Cork City Council Centenary: Housing crisis, cost of living, and widespread poverty influenced 1920 vote

Independence was an issue in Cork’s local elections in 1920, but a housing crisis, the cost of living, and widespread poverty also influenced the vote, writes Kieran McCarthy.

Cork City Council Centenary: Housing crisis, cost of living, and widespread poverty influenced 1920 vote

Independence was an issue in Cork’s local elections in 1920, but a housing crisis, the cost of living, and widespread poverty also influenced the vote, writes Kieran McCarthy.

IN A wide-ranging interview published on February 3, 1920, in The Cork Examiner, senior councillor of Cork Corporation, 70-year-oldEdward Fitzgerald of the Irish Parliamentary Party, is still hopeful but with a hint of political battle weariness.

Being involved with Cork Corporation since the 1880s, his voice consistently echoes through the corporation’s minute books raising pertinentquestions about the future of the city and about the city’s most acute social problems.

As a builder and contractor in Cork, many of his contributions focus onissues such as the need for affordable and decent housing to replace some of the city’s most atrocious slum-ridden areas, the need for affordable rent fair rent, the need to promote Cork inIreland and within the British empire and the need for public spaces such as parks to walk in.

Fitzgerald took an active part in municipal affairs and was also a member of the Cork Harbour Board, the Board of Guardians, and many social and political societies.

He also filled the office of high sheriff in 1880s. At the time of the Parnellite split he threw in his lot with the anti-Parnellites.

He unsuccessfully contested North Cork City in 1910 as an Independent candidate against Mr William O’Brien and George Crosbie.

A decade later, once more a Nationalist member, he witnessed the demise of the once powerful Irish Parliamentary Party at the hands of Sinn Féin in the Cork Corporation Local Elections inJanuary 1920. No more did his party have a majority but looked on as Sinn Féin took control over councils up and down the country.

Fitzgerald was elected lord mayor of Cork City in 1901 and held the position for two further years. In 1902, Fitzgerald took a prominent part in organising the Cork International Exhibition, which proved a remarkable success.

As chairman of the ExecutiveCommittee, he travelled throughout Ireland and Scotland collecting funds for the project. The exhibition wonadditional fame through a Royal visit in 1903 from King Edward VII on which occasion the King conferred a baronetcy on Fitzgerald.

So great was the success of the exhibition that it was continued a second year. After the exhibition the grounds were converted into a fine public park, which was given the name of Fitzgerald Park in honour of Sir Edward.

In Fitzgerald’s February 1920 interview, he is quick to note the principal issues of living in southern Ireland in his day — a region steeped in age-old land agitation and the ongoing quest for fair tenure and rents, the harnessing of national and industrial resources, the call to build more housing, solve poverty as well the alcohol abuse and mental health problems of the day.

His remarks concluded that those struggling to find accommodation could be given a house to rent with an acre of land, and such land should be bought by government from farmers with large acreage in the area, in particular across Cork’s Lee Valley.

In essence, he wished for the massexpansion of the model cottage scheme, which was so successful in the Cork Rural District Council.

It is unrecorded what the Westminster government official line was to his suggestion as the IRA attacks on regional RIC barracks consume the news columns of The Cork Examiner by the spring of 1920.

Looking at Fitzgerald’s contributions in Cork Corporation give a real insight into life in Cork 100 ago plus a reminder to scholars of the period in the present day — that it was not just one incident or spark that led Sinn Féin to romp home in the local elections of January 1920 but a series of incidents, many of which were interwoven.

Indeed, just entering The CorkExaminer pages in January 1920 andbeginning reading, one misses out on the trains of thoughts running through editorials on societal challenges since 1916.

To understand Cork society in 1920 requires an openness to the multiple conversations to be heard and published especially during the previous four years — a kaleidoscope of ideas, which provided the context andframework for revolution, everydaylife being one — some conversations led Cork citizens to connect with theRepublican mantra at the time and others to just maintain existence,survive and struggle with the bleakness of a national and local economyset against the backdrop of theFirst World War and its aftermath.

Economically, the Cork butter trade was on a slow decline. In 1858, 428,000 firkins of butter were been exported per annum and by 1891, this was reduced to 170,000 firkins.

Competitive European prices out-competed the prices set by the butter market at Cork. In addition, the city’s best consumer, the British citizen,favoured neater packaging, smaller more exact weights, improved colour, texture and taste; qualities that Cork butter did not possess.

The quantity of butter exportedgradually decreased. In 1918, further regulations or even controls of themarket were not welcome. Despite the protestations of Irish producers and dealers, a new grading system was put into force, with the grading work being carried out in England.

One of the sparks of hope was carried by the Ford Tractor Factory, its foreign direct investment into Cork and its provision of employment. By July 3, 1919, the first Ford tractor left the assembly line in Cork’s Marina district.

An obligatory commemorative picture was taken at the time and appeared in the Cork Examiner. In addition, the newspaper carried a notice that from June 30, 1919, hours and pay were posted up in the office of the tractor works.

The work hours were Monday to Friday inclusive, 8am to 4.30pm with a half hour lunch break from 12.30pm to 1pm. Saturday’s hours were 8am to 12pm.

The total working hours were therefore 44 per week. The minimum rate per hour paid at the works for men over 18 were 2s 5d with a share of profits per hour set at 3d.

An image of the council chamber at Cork City Hall during the election of the first council.
An image of the council chamber at Cork City Hall during the election of the first council.

By the end of 1919, 303 Fordson tractors had been built at the Cork factory. During 1920, which was the first full year of production, 3,626 tractors were produced.

The sum of £327,000 was also spent on a machine shop, foundry expansion, new wharves and equipment.

The sale of the Fordsons wasprimarily in Ireland and Britain. Large numbers were also shipped to Bordeaux, Cadiz, Copenhagen, Romania and the Near East.

However, the subject of housing for Ford workers, workers within many of Cork’s small businesses and for thegeneral family was never very far away from public discourse.

Frustration over the provision of affordable housing and decent builds is a consistent topic at Cork Corporation meetings, especially across 1917 to 1919 where returning soldiers and sailors from the First World War accelerated the demand for housing.

In the first week of December 1917, Mr DJ Coakley, principal of the Cork School of Commerce, delivered alecture entitled ‘General Principles of Housing and Town Planning’, with a specific focus on Cork.

His public lecture was delivered with the Cork Municipal School of Commerce in the lecture theatre of the School of Art.

His lecture was published in The Cork Examiner and inpamphlet form.

In his lecture, DJ Coakley outlined that from the reports or the Medical Superintendent Officer of Health, the Corporation of Cork had, during the previous 30 years, expended £81,200 in clearing unhealthy and dilapidated areas, and provided some 532 houses and 11 houses of 33 flats for the“labouring classes”.

Mr Coakley painted a stark picture of housing stock in the city. There was a very large proportion of unsanitary houses, as he described, “not quitesuitable for human beings to live in”.

Overcrowding was a large challenge. There were several instances of where the father and mother, and sons and daughters over 20 years of age, all sleeping in the same small apartment.

Lack of space rendered it impossible to keep even the smallest stock ofcommodities. Coal, oil, and other fuels were usually stored under the bed.

Mr Coakley spoke about endless drudgery and breeding places of mental deterioration, “endless drudgery, such as taking water up four or five flights of stairs uses up all the energy of the mother who has neither time nor strength to give to the care of her children; from these breeding places of mental, moral, and physical deterioration emerge the work-shys andunemployables, born and bred ininsanitary slums, with the gutter for a play-ground”.

FAST forward to the last week ofSeptember 1919 and The Cork Examiner put a spotlight on how housing policy construction was progressing through interviewing local architects and builder contractors.

It was also 10 months since the end of the First World War plus a city-wide carpenters’ strike for better wages across the city had just been resolved.

In an interview with Mr James F McMullen, architect — one of several interviewees — he noted that the best part of the year had been wasted by the strike, and the builders would now, owing to winter weather and short days, be at a great disadvantage.

Some of them had already decided, he added, not to resume certain contracts until the following spring. Daniel A Levie, architect, when asked for his views, argued that house building would remain slow until they could be let at an economic rent.

In pre-war days a house, which cost £600 to build, was let at about £30 per year. A house in 1919 cost £1,200, and hence naturally the owner would require a rent of £60 per year.

The Local Government Board had also issued regulations with regard to new social housing.

Certain specifics had to be provided for under the Act —a certain area for each room, a certain height for each floor — so that their cubic capacity would be greater than any artisans’ dwellings built by private enterprise or by the Corporationof Cork.

Housing and the cost of living was just one frustration of everyday life but certainly was linked to the demand for political change.

Indeed, looking at the home addresses of Sinn Féin candidates in the Cork Corporation local elections of January 1920, many lived in the heart of some of Cork City’s horrific slum conditions.

In looking for change and to break through the status quo of frustration, the people of Cork elected a majority of Sinn Féin councillors in 1920.

But it was not just speeches or political acts that influenced the people of Cork’s voting decision, but years of political indecisiveness and inaction and a lack ofreal investment and in the Britishempire’s regional cities such as Cork.

Certainly, everyday life and amixture of people’s voices must be prominent factorsand narratives to look at when approaching the 21stcentury centenary commemoration of the era.

Kieran McCarthy is a geographer, local historian and an independent member of Cork City Council. His historical work can be viewed at

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