SJD8 #2: Historical Geographies of Injustice in Dublin 8

This is the second in a series of blogs on 'Spatial Justice in Dublin 8' (SJD8 #2), as a contribution to Maynooth University Social Justice Week 2022. 

Geographies of Injustice

Geography is the study of the Earth as our Home. Three central concepts in Geography are Environment, Place, and Space. All three of these concepts are implicated in studies of geographies of injustice.

Environmental Justice

Environment describes the physical and biotic conditions of existence for the web of life. All living things depend upon these external relations for their metabolic function. To make the Earth a home, is to intervene in the physical and biotic world, making shelter and producing food. Survival requires that we change Nature, producing what has been called a Second Nature.[1] These interventions in the web of life rearrange physical and biotic systems in ways that may be toxic to certain people, animals and plants. Confining ourselves at present to people, environmental injustices occur where people in one place bear a unfair share of such disamenities as pollution or other harmful changes in physical or biotic systems.[2] Factories are often clustered in certain districts producing for their neighbours the most intense smoke hazard (see Figure 1). More broadly, the modern city has a geography of asthma that reflects the density of polluting traffic that moves through various districts.[3]

Figure 1. Industrial Clark Avenue is Obscured by Smoke, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 1973, photographer Frank J. Aleksandrovicz (Public Domain: National Archives and Records Administration, USA)

If we make the Earth our home by burning fossil fuels, then, we raise sea levels and we deny some other people their own homes.[4] Government and planning can help here by restraining the free use of fossil fuels, by designating some places as unsuited for the building of homes, by building coastal defences against the sea, or by compensating displaced individuals.[5] Arguments about environmental justice turn on issues of scale, of responsibilities, and of the distributions of costs and benefits. For some island societies, rising sea level is not a matter of designating certain locations as indefensible but as conceding that whole territories and their associated communities and cultures are doomed. The question of scale also touches responsibility (and thus climate justice).[6] The combined activities of other industrialised countries over decades, and in some cases over centuries, have loaded and continue to load carbon into the atmosphere to an extent that these island communities have no chance of undoing through their own efforts.[7]

Place-based Justice

Place describes our relations with locations that are meaningful to us.[8] For example, ‘home’ is such a place for many, a location of great significance and linked with many memories and hopes.[9] Some places are broader and their meanings shared across groups of people. These collective memories and emotional investments cohere, for example, around places of religious, sporting, or historical significance (places of memory).[10] For many people, their old school or neighbourhood might be a place in this way. When geographers study the Earth as our Home,[11] they are looking at the range of attachments people forge to locations so that they come to feel ‘at home,’ have a sense of belonging. In some circumstances, people are unfairly denied this comfort; (they are homeless)[12], thereby denying them a universal human right under Article 25 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims that ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including […] housing […].'[13] This right to housing is the first target of Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: ‘By 2030, ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services and upgrade slums.'[14]

Figure 2. Anti-Gentrification Graffiti, Brick Lane, East End of London, 2017, VirtuallyLondonBecky (Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons)

Gentrification is often thought of in these terms; as denying people the possibility of remaining in neighbourhoods to which they feel attached, where they have developed important social bonds, and which house communities to whose character and resources they have made a contribution. The displacement of poorer people, often people of colour, is a defining feature of gentrification (see Figure 2).[15] The state of being a refugee is another way that people are denied their home, their own place.[16] Denying asylum to people who need it, is another version of a place-based injustice. As is denying Travellers access to the halting sites that sustain their connection to their shared history and culture.[17]

Spatial Justice

Space describes the relations between activities of people at different locations.[18] If place is broadly a vertical relation, then space is more horizontal. These dependencies and effects between activities in different locations are both intended and unintended. The elaborations of markets, states, and systems of states multiply the scale and intensity of spatial relations. Modern states create issues of spatial justice when they commit themselves to collective provision.[19] The so-called postcode lottery when it comes to education in schools is one such injustice.[20] If children in one area receive significantly more educational resources than those in another, then, state education is not providing a level playing field, but often intensifies pre-existing inequalities. More generally, if where you are born, or where you live, unfairly diminishes your life chances, then, that, too, would be an example of spatial injustice.[21]

Figure 3. Map of the Riga ghetto, Latvia, August 1941, published in a Nazi controlled newspaper (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

In some cases this differentiation is made explicit, as with the racial exclusion districts in the apartheid cities of South Africa,[22] the whites-only blocks in US cities from the 1870s to the 1970s,[23] or the curfewing of Jewish people to ghettoes within cities by the Nazi regime in territories it controlled (see Figure 3).[24] In every case, such segregation accompanies discrimination and a devaluing of lives to the point, in some cases, of extermination.[25]

Geographies of Injustice and the Histories of Dublin 8

Environmental, spatial and place-based injustices have structured life-chances in Dublin 8. For 1911, much of Dublin 8 was contained by the ward of New Kilmainham (see the wards of the City of Dublin on Figure 6 below).

