Thursday, November 13, 2014

'A home to call their own': The Artisans' Dwellings of Stoneybatter

“At present home discomfort drives masses of men into reckless, ruinous ways, but if these men got an opportunity of making their homes attractive to themselves and their wives and children they would, in nine cases out of ten, take advantage of the occasion, and, with the growth of self-respect and the enjoyment of larger social independence, would soon become not only better husbands and better fathers but better friends and truer lovers of their country.”
                                                                                             — The Nation Newspaper, 20 July 1878

The idea that better citizens would be the outcome of providing better living conditions for them provides an underpinning for the Cross Act of 1875. Considered to be one of the most important policies of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s mandate to ‘elevate the people’, i.e. the working class, the 'Cross Act’ — so named because it was championed by Disraeli’s Home Secretary Sir Richard Cross — provided for government loans, on favourable terms, to be made to those developers who were involved in building working-class housing. Further, it also provided for local authorities to buy and raze slum areas with the purpose of either selling or leasing the land to those builders.

When the ‘Cross Act’ was extended to Ireland it was not the first kick at the can with respect to improving living conditions for the working classes in Ireland, particularly in urban areas. Ireland had seen the Labouring Classes Lodging Houses & Dwellings Act of 1866, as well as the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act of 1868. However, with the Cross Act and the late 19th century founding of a number of charitable trusts, such as The Iveagh Trust and The Guinness Trust, there seemed to be a groundswell to improve housing for the working class.[1]

In Ireland, the Commissioners of the Boards of Works were responsible for overseeing loans made to private groups in order that they might house members of the working class in clean affordable housing away from the tenement slums of the inner city. In 1876, the Dublin Artisans' Dwellings Company (DADC) was founded. In addition to the loans they were able to procure, the DADC had a subscribers’ list comprised of middle and upper class persons, such as barristers, physicians, and successful entrepreneurs — including Edward Cecil Guinness, founder of both the Iveagh Trust and the Guinness Trust — who invested significant sums of money to augment the funds of the building programme.

It was the Dublin Artisans’ Dwellings Company who would build the homes in the ward of Arran Quay, Dublin City, which would impact the lives of ancestors on the paternal side of my family tree. Like many families of skilled labourers in the working class, the family of Patrick Magee benefitted from the the Artisans’ and Labourers' Dwellings Improvement Act when they became tenants of a cottage on Ostman Place in Stoneybatter.

The cottage on Ostman Place that was once the home of the Magee family.
In 1901, the Irish census finds Patrick Magee and Mary Dunne living with their two children, Michael and Anne, at 33.2 Upper Dorset Street in the Rotunda ward of Dublin. The family was fortunate to be living in a 1st class house, which means it would have been in a good state of repair; however, they were sharing their accommodation with four other families, including that of Patrick’s sister Mary and brother James. Out of 21 persons living in 15 rooms, the little household of Patrick Magee comprised four persons occupying a single room. (see House & Building return). 

Four of their five children were born into the tenement on Upper Dorset Street — Michael Francis in 1896, Anne ‘Annie’ Mary in 1900, and Francis ‘Frank’ Leo in 1902. Their son Patrick William, was born in 1898, but died just over 18 months later in that single room they called home. By the time of the birth of Mary ‘Mollie’ Agnes in 1905, they had left Upper Dorset Street and were living just a couple of blocks away from the Jameson Distillery at Smithfield, where Patrick was working.

In 1902, the Dublin Artisans’ Dwelling Company announced that they would be building homes in the ward of Arran Quay. At a general meeting of the DADC, secretary Mr. Isaac Yeats declared that in these houses they were “hoping to be able to accommodate all suitable applicants from the artisan and labouring classes”.[2] Here, at last would be the opportunity for Patrick Magee and his family to be in a home they might call their own, albeit as tenants not as owners.

In order to be deemed ‘suitable’ and be eligible for a vacant house an applicant would have to have two references. Of course, one of these would have come from Patrick Magee’s employers at the John Jameson Distillery, as proof positive that he could pay the rent. The word of a well respected parish priest might have favoured his application, or a nod from someone in the upper classes, perhaps a barrister or a physician, whose support would have also carried weight. In later years those who wanted to become tenants in the area had to have a family member already living there. When youngest daughter Mary ‘Mollie’ Magee married William ‘Willie’ Halpin, they were able to take a cottage nearby on Swords Street, since Mollie had been living in the area with her parents.

