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How T.J. Byrne came to be the architect for the McCaffrey Estate (Ceannt Fort)

Mount Brown and the Cosgrave Connection

By the early decades of the 20th century, Dublin, which had been a dying, decaying city since the Act of Union, had the worst slums in Europe. In 1913, in the wake of the Church Street disaster where seven people were killed when tenements collapsed, the Dublin Corporation Housing Committee was set up to expedite the provision of new, well-planned and well-designed housing for poor and low-paid citizens.

The Chairman of the Committee was Alderman Thomas Kelly, and it included members such as Alfie Byrne and W. T. Cosgrave, the future President of the Executive Council of the Free State. Progress towards the provision of new and refurbished urban housing slowed almost to a halt by the onset of the Great War and the subsequent Irish Rebellion of 1916. In 1918, a survey of housing conditions on the north side of Dublin carried out by the Housing Committee of Dublin Corporation confirmed that matters had worsened considerably since a previous enquiry had taken place in 1913, subsequent to the Church Street disaster.

The 1918 survey showed that 29 percent of the population of Dublin, or 87,000 people, lived in slums, a third of which were described as unfit for human habitation. Upwards of 20,000 families lived in one-room tenements. In such conditions illness was easily spread and premature death from diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, smallpox and typhoid was endemic.

With the Great War coming to an end in 1918, some progress began to be made. One scheme for new housing that began construction in that year was for over 200 houses on the McCaffrey Estate, a site adjacent to the South Dublin Union Workhouse (now St James’s Hospital), called today Ceannt’s Fort or Mount Brown.

The City Architect, C. J. McCarthy, had prepared an outline proposal for 240 houses in 1914, but the Housing Committee had little funding and had to seek a loan from the LGB to buy the land. The LGB was a British Government supervisory body, founded in 1872, that oversaw local administration in Ireland. It essentially had an imperial veto over all decisions and spending plans made by local authorities, and at the very least provided an additional layer of decision-making that usually led to long delays in the implementation of local authority decisions. Indeed, the Chairman of the Dublin Corporation Housing Committee, Alderman Thomas Kelly, railed against the delays caused by the LGB. ‘Municipalities such as Edinburgh and Glasgow shape their own destiny without being hampered and impeded by well-paid inactivity or stupid harassing interference on the part of Government,’ he remarked, suggesting that there should be an enquiry into the LGB.

To deal with the request for a loan for the Ceannt’s Fort housing from the Housing Committee, as was usual, the LGB held an inquiry to consider the scheme. It was chaired by P. C. Cowan, their Chief Engineering Inspector. Born in Dundee, Scotland Cowan had worked in the United States and Canada before coming to Ireland. He combined brilliance as an engineer and administrator with a strong social conscience, and he was appalled by the slum conditions he found in Dublin when he was appointed to the LGB in 1899.

The Housing Committee’s request for a loan was subsequently approved. Concern, however, was raised by Cowan about the uninspired and monotonous layout of McCarthy’s scheme. This was echoed in a letter to the Irish Times by E. A. Aston, an important activist in matters of housing and planning, a respected journalist and founder of the Housing and Town Planning Association of Ireland. He described the scheme as having ‘… narrow straight laneways, monotonous rows of red brick dwellings, enforced absence of foliage, back yards of a few square feet abutting on each other…’

As a result of Cowan and Aston’s comments the Corporation Housing Committee advised McCarthy to consult with T. J. Byrne, who they said had ‘a great deal of experience in the erection of working class dwellings’.

McCarthy did so, and Byrne took on the project as a private architectural commission, although he only charged a fee of 1 percent, rather than the going rate of 5 percent. He designed a scheme with a reduced density to McCarthy’s original scheme, and with a radically different layout: it was presented to the Housing Committee and approved in February 1915, but the loan from the LGB to purchase the site was subsequently refused due to restrictions caused by the war.

In 1917 Dublin Corporation applied again to the LGB for the Ceannt’s Fort loan, requesting an increase in the amount due to the rise in building costs. This time, the loan was approved and arrangements made with the British Government to have it paid.

Some improvements were incorporated into Byrne’s scheme, which he submitted in October 1917, and following approval, tenders were sought for the work. Byrne reported on the tenders in January 1918, and recommended that the lowest, submitted by Mr Louis Monks of Kingstown in the amount of £76,800, be accepted.

The project proceeded but by August 1919, only 80 of the 202 houses had been completed, although there were 2,000 applicants for properties. Strikes, along with procedural and funding difficulties, further delayed completion of the scheme. During the construction period it seems that W. T. Cosgrave got to know and appreciate at first hand Byrne’s architectural and organisational skills. At a Dublin City Council meeting in July 1921 during which the previous Housing Committee, the architect, the contractor and the officials concerned were all blamed for the delays, Cosgrave staunchly defended Byrne, stating were it not for Mr Byrne, the architect, there would not have been a brick laid on the McCaffrey Estate now or possibly for years to come.”

The finished Mount Brown scheme survives today, a wonderfully intimate series of housing clusters, gardens and playgrounds, and is regarded as one of the finest examples of urban housing of its day.

From the book Thomas Joseph Byrne Nation Builder by John Byrne and Michael Fewer. Excerpt used with permission of Michael Fewer.

TJ Byrne Architect

Thomas Joseph Byrne Nation Builder by John Byrne and Michael Fewer.