aestethic overrides the reality.
Big Jim proclaimed “The great appear great, because we are on our knees. Let us arise”. Of course it was Larkin who tried to mobilise people in 1913 to join a trade union and William Martin Murphy, the owner of the Irish Independent(amongst other enterprises that he ran) rallied against this. 600 Tramway workers were locked out of their job for being members of ITGWU and protests were held. These culminated in (another) Bloody Sunday on O Connell (then Sackville Street) as hundreds of people were injured when polic baton charged the crowds. Sympathetic strikes then broke out all over the city and over 20,000 people were locked out of their jobs by employers hell bent on breaking union influence.
This was all set against a backdrop of extreme poverty. People were barely making enough money to live on. Tenement houses were home to overcrowding and we are starkly told their story here. In a rivetting performance we are brought into each room in the house where there is a scene from the day. We are told of the collapse of a building that led to the death of two. We are told of the dilemna of the pawn office, were people went every week to sell their belongings in the hope they would have enough money the folliwng week to buy them back. We hear of a family hell bent on supporting larkin and standing up to their employer, that picture changes after 4 months and a cold winter when people couldn’t keep going to the soup kitchens for their food. They had literally nothing but their health which was rapidly diminishing. We are starkly brought back to those times, in a powerful way. Of course it being history means the story had already been written but there’s no escaping the facts. Armed with these facts we should be doing our level best to remember our past, celebrate it and use it to build a better future.
Tenement Houses were a huge part of Dublins history and we need to recognise it. A tenement museum should play its part in this, in the same way as 16 Moore Street, where the leaders of the 1916 rising (look it up) gave word to surrender and were captured. This buiding was earmarked to be part of a development as a shopping centre. The reason it hasn’t been demolished yet? The builder went bankrupt? That is the Ireland we are in today, shopping centres are more important than history (there is no reason why we can’t celebrate both if needs be).
A worrying aspect though is that the collective bargaining Larkin was looking for 100 years ago still doesn’t not exist in ireland today. We are one of three European Countries (out of 27) that doesn’t recognise it by law. PAWN SHOPS are also re-appeaing in Dublin today, so what has changed? Well we don’t have too many places where 100 people sleep under one roof, bar the number of homeless shelters that are also increasing, but there is an obsession with property that helped get this country into this mess. Larkins other slogan, “An injury to one is a concern to all” has as much relevance a century on.