Environmental Justice

There are several ways that human transformation of the physical and biotic worlds has shaped the web of life here over the past two centuries or so. Each of these distributed costs and benefits that might give rise to questions of environmental justice, that is issues of unfairness that arise from people’s remaking of the web of life. For example, establishing mills on the Camac, the Liffey, and the Grand Canal entailed abstracting waters that would affect flows downstream along the part of the river that remained running alongside the new mill races (see section on ‘The Mills’ in The Urban Palimpsest of New Kilmainham 1911). This might affect the capacity of the river to transport the waste products and detritus it was required to carry, concentrating pollution and smells. These mills added pollutants of their own and the paper mills with their chemicals, and calico printing with its dyes will have seriously compromised the streams for domestic use.

Environmental justice was at the heart of the public health question in the nineteenth-century. People understood various environmental pollutants as creating or fostering disease and that interventions like sewering and providing clean piped water would reduce sickness and mortality. These interventions required creating competent authorities with rights over lands and waters, as well as adequate financial capacity. This area was beyond the city limits and in 1854 several local parties, including some industrialists, took up new powers available with the establishment of town commissioners under the Towns Improvement Act (Ireland).[26] The Great Southern and Western Railway Company objected to this development since the new township would include lands it owned and for which it would be liable for rating to pay for urban infrastructure over the rest of the township. The company had supplied gas and water to the houses on its own estate and objected to paying to extend these services to others.[27] The establishment of the commissioners was itself an attempt to protect owners of large properties from the rates that might follow were the City of Dublin to be extended over this area. With a local commission they could control the scale of rating and expenditure. After the railway company the largest non-agricultural landowner in the area was the military with its barracks. The Army, however, was not rated for local services although it benefited from them. It made a voluntary contribution of £100 towards the £2800 spent on bringing water into the township.[28] In 1889 it restructured the drainage from the barracks away from the Canal and discharged it instead into the Camac.[29] The town commissioners for New Kilmainham were not allowed to make a sewering connection into the Camac and when they proposed connecting to the Liffey further downstream by running sewers under the Camac, millowners objected that the drains of the sewering system would intercept waters that would otherwise have sustained streamflow in the Camac and thus would have powered their mills or been available for other processes within their factories.

Sanitary improvement, then, involved a distribution of costs and benefits between the railway company, the army, industrialists and ratepayers. The ratepayers were not equally situated. The 1854 Act allowed for a uniform rate on all properties, with the rate for properties with an annual value of less than £4 being levied upon the landlord (‘the owner or immediate lessor’), who might of course add this to the rent.[30] The commissioners were to be elected from among the ratepayers rated for properties with annual value of £12 or more. The voters were to ratepayers rated for properties with annual value of £4 or more or leasing properties with a value of £50 or more. The rate that could be levied for improvements was capped at 1s. in the pound, plus a further 6d. in the pound where a new water supply was being provided.[31] Although it would take substantial further research to establish the details, it is clear that the costs of sanitary improvements were unevenly laid upon the residents of Kilmainham as were the benefits.

As New Kilmainham, this district was taken into the City of Dublin in 1900 and thereafter the distribution of costs and benefits incorporates this larger scale.

Figure 4. The Death-Rate from Respiratory Tuberculosis for the Larger Towns in the Republic of Ireland; from J. Darley Wynne, ‘Tuberculosis in the South of Ireland,’ British Medical Journal 1, no. 2265 (28 May 1904) 1243–1245. Tuberculosis was the focus of public health and housing activism in the early twentieth century

Place-Based Justice

The right to form attachments to locations in a manner that sustains a sense of belonging was compromised for Catholics with the burial stipulations of the penal laws. Under these laws only some, the Protestant, members of Irish society could bury their dead in cemeteries where they were allowed to conduct services around the grave with the minister of their choice. These rituals around burial are an important part of the way people connect with a certain type of place. Catholics were not able to conduct these rituals at the graveside and the burial places of their loved ones would always be a place of alienation. Instead, they were constrained to bury their friends and family in places that were dedicated to a rival creed, and one that annually celebrated its triumph over and justified its repression of Catholicism with the rites commemorating deliverance from the gunpowder plot of 1605.

