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The City Spreads Out

Erika Hanna

Dublin 1950-1970, Houses, Flats and High Rise, by Joseph Brady, Four Courts Press, €26,95, 452 pp, ISBN: 978-1846825996

Dublin is not a Georgian city, or a medieval city, or a Viking city, no matter what’s shown on postcards, or what Fáilte Ireland likes to tell us. It is a mid-twentieth century city. It was in these decades that the sprawling suburbs where most of our lives take place were built. These places ‑ Ballyfermot, Finglas, Inchicore, with their distinctive concrete streets, magnolia streetnames, pebbledash terraced houses, and box hedges ‑ are in so many ways beautiful urban landscapes. Moreover, they play a crucial role in creating the niceties of the neighbourhood which underlie modern Irish society. Despite continuing internal migration from across Ireland throughout the twentieth century, Dublin did not take on the shifting anonymity which characterised urban cultures in most European capitals; instead the city sat uneasily between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, with its own distinctive culture of intimacy on a grand scale. Nowhere is the particular character of Irish social formation given greater expression than in the suburbs we choose to call home, the cul-de-sacs where we know our neighbours, but avoid them, the stilted drinks parties where we ask politely about their families but never expect an honest answer.

This story of these estates is the focus of Joseph Brady’s new study, Dublin, 1950-1970: Houses, Flats and High Rises. The book is by far the most comprehensive exploration to date of housing policy in Dublin during the mid-twentieth century. For those of us interested in the history of the city it provides an impressive level of detail regarding housing policy during the suburban developments of the 1950s, as Dublin witnessed a massive house-building programme run jointly by private builders and Dublin Corporation, and a huge outpouring of labour and manpower, at a time of budgetary limitations on the new state. It then moves on to explore how this housing policy shifted, first with a period of retrenchment in social expenditure during the era of Seán Lemass, and then to new—and short-lived—experiments with the system-built high-rise towers of Ballymun at the end of the period. The text is accompanied by a really impressive series of maps showing Dublin’s creeping expansion across agricultural land. Here we see older cultures and rural settlements reinterpreted through concrete and brick, as field boundaries became residential roads, old demesne walls marked the junctures between estates and the names of old farms or hills were attached to geometric crescents.

At the heart of this narrative is a story about place and class in Irish culture. Class consciousness underpinned a huge proportion of the decisions planners and builders made about where people should live. We can observe entwining of good intentions and the paternalistic, condescending politics embedded in the practices of local government from the notes and minutes of Dublin Corporation which form the basis of this study. City managers congratulated themselves as they built, planned and designed, while the city’s residents are referred to in the passive voice. They need to be “rehoused”, their homes are “detenanted”; working class women remain only objects of planning, frequently shut out from decisions about the homes that they will run and manage. Even when these housing schemes were complete, social politics continued to play a fundamental role in shaping daily life. It is for this reason that Ballymun Avenue was renamed Glasnevin Avenue during the 1970s, that redbrick houses in Rathgar retained a cachet long after basements and draughty high ceilings should have been considered an inconvenience; we can see it in the efforts of private homeowners on estates to distinguish themselves from their next-door neighbours renting from the Corporation. Every page presents another example of the micro-politics of social differentiation which runs through the streets and cul-de-sacs of Dublin, and was expressed through the visual signifiers of respectability: freshly cut lawns, newly painted fences and crisp white curtains.

Brady must be commended for the enormous amount of new material in this book. However, in opening up this story he also revealed just how much more we need to understand about our close and recent history. As a social historian I longed for the stories of a few more individuals to understand what this process of suburbanisation meant in practice. The dry and perfunctory manner in which Dublin Corporation minuted its business can make housing policy seem almost to have arisen unbidden from the foresight and aspirations of a group of builders and politicians armed with maps and plans and slide rules. But there is a whole story preceding this ‑ unacknowledged and invisible ‑ of articulate, organised and political women, living in appalling conditions in the city’s aging tenements, marching to City Hall, disrupting council meetings, organising collectively and improvising solutions to shortages and failures of governance. These stories of “bottom up” social change too deserve to be excavated, and would make a useful complement to the extant text.

The book concludes at the end of the 1960s, after Ballymun had been constructed and before the expansion to the west of the city ‑ to Blanchardstown, Lucan, Clondalkin and Tallaght ‑ really got under way. Brady positions this moment as something of a watershed for the city, when the social and physical structure of the urban environment had been transformed. And although this is true up to a point, in many ways the “problem” of accommodating the people of Dublin spills on after the conclusion of the book ‑ through the 1970s, when families were still living in single rooms in Sean McDermott Street, and on to the present day, when anyone looking for a place to live will spend gloomy days trailing around the crowded firehazards stinking of damp which constitute the housing stock of this city at the cheaper end of the market. Indeed, the dogged determination of the Corporation in a previous era to build, and build well, is a salutary lesson for those who manage our city today.

Dublin is often eulogised for its houses’ brickwork and fanlights, for its smoky bars and pseudo-poets declaiming over stout and whiskey, but a short walk from the centre of the city are places which are more interesting and more important to making sense of Irish society: these curtain-twitch neighbourhoods where respectability is the difference between bringing your bin in and leaving it out. These places are the places we all grew up, and it’s time we got to know them better. This book is an excellent place to start.

1/9/2017

Erika Hanna lectures in history at The University of Bristol and is author of Modern Dublin: Urban Change and the Irish Past, 1957-1973.

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