Delighted to bring to you this new episode, featuring Roy Curtis. Roy is a two-time Irish Sports Writer of the Year, someone with a great passion for the GAA and all aspects of life in the Hibernian Metropolis. Some interesting archive audio in there, including a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone on the Hill.
Thirty years have passed since the death of Willie Bermingham, and yet his message remains as important and inspirational as ever.
A Dublin firefighter upset by the conditions in which he found the elderly and vulnerable of the capital, he began the charity ALONE from the sitting room of his family home. It started with a plastic bag of 200 posters, all of them with a simple message: Old people die alone.
Born in the Rotunda and raised in The Puc area of Inchicore, Willie Bermingham became one of Ireland’s best-known activists in his own lifetime and has been introduced to subsequent generations through school textbooks.
For some, he is a face recalled from school days, for others, he is the person who provided them with shelter. His name adorns the beautiful cottages at Willie Bermingham Place in Kilmainham, homes funded by ALONE and opened in the later stages of Willie’s life.
Willie could have ended up being just about anything. As his entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography notes, he worked as “bellman on a fuel cart, gravedigger, builder’s helper, bouncer, a trader in horses and cattle, antique dealer – before joining the Dublin Fire Brigade in 1964.”
In the particularly harsh winter of 1977, conditions encountered while working the ambulance service with the Dublin Fire Brigade inspired Willie to begin ALONE. He recounted a night that they had gone to Charlemont Street and discovered the body of an elderly man:
Like many old men and women he had been cast away on the scrap heap. He was left to face loneliness, cold, hunger and depression behind the closed doors of a capital city. He had been sentenced to death, alone and in misery. It shocked me so much that I set up a society called ALONE.
By the late 1970s, the flight to the suburbs had very much taken place in Dublin. The city was spreading out, not only north and south but to the west, in new sprawling concrete jungles. Streets that were once synonymous with tenement living fell largely silent – the final tenement residents left Henrietta Street for example in the 1970s.
Despite this, there were still people left behind. Living in the basements, attics and surviving tenement homes were vulnerable people. Willie took his own social spending money, the few quid normally spent on cigarettes and drink, and instead printed 200 posters which he hoped would have a deep impact.
The posters were a call to arms, telling readers that “Old people die alone from cold, hunger, accidents, loneliness, depression, illness and related factors. Some are found in days, others found in weeks. Yes! In Dublin!”
The response was immediate. Willie recounted that there were few voices of opposition; on more than one occasion, he encountered opposition from clergy who informed him there were no such conditions within their parish. Yet others from the churches rallied behind his efforts.
An inspiring friendship blossomed between Bermingham and Dean Victor Griffin of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Griffin, much like the earlier Dean Swift, had a distaste for injustice and a strong belief in social duty. In a remarkable life, Griffin protested to save Viking Dublin from demolition, demonstrated against Apartheid and was denounced as a ‘Fenian’ during his time serving the Church of Ireland in Derry.
Griffin and Bermingham came from different religious traditions – Willie came from a Catholic family – yet Griffin opened Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to provide services, complete with choirs, to the homeless and elderly of the city. It was a beautiful act not forgotten, and Bermingham’s own funeral took place at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.
Willie’s work with ALONE included the publication of several important publications, documenting the reality of life for the elderly in Dublin. With the help of photo-journalist Liam Ó Cuanaigh he got to work. The stories were harrowing, such as the 1916 veteran who lived out her final years in total poverty, her residence described as a hovel. In praising the book, one reviewer wrote that “it’s a slap in the face to every Irishman, particularly to everyone living in Dublin. I recommend it as Christmas fare in case you’re sulking because the turkey tastes tough.”
ALONE was never established to be a housing charity, but as conditions worsened it went in that direction. In 1986 there was ALONE Walk in Artane, a small community of ten houses. Each house was dedicated to the memory of an elderly person who had died in dire circumstances in the city in the years before. A second village of homes followed at Kilmainham.
While Willie turned the sod on the site in 1989, he was in poor health and commented that while he would not be around for much longer, the work would need to continue.
ALONE’s assistance to the elderly continued even after their passing, with The Millenium Plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, opened in Dublin’s (contested!) Millenium year of 1988 designed to replace the indignity of the pauper’s grave.
Beyond ALONE, Willie was a committed trade unionist, a former colleague in the Dublin Fire Brigade remembering his work and activism as being guided both by the “message of Jesus Christ and that of James Connolly”.
Colleagues remember him as a man with a great sense of humour, who detested bureaucracy, “red tape merchants”, and anything else which blocked the path to human progress.
