Poverty and Health in Limerick City (1912-14)

There were 3,025 people living in 884 different one room tenements in Limerick City in 1914.
There were 3,025 people living in 884 different one room tenements in Limerick City in 1914.

The annual reports submitted to the Public Health Committee by the Medical Officer, Dr. Michael McGrath, offer a detailed picture of the major health issues affecting Limerick City from 1912 to 1914.

Housing of the Working Classes

This was the single most critical health issue in all the major towns and cities in Ireland. Overcrowded tenement housing and their concomitant poor sanitation aided the spread of contagious diseases; led to an increase in mortality rates and a decrease in life expectancy. At this time an alarming 8% of Limerick City’s population lived in what the Medical officer described as “those wretched tenements.” In 1912 there was an epidemic of measles in Limerick City and this infectious disease claimed the lives of 127 children. Dr. McGrath noted that most of these deaths occurred in the poorer areas of the city.

“This complication arises in every case where the necessary nursing attention cannot be devoted to the patient and its absence was more marked in the poorer classes, amongst whom the disease proved most fatal.”

The cause of death in the majority these cases was due to complications i.e bronchial pneumonia. Whereas measles came in waves, Tuberculosis was the most intransigent disease to affect the working classes in Limerick city. Dr. McGrath lamented that around one hundred people died from tuberculosis in the city each year and that this would not change unless a better class of housing was provided. He wrote

“…this highly undesirable state of things will exist until improved housing accomodation has been provided for the Working Classes and their families, as it is in this section of the community that the ravages of Tuberculosis are most to be deplored.”

The number of deaths caused by Pulmonary Tuberculosis in Limerick City (1900-1914)
The number of deaths caused by Pulmonary Tuberculosis in Limerick City (1900-1914)

Despite the higher rate of mortality among their tenants, tenement blocks were sought after by investors for their profitability. An extreme example of this can be found in Dublin City. According to the 1911 census, 16 houses on Buckingham Street contained 1,273 people. Nevertheless, they were an attractive investment as they were “yielding a large percentage.”

Tenements for Sale on Buckingham Street, Dublin (1913)
Tenements for Sale on Buckingham Street, Dublin (1913)

Mud, Manure, Water

Statistics can often evoke how different life was a century ago more effectively than any photograph. The Medical Officer’s report included details on the number of cartloads of manure and mud removed from the city streets, as well as the amount of water added to wash away the dirt or to prevent the build up of dust during the Summer months.

from Medical Officer's Report (1913)
from Medical Officer’s Report (1913)

Again, the lack of basic sanitary facilities in the tenement houses was noted by the Medical officer who regretted that

“the people in the poorer districts, where most of the houses are without water closests, do not take advantage of the night soil carts to anything like the extent that they should..”

Hence this excrement that was “slopped out” during the night was allowed to dry on these streets and lanes helping propagate a whole range of diseases. Sanitary sub-officers in the city thus condemned nearly one thousand of these houses without water closets as “unfit for human habitation.”


Infant Mortality Rate in Limerick County (per 1,000 births)

Source: Annual Reports of the Registrar-General. Limerick figure for 1912 skewed by Measles epidemic.
Source: Annual Reports of the Registrar-General

Further Reading