Added in 1661 as a specific form of service and amended in 1690 to include reference to the security of the Protestant ascendancy with the coronation of William of Orange, ‘A Form of Prayer with Thanksgiving, to be used yearly upon the Fifth Day of November, For the happy Deliverance of King James I and the three Estates of the Realm of England, from the most traiterous and bloody-intended Massacre by Gunpowder: And also for the Happy Arrival of his Majesty King William on this Day for the Deliverance of our Church and Nation,’ was, by the nineteenth century one of only four days in the year for which there a special service mandated by law.[32] The service gave thanks for divine intervention against ‘Popish treachery,’ which has acted ‘in a most barbarous and savage manner, beyond the examples of former ages.’[33] In Ireland, this annual occasion for a sermon against rebellion and in thanks of Protestant supremacy would always have a particular and local significance and was part of a cultural apparatus that made religion an instrument that made Catholics aliens in their homeland.

Figure 5. Goldenbridge Cemetery, photograph by William Murphy, May 2019 (Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

The Goldenbridge cemetery is a place to recall the place-based elements of the unjust treatment of Catholics in Ireland. Although the issue of Catholic burial rights was of long standing this initiative was immediately provoked by a particularly egregious example of disrespectful treatment. O’Meara’s summary is precise and efficient: ‘[Goldenbridge Cemetery] opened in 1829 as the first non-denominational cemetery since the Reformation. Prior to this, Roman Catholics had no proper burial grounds. Burials took place in Protestant churchyards and legally Protestant clergy of the established church were the only ones permitted to recite funeral prayers.’[34]  In 1823 the sexton of St Kevin’s acting, he said, on the instruction of the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, Dr William Magee, forbade the saying of prayers by Rev. Doctor Michael Blake. In fact, the instructions of the bishop went further than that and advised clergy to attempt to ‘officiate, according to the rites of the Established Church, and that if not permitted, to […] protest formally and solemnly against the unlawfulness of the act, with a view to ulterior proceedings before the proper tribunal [an ecclesiastical court].’[35] This denial of a dignified place of rest is a form of place-based injustice in a society where such is universally valued and indeed exercised by others. The opening of the Goldenbridge Cemetery was an attempt to circumvent these humiliations by going outside the city to establish a multi-denominational space for burial (see also Thiesen on the iconography of garden cemeteries, SJD8 #4).

Spatial Justice

The principal issue of public health in the early twentieth century was the relationship between overcrowding and tuberculosis.[36] In both respects, Dublin was notorious. The failure of the private-sector to provide decent housing was seen as a failure of the capitalist system and this created a demand for public provision. The concentration of poor housing in certain districts became a central feature of the geographical imaginary of the city of Dublin. With the shrinking of the number in Dublin’s upper middle class after the Act of Union,[37] many grand houses were subdivided as poor families made do with one or two rooms in which to raise their children. In this respect, the persons per house (which can be determined from the published volume of the 1911 census) is one indicator of this colonisation of formerly wealthy districts by Dublin’s working class (see Figure 6).[38] A more accurate indicator of acute housing stress is perhaps given by the share of households whose accommodation is a single room (see Figure 7).[39] Both these measures varied greatly across the twenty wards of the city.

Across the city, the average number of persons per house was 8.1 but in the ward of Mansion House it was 12.2. Of the four wards with an average of more than 10 persons per house, three (Mansion House, Royal Exchange, Trinity) were in the south-central part of the city and one (Rotunda) in the north-central area. The share of households enjoying no more than a single room shows a slightly different pattern. Of the four wards with about half their households living at this degree of overcrowding, three (Mountjoy, North City, Rotunda) were in the north-central part of the city and one (Trinity) in the south-central area. These data are quite remarkable. Across a large part of the city of Dublin the majority of families had no more than a single room for their family life. For the city of Dublin, more than one-third (36%) of all households had nothing better than this. In both these respects, New Kilmainham was better than average. Compared to the city average of 8.1 persons per house, New Kilmainham ranked 16 out of the 20 wards with 6.0 persons per room. With 10% of its households subject to one-room living, New Kilmainham was far better than the city average of 36% and, again, ranked 16 in the list of 20 wards.

