• Sunday , 8 December 2019

Social housing in Dublin during the first half of the 20th Century


At the turn of the 20th century, Dublin had become overcrowded, the mass migration of farm labourers from the Irish countryside being largely responsible for the increase in numbers during the preceding century. Over time, this population influx resulted in the development of vast slums which filled vacant Georgian mansions; buildings left empty as the upper class escaped the crowded city to newly suburbanised townships. Once salubrious streetcapes became gloomy and decaying tenements, where multiple families lived in single rooms and where disease was rampant.

In tackling this issue debate raged over whether to build dense flat-block social housing in the city centre to replace the slums, or whether to start afresh and build cottages on vacant land outside the city limits. For many, this choice was ideological as well as practical. For those ‘who sought to maintain a predominately rural, conservative and mono-cultural society,’ urbanisation was seen as ‘a major danger to the continuation of conservative social policy in the state’ (Kenna, 2011, p47) and as a result suburban developments were generally favoured.

One of the first, and arguably most successful, of these outer-city schemes was Dublin Corporation’s garden suburb at Marino, based upon the Garden City model first proposed by Ebenezer Howard in 1898. Howard’s idea of returning to the fresh air and open expanses of the countryside appealed to the Irish national romanticism of the new state and his vision of individual houses, grouped around communal garden spaces became hugely influential in early Irish social housing initiatives such as Marino.

However, while the Marino scheme received much praise for its vision and layout, it did not directly address the problems of slum dwelling and overcrowding in the city. The poorer members of the working class were left living in destitution, unable and often unwilling to forsake their communities in favour of more expensive suburban housing. Dublin Corporation was therefore forced to focus on city centre areas and, following new legislation in 1931 and 1932, slum clearance began with renewed fervour.

Townsend Street

Under the newly appointed City Architect Herbert Simms, a series of modern flat-blocks were built across Dublin. Simms’ flats succeeded in ‘establishing an internationally driven but locally relevant aesthetic for multi-storey dwellings in the urban setting’ (Rowley, 2013). Innovations in the Netherlands of both the Amsterdam School and the De Stijl Movement are particularly noticeable in Dublin schemes such as the one on Townsend Street. Simms also took inspiration from contemporary London flat-blocks where deck balcony access, external staircases and central courtyard areas were commonly used. This melding of both Dutch and British flat-block designs resulted in an architectural language which was highly relevant for Dublin at the time. The unimposing four-storey buildings sit right at the perimeter of their sites, shaping the streetscape of the city and reinforcing edges between public and private.

However, despite the potential relevance and necessity for dense inner-city dwellings, such projects were to be overshadowed by an increasing focus on greenfield development as a response to Dublin’s housing needs. Perhaps the typology itself was never fully accepted by a conservative Irish society. Indeed, the early twentieth century stigma associated with flats and inner-city areas has prevailed even to this day amongst certain quarters. As a result, most of the social housing projects that occurred in Dublin from the late 1930s onwards have been based on a suburban model. This has resulted in the continuing legacy of urban sprawl within the greater Dublin area, with a mass landscape of low-density, under-serviced estates stretching out to the North, South and West of the city. These architectural policies have been shaped by ingrained mindsets, short-term thinking and political descison-making, while the striving for good design has been gradually pushed aside. A change in strategy is needed which will allow regeneration and contextual design to shape the city of the future.

Chancery House


Fahey, T. (1999) Social Housing in Ireland: A Study of Success, Failure and Lessons Learned, Dublin: Oak Tree Press.

Gray, D. (2014) The Life and Death of Herbert Simms, Available at: http://www.wearedublin.ie/herbert-simms-life-and-death/ (Accessed: 18th May 2015).

Kenna, P. (2011) Housing Law, Rights and Policy, Dublin: Clarus Press.

McCord, R. (2011) A Garden City – The Dublin Corporation Housing Scheme at Marino, Available at: http://www.theirishstory.com/2011/09/07/a-garden-city-the-dublin-corporation-housing-scheme-at-marino-1924/#.VVo6SPm6fIU (Accessed: 18th May 2015).

McManus, R. (2002) Dublin 1910-1940: Shaping the City & Suburbs, Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Rothery, S. (1991) Ireland and the New Architecture 1900-1940, Dublin: The Lilliput Press Ltd.

Rowley, E. (2013) Ellen Rowley on Henrietta House, Available at: https://dublintenementexperience.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/ellen-rowley-highlights-the-architectural-significance-of-henrietta-house/ (Accessed: 18th May 2015).


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