At the time of his passing in April 1990, thirty years ago today, Willie’s funeral brought the streets around Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to a standstill. He was survived by an adoring wife, Marie, and five children. Through them are still connections to many of the things he held dear in life, including Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and the Dublin Fire Brigade. The work, as Willie predicted, has indeed gone on. Never has it been as important.
Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Few people in human history have shaped the world to such a significant degree. At the time of his passing in January 1924, the historian R.M Fox, who would write much on the Irish revolution, noted “it is too early yet to appraise or condemn his work as a whole, we can only bow the head to the passing of that great man who broke the age-long tyranny of the Czars.”
Lenin had observed the Irish revolution from a distance – at the time of the 1913 Lockout, he wrote in Pravda:
Dublin, the capital of Ireland—a city of a not highly industrial type, with a population of half a million—the class struggle, which permeates the whole life of capitalist society everywhere, has become accentuated to the point of class war. The police have positively gone wild; drunken policemen assault peaceful workers, break into houses, torment the aged, women and children. Hundreds of workers (over 400) have been injured and two killed—such are the casualties of this war. All prominent workers’ leaders have been arrested. People are thrown into prison for making the most peaceful speeches. The city is like an armed camp.
Significantly, he understood the importance of the Easter Rising too, rejecting the views of other leading Bolshevik thinkers (such as Karl Radek and Leon Trotsky) that the rebellion was little more than a nationalist “putsch.” Lenin instead viewed the Rising in the context of the First World War, from which it could not be severed, as a weakening of Empire. Lenin insisted that “the misfortune of the Irish is that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured.”
During the Irish revolution, there had been several engagements between the ‘Irish Republic’ and Bolshevik Russia. There was enthusiasm in revolutionary Ireland for the Russian revolution, even among some conservative nationalists, who took Lenin’s expresison of support for national self-determination to mean support for the cause of Ireland. Frank Robbins of the Irish Citizen Army would recall that he and his comrades regarded events in Russia “as being the end of Russian participation in the war, and we visualised Britain’s defeat as almost certain, and our independence as a nation in sight”.
Patrick McCartan, essentially Sinn Féin’s Ambassador in the United States during the revolutionary period, even spent time in Bolshevik Russia in the early freezing months of 1921, seeking recognition for the Irish Republic, and, recent research suggests, arms as well. He thought little of society there, remarking in correspondence to Dublin that “the idea of whether or not the present regime represents the will of the people is openly laughed at”. For little came of the flirtations between Bolshevism and the Irish Republic. For those like McCartan, it was a question of realpolitik, but for others like the prior mentioned Irish Citizen Army, Lenin’s Russia was a beacon.
Lenin’s passing in January 1924 led to unusual scenes on the streets of Dublin. Lenin died on 21 January in Gorki. His body was transported by train to Moscow two days later, and by the 27th it was delivered to Red Square. Internationally, his passing was mourned in the contemporary socialist press. In Dublin, Jim Larkin’s The Irish Worker reported on its frontpage LENIN IS DEAD, in typical Larkin fashion giving the story second place to a story on himself, and rumours he was about to leave Ireland. Larkin’s tribute to Lenin is significant:
Although Lenin was the acknowlerdged leader – one would almost write master – of the revolution, there was nothing of the aloodness, the superiority of the so-called great man about him. He wore no air of greatness, no affectation of authority. He was easily approachable and a ready listener to what one had to say, and painstakingly patient in explaining his position.
On January 27th, posters were issued for a commemoration in College Green to mark the passing of Lenin. Some six thousand people assembled, marching by torchlight, while Larkin’s newspaper noted “The Fintan Lalor Pipe Band and the Band of No.5 Branch, Irish Transport Union, turned out….to rally the workers.”
Media coverage of the commemoration focused on Larkin’s speech. The Belfast Telegraph reporting:
He denied the Czar had been murdered, but he had been justly executed. Some day the workers of Ireland would also rise in their wrath against unrighteousness and assert their will.
Curiously, as the meeting came to a conclusion, “three revolver shots were fired from a passing motor car. A number of people on the outskirts of the crowd made a dash for cover.” This seems like a very significant occurence, and while reported in the mainstream press, it didn’t warrant mention in Larkin’s newspaper. Perhaps Dublin was still a city where the sound of a revolver didn’t put too much fear into certain hearts.
Elizabeth Bowen was born in Dublin in 1899. Despite her Irish birth, she is primarily remembered as an Anglo-Irish writer, and for her brilliant accounts of London during the Blitz.
