A City in Decline

Mary E. Daly, Dublin, the Deposed Capital: a Social and Economic History, 1860-1914, reprint, Cork: Cork University Press, 2011, 373 pages.

ISBN 9780902561335

RRP €19.95.

When I was a student in Dublin during the late 1970s, working on a PhD thesis dealing with 19th century Irish social history, I was very conscious that most Irish historians at the time were interested in political history, especially nationalist movements, and economic history to the extent that it affected politics, especially in terms of the land question. So I was very pleased during my research to come across a recent MA thesis completed at UCD that examined the social history of Dublin between 1860 and 1914. I recollect that the thesis was not very well written and was very poorly printed, but it was a mine of valuable factual information about the living conditions of the Dublin working class. Poverty, housing, employment, health and crime were all investigated, as were the city’s politics and finances. In 1984 I was living in Belfast when Cork University Press published a book based on this thesis. I bought it straight away even though the price, 21 Irish punts, was rather steep for my budget at the time.

In 2011 the book, Dublin, the Deposed Capital by Mary E. Daly, was reprinted by Cork University Press. I would stress that this is a reprint, not a new edition: it is an exact copy of the 1984 book, without any updating of the text or sources—even the publisher’s blurb is the same. However, this is a paperback and some of the photographs used are different. The murky photograph of a claustrophobic, crowded alley featured on the original hardback cover has been replaced by a grander photograph of O’Connell Street and Nelson’s Pillar. I suspect though, that the original cover reflected the contents of the book better.

Over the last thirty years significantly more research has been done on Dublin between the 1860s and 1910s. When Daly’s book first appeared, the only comparable work I’m aware of was John V. O’Brien’s ‘Dear, Dirty Dublin’: a City in Distress, 1899-1916, published by the University of California Press in 1982. During the 1990s, however, important studies in historical geography, like F.H.A. Aalen and Kevin Whelan (eds), Dublin City and County (1992) and Jacinta Prunty, Dublin Slums, 1800-1925 (1998) appeared, while in 1991, 1994 and 1996 Kevin C. Kearns published three valuable oral histories of working-class street, tenement and pub life in Dublin during the early and mid 20th century. Given all this new work, a reviewer is inevitably driven to ask: why reprint a nearly thirty-year-old book; wouldn’t an updated, revised edition be more useful today?

The subtitle of Daly’s book, and also that of O’Brien’s, points to one of the major themes running through the history of Dublin between the Famine and World War I: while cities were growing rapidly in size and prosperity around the world—not least in Australia—Dublin was a deposed and distressed capital, a city in decline. As Daly points out, at the time of the Union with Britain in 1801, Dublin was the second largest city in the British Isles. However, by 1860 it had slipped to fifth place and by 1890 Belfast had overtaken it to become Ireland’s largest city. Belfast’s growth was based on industrialisation, which largely bypassed Dublin; from the 1840s manufacturing actually shrank in the capital. Instead Dublin became home to many civil servants, doctors, lawyers and academics; it was also the centre of Irish banking and insurance. But working-class employment opportunities were more limited. Dublin was a transport hub tied to trade with Britain, but here too it fell behind Belfast, which by 1889 had become Ireland’s largest port; during the first decade of the 20th century even Cork was developing faster as a port than Dublin.

As a result of the city’s poor economic performance, after 1841 ‘the proportion of the population in the unskilled and semi-skilled classes rose while the proportion in the skilled class fell’ (p. 67). The Dublin working class contained an ‘abnormal’ number of casual labourers and, as a consequence, high levels of under-employment were ‘chronic’ (p. 77). Under-employment of course spells poverty, and thus Dublin’s two large workhouses certainly did not lack for inmates, with numbers more than doubling during 1870-1912 from around 15,000 to 36,000. That living conditions were appalling in 19th century British industrial and port cities like London, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow is well known. Yet, as Daly points out, Dublin ‘had a much higher death-rate than the worst English or Scottish cities’ (p. 2). In 1901 the Dublin death rate among those aged between 1 and 60 years was 75 per cent higher than the comparable English rate. One of the greatest scourges was tuberculosis (TB). While all classes suffered, the working class was by far the hardest hit with TB mortality rates in 1912 being about eight times higher among labourers and their families than among professional groups.

Mary Daly went on after this book to publish a large number of other economic and social studies of modern Ireland. Her work, however, has been criticised for being too statistical, detached and clinical. Certainly many general readers are likely to find this book rather heavy going: it is very dense and factual and the style of writing is decidedly pedestrian. Nevertheless, I for one am glad to see the book back in print again and available to a new generation of historians and those interested in the history of Dublin. The story of Ireland’s capital in the half century between 1860 and 1914 is a sad—perhaps even a tragic—one. A reader probably needs to go to James Joyce’s Dubliners or Ulysses for the drama of that story, yet Daly’s copious facts and figures, although dryly presented, still convey a vivid impression of paralysis and distress.

Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne