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Column: ‘A tragedy of the very poor’ – Remembering the 1913 Church Street disaster

On this day in 1913, two tenement buildings collapsed without warning on the horrifically overcrowded Church Street in Dublin, leading to the deaths of residents who had been living in “perfectly hellish” conditions, writes James Curry.

James Curry

ON THE EVENING of Tuesday 2 September 1913, at about 8.45 pm, two tenement buildings collapsed without warning on Church Street in Dublin.

No. 66 was the first four-story building to fall, followed shortly after by the adjoining No. 67. The landlady of both properties was a widow named Margaret Ryan, who lived at the back of the two fallen buildings at 68½ Church Street where she ran a small lime and sand business.

At the time many children were playing on the street as several women from the tenements sat on the pavement watching on. Yet within minutes the scene was one of screams and dust and rubble, seven people had been killed, dozens of people had been injured (eight seriously), and over a hundred people had been left homeless. Other tenements had also collapsed in Dublin since the turn of the twentieth century, though none to such devastating effect.

All seven people killed in the tragedy lived in the first building to collapse, including a ‘well-known resident’ from the area named Margaret Rourke, who was said to have been ‘so shockingly mangled that it was impossible to identify her’ at the time her body was discovered. Several of the other bodies were also said to have been ‘badly mutilated’.

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Image: James Curry

Died trying to save his little sister

Among the dead were three young children and a teenager who had perished while trying in vain to save his four-year-old sister. This was Eugene ‘Hugh’ Sammon, a 17-year-old Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU) member who had just been locked out from his employment at Jacob’s biscuit factory on Bishop Street along with thousands of others, as the Dublin tramway strike from the previous week dramatically escalated into the great lockout that would paralyse the city for over five months.

His death was a sad demonstration of the connection between the tragedy and the lockout, confirming a contemporary comment by an Irish Times reporter that ITGWU members lived ‘for the most part in slums like Church Street’.

Speaking to a newspaper reporter the following day, Sammon’s father John revealed the heroic way in which his only son had lost his life:

“Eugene took the youngest child, aged one year and eight months, and brought her out safely. Then he went back for the other children, and got out with them alright, but it was when he was coming away with Elizabeth that they were struck by the falling masonry and killed.”

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Image courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives

‘Earnest thanks’ to the Dublin Fire Brigade

The next day John Sammon wrote a letter to a national newspaper publicly expressing his ‘earnest thanks and appreciation’ to the Dublin Fire Brigade men who had been central to the arduous, emotional and risky rescue work. The letter was poignantly addressed from his shell of a home on No. 66 Church Street.

On the day of the funeral, Friday 5 September, John Sammon’s wife Elizabeth, who ran a makeshift clothes shop from the first story of No. 66, found it impossible to cope with her traumatic level of grief. Although only thirty-four years of age, the double loss suffered in the Church Street disaster meant that Elizabeth Sammon was left with just five surviving children out of the ten she had given birth to since her marriage 17 years earlier.

The Evening Telegraph described how during the long procession from St Michan’s Church (on Halston Street) to Glasnevin Cemetery:

‘Mrs Sammon, the mother of the boy hero who had lost his life to save his little comrades, was almost stricken with grief. She had to be supported along the way, and her continual calls for her ‘darling boy’, uttered in every accent of a mother’s most disconsolate suffering and sorrow, pierced the listeners to the heart. Many men showed how they were unmanned in the presence of such grief by freely giving way to tears’.

The harrowing spectacle only intensified upon reaching Glasnevin:

When the coffins were being borne into the mortuary chapel… Mrs Sammon was overcome with her saddened emotion, and fell fainting at the doorway… Some water was procured and she was slowly brought around…

Four graves had been dug, in line, to receive the remains. The two children, Hugh and Lizzie Sammon, brother and sister, were laid together in one of the graves… The lowering of the coffins produced an outburst of almost hysterical grief…

The most heart-rending spectacle was again that of Mrs Sammon, who, forcing her way through the mourners, endeavoured to throw herself into the grave of her children. She was seized and held back by five or six men who, to get her away from the place, had actually to bear her bodily along. Her shrieking and lamentations were piteous in the extreme.

‘Perfectly hellish conditions’

The Church Street disaster was unfortunately an accident waiting to happen, with the horrifically overcrowded locality known to be one of the more obvious examples of what ITGWU official James Connolly described as the ‘perfectly hellish conditions’ in which many Dubliners lived at the time.

A few years earlier several buildings on the street (No.s 70 to 72) had been classified as ‘too dangerous’ to be inhabited by Dublin Corporation and cleared away (with eight other houses already lying in ruins), while just two months previously Margaret Ryan had carried out substantial repair work to No. 66 and No. 67 upon orders from a dangerous buildings inspector.

The crestfallen landlady, who had seemingly been collecting rent money from No. 67 residents at the time of No. 66’s collapse, was later fully exonerated by a coroner’s inquiry into the tragedy. Although a variety of theories existed at the time, no definitive reason was ever found to explain why the buildings collapsed.

The disaster understandably led to a mass public outcry and propelled the issue of inadequate and dangerous Dublin housing into the public domain: over £2,000 was quickly raised in fundraisers organised by the Irish Times, Evening Telegraph and Freeman’s Journal, while there were widespread calls for an inquiry to be launched into the housing conditions in Dublin as a whole.

Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary of Ireland, reacted by commissioning what became widely known as the “Dublin Housing Inquiry”. This inquiry published its findings in February 1914 and made for grim reading, revealing that 97,117 people (nearly one third of the city’s population) lived in tenements or small houses that were deemed either unfit or almost unfit for human habitation.

During this centenary year of 2013 there has understandably been tremendous focus on the Dublin Lockout, the most iconic industrial dispute in Irish labour history. The victims of the Church Street tenement disaster also deserve to be remembered, paying as they did the heaviest of prices for their grinding poverty a century ago, in what was accurately described by one Irish Times reporter at the time as being ‘a tragedy of the very poor’.

James Curry is a Digital Humanities Doctoral Scholar in Modern Irish History at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, and the author of Artist of the Revolution. The cartoons of Ernest Kavanagh (Mercier Press, 2012).

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James Curry

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