Figure 6. Persons per house for wards of the City of Dublin, 1911

Figure 7. Proportion of Households having no more than one room

New Kilmainham did not have the streets of formerly grand houses that produced the tenement districts of central Dublin. There were a few grand villas (see the section on ‘Villas’ in The Urban Palimpsest of New Kilmainham 1911) that had been vacated by the upper middle class. Some of these were turned to institutional living (as with convents) and a few were converted to tenements but on nothing like the scale of inner-city Dublin. Much of the housing in New Kilmainham had been provided for the labour aristocracy of the Railway Works. However, there were many small cottages across the ward and there were districts of real poverty, such as the Puck (see the discussion in The Urban Palimpsest of New Kilmainham). Dividing the ward into fourteen housing districts, the differences in housing circumstances are evident (for an account of the development of housing in New Kilmainham, see The Urban Palimpsest of New Kilmainham 1911).

Figure 8. Persons Per House, New Kilmainham 1911

All of the housing areas in New Kilmainham fall below the city average of 8.1 persons per house (see Figure 8). The Puck and Upper Chapelizod have the highest average values for New Kilmainham and the lowest values are in a diversity of areas including the corporation housing for skilled workers in The Bungalow, the middle class terraced villas of Goldenbridge West and Inchicore Road. From the buildings return and household returns of the manuscript census,[40] it is possible to be a little more precise and to control for the effect of the distribution of houses of different sizes and to calculate the number of persons per room (see Figure 9). The modest terraces of corporation housing now leave the group with the most generous housing provision but the relatively generous dimensions of the housing on the Railway Estate bring it into view as relatively commodious housing. The Puck still features as an area of housing stress, joined now by the speculative housing development of the Ranch. It is not possible, as yet, to produce such a map for the City of Dublin as a whole although further work on the thousands of buildings returns from the 1911 census would make that possible in theory.

Figure 9. Persons per room, New Kilmainham 1911

Examining the proportion of households in single-room accommodation, we again find (see Figure 10) that none of New Kilmainham’s housing districts approach the city average. The highest level of overcrowding is Islandbridge, largely due to the large number of one-room cottages that lie to the west of the main road. The second-highest is the area that shows up as having housing stress on all measures, the Puck. The institutional control over housing on the Railway Estate and in the Bungalow, no doubt explains the absence of tenement living there.

Figure 10. Percentage of households living in a single room, New Kilmainham 1911

— Gerry Kearns, 18 March 2022

Gerry Kearns is Professor of Geography at Maynooth University. This blog comes from work done for 'GY607. Field School,' a course that is part of the MA in Spatial Justice and of the Postgraduate Diploma in Geography at Maynooth. 


I’d like to thank Professor Karen Till for discussion and clarification of the concepts developed here and Dr Gerald Mills for sharing with me a file of the digitised household returns for Dublin 1911.

[1] Neil Smith, ‘Nature as Accumulation Strategy,’ Socialist Register 43 (2007) 16–36.

[2] Robert D. Bullard, ‘Environmental Justice: It’s More than Waste Facility Siting,’ Social Science Quarterly 77:3 (1996) 493-499.

[3] Natalie Kane, ‘Revealing the Racial and Spatial Disparity in Pediatric Asthma: A Kansas City Case Study,’ Social Science & Medicine 292 (2022): 114543.

[4] Kwasi Appeaning Addo and Michael Adeyemi, ‘Assessing the Impact of Sea-level Rise on a Vulnerable Coastal Community in Accra, Ghana,’ Jàmbá: Journal of Disaster Risk Studies 5:1 (2013) 1-8.

[5] Peter W. French, Coastal Defences: Processes, Problems and Solutions (London: Routledge, 2002).

[6] Mary Robinson, What is Climate Justice? (Interview with Germana Canzi), World Economic Forum, 4 August 2015),

[7] Lukas H. Meyer and Dominic Roser, ‘Climate Justice and Historical Emissions,’ Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 13:1 (2010) 229-253.

[8] Edward S. Casey, ‘Between Geography and Philosophy: What Does it Mean to be in the Place-World?,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91:4 (2001) 683–693.

[9] Alison Blunt, ‘Cultural Geography: Cultural Geographies of Home,’ Progress in Human Geography 29:4 (2005) 505–515.

[10] Karen E. Till, ‘Places of Memory, in John A. Agnew, Katharyne Mitchell, and Gerard Toal (eds), A Companion to Political Geography (London: Wiley, 2003) 289–301.