The cottage on Swords Street that was once the home of Mollie and Willie Halpin.
Although initially it might appear that the Dublin Artisans’ Dwellings Company was founded purely on philanthropic grounds, this most certainly was not the case. No doubt the subscribers did hope that good quality affordable housing would be built; however, they were not a charity and thus they expected to earn a good return on their investment. Newspaper reporting in the period shows that on average the company offered its investors returns of 4 to 5%.[3]

It appears that the desire for profit may have won out over altruism. In their 78th annual report, the Commissioners of the Boards of Works roundly criticized such private schemes for constructing poor quality housing which let in very little natural light, had no fireplaces for heating, and were constructed of materials thought unlikely to successfully withstand Irish weather.[4]

In addition to concern about the quality of the homes, there was the fact that tenants of the DADC were paying between 3 and 6 shillings per week for their accommodation at a time when the average working class family in Dublin could afford to pay only around 2 shillings per week for their housing. What appeared to be the perfect solution of new homes proved a further hardship for some families, although there is no doubt many families would choose such a hardship for the possibility of a cottage of their own, away from the crowded tenements.

Life on Ostman Place wasn’t perfect, of course. The cottage was one of the smallest type of cottages constructed by the DADC. Directly fronting the street, two small windows and an entry door overlook a narrow footpath. With a living space which was around 51.1 square meters (550 square feet), it was comprised of a small entry way leading to the main living area which extends the entire width of the property. A door would bring you to the single bedroom which was situated directly behind the living room. In that bedroom was a single window overlooking the yard. A narrow hallway ran alongside the bedroom, leading to the scullery.

Out through the back door and into the yard you would find an outside toilet 'closet' and a bunker for coal. There was no green space whatsoever, no grass, no little garden either in the front of the house or in the yard. On the front facade you would find a foot or shoe scraper, a absolute necessity for keeping the interior of the house clean, given that livestock would foul the footpaths of Stoneybatter on market days.[5]

Perhaps not an ideal home to the critical eye, but for a family living in a tenement it would have been a place they might want to call home, and it enabled the Magee family to leave behind the tenement life. It was on Ostman Place that their children would grow to adulthood.

The home on Murtagh Road to which the Magee family moved after living on Ostman Place.
The Magee family did not remain on Ostman Place. They moved on to another home built by the Dublin Artisans’ Dwellings Company, a larger brick two story house at 4 Murtagh Road which is just a few blocks away from Ostman Place. The children moved on to their marriage homes, with their daughter Mollie staying nearby on Swords Street, their daughter Anne initially nearby on Manor Street, before moving to Cabra, and their son Frank first moving into the Jameson House as a perk of his job at the distillery, and then to the west part of Dublin City. The last member of the Magee family to live in the house at 4 Murtagh Road was their mother Mary Dunne Magee who died at home 8 April 1939.

In the middle of a warm June day the streets of Stoneybatter were quiet, as I walked along the footpaths from Ostman Place to Murtagh Road, and then over to the house on Swords Street. As I walked I recalled going to the Halpin’s cottage on Swords Street and walking these footpaths with my grand-aunt when I was a child. Back then, I felt such joy holding the hand of 'Auntie' Mollie, as we called her, and greeting the neighbours standing in their doorways in the summer sun. I could easily imagine how the Magee family might have come to love this neighbourhood and see this place as a home to call their own.


1. The Iveagh Trust still exists and still provides housing for low income families. See:

2. Freeman’s Journal, 12 December 1902, pg. 10

3. Fraser, pg. 71 and The Ulster Herald, 16 Feb., 1907, pg. 6

4. O'Brien, pg. 21 ff.

5. A new Cattle market was opened at the top of Prussia St and North Circular Road in 1863. The City Abattoir was built in 1881 on ten acres of land, right beside the Market. Farmers from all over the country brought their cattle, sheep, pigs and horses through here. By the 1920s it was the largest cattle market in Europe with dealers coming from England, Holland and Germany.

References for further reading:

Fraser, M. John Bull’s Other Homes: State Housing and British Policy in Ireland. Liverpool University Press, 1996.

Kearns, Kevin, Stoneybatter: Dublin's Inner Urban Village. Gill & MacMillan, 2011.

O’Brien, Joseph V., “Dear Dirty Dublin”: A City in Distress 1899-1916. University of California Press, 1982.

The Freeman’s Journal

The Ulster Herald



  1. Jenn, another interesting well researched post. I've said to you before I find it amazing (in a good way) people back then could be happy in such small homes, but they were. Makes me feel selfish about the way we live.

    1. Charlotte, thanks very much for your comments. Happy then, and happy now, since all of the homes are occupied. I guess it just depends on what works for people.


  2. Interesting post Jennifer, my family lived in similar cottages in Jane Place (near the IFSC) from the later 1860s. Unfortunately, they've since been demolished, but I'm collecfting descriptions from those that remember them.

    1. Dara, thanks very much for your comments. Unfortunately, I also have a few other cottages in mind that have long since been demolished. When you think about all that was lost with the new builds in the whole area around the IFSC, it makes many of us interested in the past long to go back in time, at least for a moment to have a quick look. I wish you all the best in collecting descriptions about the cottages in Jane Place.



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Cheers, Jennifer

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