Housing struggles and Simms

HG Simms worked in a Dublin Corporation dominated by conservative councillors. As Donal Fallon has made clear at public lectures and elsewhere, Dublin of the 1930s and 1940s was a very conservative place, bound by Catholic sodalities, unscrupulous employers and a press often hostile to more progressive social programmes. In the 1932 election, when FF came to power nationally, Dublin Corporation had some radical councillors but it was by no means a hotbed of socialism. . Several independents (then as now) also sat as aldermen. Where then did the motivation to build an average of 1,000 public houses every year for over two decades some from? What kinds of political formations did Simms find himself constrained by?

Little is known about HG Simms’s political leanings. As a public servant for most of his adult life until his death, his opinions were privately held. Was he sympathetic to the plight of the working class of Dublin, many thousands of whom were living in tenement flats and sub-divided homes? Was he liberal in matters of housing policy, consumed by details and conscientious (as is clear from the 1:1 scale ballcock drawing of his I have seen)? There is scant evidence that he was a conscientious worker, alongside others, and that he took his job very seriously.

1940 Irish Times article
Courtesy Irish Times Archive.

Biographical detail is slight. In distinction to now, a housing or city architect would keep his opinions to close to his chest, bury himself in the voluminous work and toil away. And of course it is easy to attribute such great architectural work to one person when in fact he worked with many others. At an informal continuous professional development session held at DCC’s City Architects office recently, a question was asked: “who was working with Simms on these plans?” It is often easy to attribute such great architectural work to one person but of course he worked with others in a workplace. A suggestion was made to source the salaries books of the time and find out a little more about how many he worked with. Work like this would be great to see in the public domain. Simms was not a lone worker but strived as part of a team to produce decent housing within his remit.

Then as now, although the regulations and procurement have changed, any plans for housing had to be planned, costed and passed before the councillors at their monthly meetings. The minute books (in the Dublin City Library and Archive, Pearse St.) are lacking in detail, recalling only the decisions taken and noted amendments. But given the prevailing politics of the city and Ireland more broadly, where did political support for mass public housing provision come from? What politics supported this? I have been told that The Irish Builder is a ready source of the contemporary debates. Maybe someone has done some work on this already? The evidence seems to suggest that Fianna Fail saw it as part of their project to wrest control from Cumann na nGaedheal and others at city level, working with their constituents in individual wards to create a politics of better housing out of a city with a housing crisis arguably worse than we are currently experiencing.

Liberty House_129_Details of Internal Doors
Courtesy of DCC City Architects

Dublin was also changing rapidly with protectionism a central part of FF policy. The city would have had many vacant lots dotted across its extent, then much smaller than today. As much as they may not like to reflect upon it now, Fianna Fail was a mass party of working people, both rural and urban. Its class interests as a party were formed out of initial exclusion and sometimes persecution by the party that had ‘won’ the civil war. They spent a number of years building this mass party, aligned to the protection of cultural interests as well as building Ireland as a self-determined nation. It was out of a such a party that people like Frank Aiken and Sean Lemass would later make best use of an emigration crisis to reorient the economy toward foreign capital. When Simms was taken on in the early 1930s, his own role initially under Horace O’Rourke would have been to work to support the new politics of the ’30s, Catholic social teaching and all.

I am not an architect and hence am not aware of the cross-currents of style and various schools of design prevalent in Simms’s formative years but one thing he brought to Dublin housing was a distinctive European style. Simms was of an age that housing and community formation mattered: not just ‘housing units’ as we often talk of now, but housing as part of a better way of living in a city. He did not bring ‘European style’ to Dublin but understood that effective housing designs were being used across Europe, in Vienna, Rotterdam, London. In this way, he was not showing us natives how to ‘do European cities’ but was providing Dublin with a chance to create quality housing for all. This is the really neat political trick of Simms’s work of the time: he unself-consciously provided a basis for decent housing, publicly owned, and struggled hard to bring that vision about. Compromises were made of course: interior blocks were not rendered in the same way, later flat complexes were made smaller. He and his colleagues, in this way, were not a mythical vector of working class emancipation, but hard-working practitioners of an art who knew it was important. Nor was it slavish to the whims of its funders; it cast out a vision of the way public housing could be, realised some of it and burned itself out in the process. That they brought a set of councillors along with them over 16 years or so is evident across our city today.

 

IMG_20160903_184426
Photo by Paul Reynolds.
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Eoin O'Mahony

PhD in geography, teaching fellow UCD.

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