During the years of World War II, or the Emergency as we knew it, she made several trips to Dublin. Her accounts of this trip ended up on the desk of British state intelligence and Downing Street. She tells us much about Ireland during the war, where tea, the cinema and more besides was deeply missed.
Sticking with the broad theme of blogging Dublin history in the age of Covid19, I noticed an uplifting report on The Irish Times about the Sikh community utilising their Temple on Serpentine Avenue, Dublin 4, to assist those in need during the crisis. The piece includes some beautiful words from Ravinder Singh Oberoi, expressing the desire of the communtiy to do what they can:
It comes with the tradition we follow that food is for the poor. It was started by our first Guru Nanak; it’s a free kitchen for anyone. Worldwide there are Sikh organisations providing free meals to the needy. It’s in our blood that we want to help. On this occasion with a lot of people suffering, we decided as Sikhs we can help in some shape or form.
All across Dublin, former cinemas dot the built landscape – they became snooker halls, bingo halls, furntiture retailers and more besides. Only one went on to become a Sikh Temple.
Cinema in Dublin got off to a rocky start, with James Joyce’s Volta on Mary Street. A plaque now honours that failed institution on what is now a department shop. Joyce had a good idea too early – the idea of opening a cinema had been inspired by his European travels, but in the absence of an Irish or British film industry, he found himself showing imported reels to an unimpressed audience.
By the 1930s, things had changed. The cinema on Serpentime Avenue had first opened in 1936 under the name Astoria, later chanting to Ritz in 1947 and Oscar in the 1970s.
The cinema was significant in scale, with seating capacity for 700 people. While a one screen cinema, screenings were changed more frequently than was standard across the city, creating a repeat customer base.
Like clockwork, many of Dublin’s suburban cinemas closed their doors in the early 1970s, unable to survive in a changing world where visual entertainment could be obtained without stepping outside the front door. The Oscar Cinema became a performance venue for a period in the 1970s, but was eventually put up for sale. Acquired by the Sikh community in the 1980s, the interior of the building has been transformed beyond recognition, but there is still the feel of a suburban cinema in its 1930s exterior.
A great recollections piece on the cinema from Dublin City Council Culture Company remembers the building as it was, with local Muirne:
By now we’re all very familiar with our immediate environments and our walking routes. One little featue around Kimmage, Harold’s Cross and Rathmines that you could easily miss are these curious little markers, noting ‘Township of Rathmines – 1847.’
The transformation of Rathmines in the first half of the nineteenth century was remarkable – what was described as a “poor and obscure” village in 1820 was a “beautiful and rather large suburb” by 1844.
1847 witnessed the emergence of Rathmines as a Township, one of several in nineteenth century Dublin. The timing should not be overlooked, with 1847 entering the collective memory as Black 47, the single worst year of the single worst event to befall Ireland. Moments of crisis – including outbreaks of cholera in subsequent years – no doubt influenced the decision to move for some in a worsening city.
Beyond the canals – but close enough to the city to profit from it – Townships were essentially local municipalities. Initally, a Township was responsible for its own sanitation, but in time local councils took on a whole host of powers and provided a wide variety of services. Rathmines township had its own Fire Brigade for example, one of its stations now the MART studio behind Rathmines town hall. Perhaps the greatest symbol of its municipal independence was the magnificent town hall, designed by Sir Thomas Drew in the 1890s. Its clock – though in fine working order today – is still known to local wits as “‘the four-faced liar”
Rathmines Township had a population of about 10,000 people at the time of its establishment, but it was expanded in time to include Rathgar too. As Maurice Curtis notes, the Township came to encompass “Harold’s Cross, Ranelagh, Sandymount and Milltown.” The markers in Kimmage – one outside Supervalu on Sundrive Road and one on the Lower Kimmage Road – are a reminder it stretched this far, too.
The Townships were regarded by many as the flight of the middle class, from a city of intense and worsening poverty between the canals. They also represented a political flight too, leaving Dublin Corporation with less of Dublin to represent, and a local Urban District Council elected in the Rathmines Township. Rathmiens UDC had a strong Unionist political presence, while the late ninteenth and early twentieth centuries would witness the emergence of an increasingly nationalist Dublin Corporation. There were numerous Sinn Féin councillors elected in the years before the 1916 Rising in Dublin Corporation, including Seán T. O’Kelly.
By the time of the 1901 Census, almost 32 percent of the population of 383,178 resided outside the municipal boundaries in one of nine suburban townships. It took the Local Government (Dublin) Act of 1930 to bring the Township of Rathmines and Rathgar back under the administration of Dublin Corporation. Still, these markers are little reminders of a different time that we pass every day.
