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A bridge, a town, a people.

There is probably no theme more consistent or more controversial in modern Irish history (and by modern I mean right to the present day) than the process by which people find a house in which to accommodate the essential processes of life – living itself, rearing a family, and finding a refuge from the stresses of life. And yet for all its centrality to the reality of Irish life, the way in which the ordinary people acquired their houses has been greatly understudied. This is a surprising comment on the priorities of historians at national and at local levels. Why is it that housing, especially housing provided by local councils or ‘social housing’ as it is termed in modern times, has not been given more attention by the growing legion of local historians? Perhaps, it is because there is reluctance among local historians to stir sensitivities relating to the issue known as ‘class’ in the texture of Irish society.

This question becomes even sharper when compared with the volumes of attention given to the ‘Big House’ in Irish historical writing. A whole shelf-full of coffee table books has been generated on the architectural creations of the upper classes. And the lifestyles of their elite occupants continue to fascinate modern audiences. Yet the amount of historical investigation of what might be called the ‘little houses’ – the homes of the working classes and of the poor has remained largely untouched in the otherwise voluminous output of modern local historians.

This omission has been rectified in the case of Co. Kildare by James Durney whose latest book on council housing in county Kildare – ‘A bridge, a town, a people – social housing in Newbridge 1900-1996’ follows the same path as his pioneering work on council housing in Naas published three years ago. Both books are vital on many levels. From a national perspective they show government at its best, living up to its duty of care to citizens by providing schemes by which people could rent and purchase a home at a reasonable cost. These initiatives were in turn delivered through the structures of Irish local government – in this case Kildare County Council and Newbridge Town Commission – which took on the long-term burdens of buying land, building the houses, allocating tenancies, and following up with rent collection and maintenance to ensure that the value of the public investment held firm.

James Durney’s recent Newbridge book blends mainstream historical research into official documents such as the Newbridge Town Commission minute books with an extensive range of oral history material based on interviews with twenty two residents of the town. The result is a strong and rich account of not alone the administration and building of the houses but also the human connections of the communities which grew up in the new estates. The nostalgic but realistic tone of the recollections is characterised by Pa Durney of Lakeside Park who in his foreword to the book recalls his growing up in Highfield Estate: ‘ everyone in Highfield seemed to know each other right from the very beginning … Everyone nearly knew what each family was having for breakfast, dinner and tea – something with beans usually.’

The story of council housing in Newbridge began with Rowan Terrace in May 1902 – a scheme of twenty houses. Most of the new tenants were local names such as O’Neill, Dunne, Cleary and Byrne but one intriguing name featuring among the proud new householders was that of Albert Kaskopp, pork butcher, which suggests an exotic eastern European origin. James Durney charts the story of Newbridge from Rowan Terrace  through the later schemes such as Chapel Lane (1932), Old Connell cottages (1937), Ballymany cottages (1936), The Crescent (1938), Piercetown (1939), Pairc Mhuire (1953), St. Dominic’s Park (1962), Highfield (1968), Dara Park (1974), and Lakeside Park (1983). Of course the military heritage of Newebridge was bound to have a major influence and the conversion of the barracks to housing during the 1930s is recorded in detail. Given Ireland’s recent salutary experience with a voracious private housing demand it gives a sense of perspective to learn that in Newbridge between 1910 and 1960 there were 455 council houses built compared with just 151 private houses over the same period.

James Durney is a prolific published historian on many themes in Kildare life – his books documenting the involvement of Kildare men in conflicts at home and overseas have become valued references for local historians. He has now done Kildare another service by bringing to life the story of the county’s fastest growing town through the middle decades of the twentieth century. ‘A bridge, a town, a people’ by James Durney is published by Gaul House. Series no: 182

Liam Kenny in his column 'Nothing New Under the Sun' from the Leinster Leader of 24th June 2010 reflects on James Durney's new book on the history of social housing in Newbridge - A bridge, a town, a people. Our thanks to Liam.  

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