Tenement Community

Children playing in the yard behind Forbes’ Cottages

For those living in tenement districts, life was especially harsh. Conditions were hazardous and individual families were crammed into one small room, with multiple families living in one modest tenement house, practically stacked on top of one another within the houses themselves. Buildings often fell into disrepair, often injuring or killing tenants as a result. The tenement community had been a constant component of the

It was common for tenement houses to only have one restroom facility in the backyard

Dublin landscape since the late eighteenth century, increasing in “popularity” after the Potato Famine in the 1840s. By 1913, over “one-third of the overall population of Dublin lived in tenement districts” Those who were born or forced to relocate to the tenements rarely were able to rise out of poverty, and thus, generations of families remained stuck within the same cycle of poverty. For those living in the most horrendous conditions, an overall sense of community and shared struggle became vital for survival.

The social landscape of the tenements was an important aspect to daily life.

Women chatting in the doorway of a tenement house on Sean McDermott Street (1940s)

These buildings were festering with disease and death lurked around every corner. The architectural layout of tenement house itself became the main mechanism through which the community flourished. The tenement community accepted and embraced all those who came through the doors, from “the old, the infirm, the blind, the insane, and the dispossessed”, everyone could find a sense of belonging. While there certainly was not an affluent commodity culture in the tenements, “it was a sort of unwritten moral code of the tenements that neighbors look after one another in times of need” The system relied on the interdependence families had on one another.
Women would habitually clean the communally used areas of the house such as the hallways and the stairways. Having a clean home was a sign of pride and respectability, even for those in poverty. As Mary Connor, remembers:
“The houses in the area were filthy, smelly, and full of rats. People did all they could to keep them clean. The women were always on their knees scrubbing out the hall doors but it was a hard thing to do as the hall doors to the front of the house were always opened…the smell of urine, shit in the hall was dreadful, and in the morning time, the people who lived on the ground floor would have to come out and clean out the hallway…the smell in the hallways never went away because for years upon years, they had been used as toilets and there was dirty black stains around the walls in the hall…”

This shows that while the tenants were not materially wealthy, they took pride

Interior of a Tenement in the Coombe district

in what they were able to obtain. A clean house was not only a matter of pride, but also an attempt to feel as if they owned their tenement room. In reality, their claim to the room was only on a week-by-week basis, even if they had been living there for years. Eviction was a common facet to tenement life, and tenants could lose their room for any reason, ranging from late rent payments, rumors about a family’s immorality, or just simply because the landlord raises the rent to get the current tenants out knowing that they can’t pay it. Being that the tenants could be evicted with little to no notice, and since there was always a need for tenement houses, the community would band together to clean in an attempt to keep their homes. If one family was evicted, it was a fear that their neighbors might be next. Everything, including food and clothing, in the tenements was shared. When one family felt pain, such as eviction, unemployment, or death, the community felt it too. In many ways, the tenement communities themselves were representative of a larger family forged from the hardship of their living conditions.

Children play while their mothers watch from their doorways

The tenements were a place of bustling life, where children played on the streets and told ghost stories on the stairs, where wives and mothers talked with one another in the doorways while gently rocking their shawl-bundled babies, where men discussed the political news of the day, and where community was forged from even the most desperate of situations. At times, people would sing and dance in the streets near the tenements. The young were taught to help the old up and down the stairs from the basement rooms so they, too, could enjoy being social with neighbors. As Mary Connor, who lived on Parnell Street, remembers, “as children, we all played on the streets near the houses swinging on the lampposts…our mothers were always standing at the doors, talking, or looking out the windows as we played games of hide and seek and chasing…”

The community of one single tenement building was often very large. The average family having between six to twelve children, some having over sixteen children. With multiple families living together in a relatively tint space, the sense of community in the tenements grew very strong, especially when the neighbor children grew up and married one another, moving to other tenement buildings and forming their own community.

For those in the lower classes, family was the central component around

Children playing off Townsend Street

which life revolved. While the father was legally deemed as the head of the household and was responsible for providing the family with financial income, it was the mother who was the heart of the household, providing the family with food, clothing, and other essentials. The family worked together as a unit, with the father filling the role as the breadwinner and the mother as the nurturer; if this unit fell into dysfunction, the whole system would unravel. Once a woman became a wife and a mother, she was expected to stay within the confines of the house unless it was to get essentials for the family or attending mass at the local Catholic Church. Anything else was deemed as immoral and reflected poorly on the family’s reputation.

Mothers were considered to be the keepers of a family’s morality as well as the parent that most children remembered fondly since she was an ever-present figure in the home. As Bridie Kelly remembered, “I always remember my mother, she always had a child wrapped up in her shawl with her old skirt and apron on and maybe two broken shoes. She had a big head of black hair tied up in a bun and we would always be playing around her.” Parents strove to provide the best life possible for their children, and families would often save all-year long for Christmas. Women would often be in charge of the family’s financial savings, and thus, it became her responsibility to ensure that there was enough saved for each child’s First Holy Communion and Confirmation, as well as future weddings and holidays such as Christmas and Easter. In poorer, urban neighborhoods, there would often be an early version of a community savings bank, in which, wives would deposit “a few pennies or shillings each week assured mothers that, come Christmas, they would have enough money for the pudding, dinner, and a few simple gifts for the children.”

Women would also obtain additional income by pawning or selling items at the local pawnbroker. The presence of the pawnshop was a quintessential establishment in any tenement neighborhood. For some families, a weekly trip to the pawnshop afforded them enough money to get through the week. “Pawn day” became such a crucial component to tenement life that the day was often treated as a large social event. Not only did the pawnbrokers themselves treat “their customers with friendliness and dignity”, but the women also treated the space as an alternative space outside of the tenements to converse and share the daily gossip.

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