There are many plaques and monuments across the city honouring labour history. Some are easy to miss, like the plaque on Liberty Hall quoting the great Mother Jones, Corkonian and co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World in the United States. Others dominate their surroundings, like the impressive Oisin Kelly monument to Jim Larkin in the centre of O’Connell Street.
Easy to miss is a beautiful handerchief tree in Harold’s Cross Park, which honours the women’s laundry workers strike of 1945. At a time when Ireland was still within the ‘Emergency’, members of the Irish Womens Workers Union succeeded in winning a second week of paid annual holidays. The handerchief tree was planted in 1995 by Mary Freehill, then Deputy Lord Mayor of Dublin, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the strike.
Conditions in the laundry sector were difficult, the unon insisting that laundry work “is performed standing in a heated atmosphere causing, in hot weather especially, great fatigue, excessive perspiration and blistered feet….laundresses often worked from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in order to meet demand.”
Rosemary Cullen Owens, in her excellent social history of women in Ireland, quotes from Eleanor Butler, who inspected a number of Dublin laundries in the presence of trade union leader Louis Bennett and who was horrified by conditions:
She made me wade into the steamy laundries, with floors flooded. The women wore overalls and nothing underneath because they couldn’t stand the heat and the steam. They sometimes wore wellingtons if they were lucky, if not battered old shoes. Their conditions were appalling, so much that a very high proportion of these women got TB and suffered rom rheumatism.
The strike began in July and dragged on into October, the determination of what were primarily young working class women impressing many. In total, fourteen laundries in Dublin – employing some 1,500 workers – were entangled in the dispute. The demand for two weeks’ holiday time was popular, a poster for a public meeting in the Mansion House proclaiming that “you need two weeks’ holiday to refresh both body and mind.”
Like most historians, I prefer my global pandemics at the remove of the century.
I’m resisting the urge to subject listeners to a podcast on the Spanish Flu. Instead, I suggest you buy Ida Milne’s book.
One of the things we have had to adjust to collectively is the limitations (correct as they are) on where we can go. This had led to a lot of us exploring out own communities a little bit more. In my case, it has brought me to two great literary homes.
Christy Brown was the author of My Left Foot (1954) and the remarkable Down All The Days (1970). His family lived at 54 Stannaway Road, Crumlin. Mere minutes away, at 70 Kildare Road, a plaque honours Brendan Behan – and Brendan alone – over the door of what was the Behan family residence.
Both the Behan and Brown families had their roots firmly in the city centre. In the case of the Behans, home was Russell Street, in the shadow of Croke Park – or so the Behans remembered it. The Behan boys had known inner-city live in their early years, while Christy was raised from infancy in Crumlin, living with cerebral palsy, a condition which he mastered in his youth.
The Behans left Russell Street reluctantly. Kathleen Behan would recall, somewhat unfairly, that, “Crumlin was a desperate place when first we went there: no schools, no shops, nothing, except plenty of desolation…There was a spirit in Russell Street that you could hardly imagine in Crumlin.”
Dominic Behan, in his fantastic memoir, recounted it was a sense of horror that abounded in their north inner-city community when the Corporation officials were spotted, ready to move families:
With bated breath the tenants watched his progress from the corner of Russell Street. Will it be me or you or her? If it’s not me now, it’ll be my lot tomorrow or the next day? What is he doing outside the post office? Is he looking at his list waiting for the van to arrive which bears the dreaded coat of arms of the Dublin Corporation and carries four big strong bailiffs inside.
Behan’s account captured the cultural shock of the suburban experience, recounting that ‘”there was a thing called the garden at front and back, and rumour had it that if you flattened out the clay and threw what were called lawn seeds – the bits of hay horses don’t eat – around, you’d get grass.’” Much like Dominic Behan, Christy Brown would take a somewhat negative view of the newly constructed working class housing schemes of his youth in his semi-autobiographical novel Down All The Days.
For those who had moved out to these new schemes, families like the Browns and Behans, it may all have felt rural and isolated. Yet to those who knew these areas before the arrival of suburbia, it was a culture-shock and the arrival of an almost city style living. Crumlin native Fiona Watchorn remembered how “we had never seen so many houses – all of the same shape and size, and wondered how the new kids could find their own. All our village houses, cottages, shops, walls, gates and roads were unique in themselves, and very seldom resembled those of our neighbours.”
Both houses may have plaques today, but they remain ordinary everyday working class Dublin houses, as they were always envisioned. I’ll be posting more observations from my 2KM trips in the weeks ahead.