[11] YUi-Fu Tuan, ‘A View of Geography,’ Geographical Review 81:1 (1991) 99–107.

[12] Shari Daya and Nicola Wilkins, ‘The Body, the Shelter, and the Shebeen: An Affective Geography of Homelessness in South Africa,’ cultural geographies 20:3 (2013) 357–378.

[13] United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Website), 1948,

[14] United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 11: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable (Website), 2015,

[15] Kathe Newman,, and Elvin K. Wyly, ‘The Right to Stay Put, Revisited: Gentrification and Resistance to Displacement in New York City,’ Urban studies 43:1 (2006): 23–57.

[16] Patricia Ehrkamp, ‘Geographies of Migration I: Refugees,’ Progress in Human Geography 41:6 (2017) 813–822.

[17] Jim MacLaughlin, ‘The Political Geography of Anti-Traveller Racism in Ireland: The Politics of Exclusion and the Geography of Closure,’ Political Geography 17:4 (1998) 417–435.

[18] Robert Sack, ‘Conceptions of Geographic Space,’ Progress in Human Geography 4:3 (1980) 313–345.

[19] Gerry Kearns, ‘Governing Vitalities and the Security State,’ Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32:5 (2014) 762–778.

[20] Gerry Kearns, ‘Sorting the City,’ in Garrett Phelan (ed.), There Are Better Ways: Education, Class and Free Thought FM (Dublin: Douglas Hyde Gallery of Contemporary Art, 2022) 58–67.

[21] Gerry Kearns and Simon Reid-Henry, ‘Vital Geographies: Life, Luck and the Human Condition,’ Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99:3 (2009) 554–574.

[22] Paul Maylam, ‘Explaining the Apartheid City: 20 years of South African Urban Historiography,’ Journal of Southern African Studies 21:1 (1995) 19-38.

[23] Douglas S. Massey, Jonathan Rothwell, and Thurston Domina, ‘The Changing Spaces of Segregation in the United States,’ Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 626:1 (2009) 74–90.

[24] Tim Cole, Holocaust City: The Making of a Jewish Ghetto (London: Routledge, 2013).

[25] Bülent Diken and Carsten Bagge Laustsen, ‘Zones of Indistinction: Security, Terror, and Bare Life,’ Space and Culture 5:3 (2002) 290–307.

[26] Liam O’Meara, From Richmond Barracks to Keogh Square (Dublin: Riposte Books, 2014) 157.

[27] O’Meara, Richmond, 157.

[28] O’Meara, Richmond, 160.

[29] O’Meara, Richmond, 193.

[30] John Hancock, ‘On. The policy of extending the provisions of the Towns Improvement Act (Ireland), 1854, to the towns still under the old Paving and Lighting Act, 9. Geo. IV c. 82,’ Journal of the Statistical Society of Ireland 4:30 (1865) 212–216.

[31] Virginia Crossman, Local Government in Nineteenth Century Ireland (Belfast: Ulster Society of Irish Historical Studies, 1994) 67.

[32] The others were: 30 January (anniversary of beheading of Charles I, 1649; 29 May (anniversary of restoration of monarch after civil war, 1660); and the third was the anniversary of the coronation of the reigning monarch.

[33] The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: According to the Use of the United Church of England and Ireland ; Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David, Pointed as They are to Be Sung or Said in Churches ; and the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons (Oxford: United Church of England and Ireland, 1820) n.p.

[34] Liam O’Meara, Goldenbridge Cemetery (Dublin: Riposte Books, 2018) 7.

[35] ‘Irish Burial Bill,’ Freeman’s Journal (24 April 1824) 3.

[36] See the excellent analysis in Jacinta Prunty, Dublin Slums, 1800-1925: A Study in Urban Geography (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1997).

[37] See Mary E. Daly, Dublin, the Deposed Capital: A Social and Economic History, 1860-1914 (Cork: Cork University Press, 1984).

[38] [United Kingdom] Parliamentary Papers 1912–3. Cd. 6049-ii, cxiv, 1. Census of Ireland, 1911. Area, Houses, and Population: also the Ages, Civil or Conjugal Condition, Occupations, Birthplaces, Religion, and Education of the People. Province of Leinster. City of Dublin.

[39] The published summary of the census gives for each ward the number of households having more more than a single room. There is no return made of the number of households in each ward. The digitised version of the manuscript returns that is available through the webpage of the National Archives of Ireland allows an estimate to be made by counting the number of heads of household (family) given for in each ward.

[40] For a discussion of these sources, see previous blogs on the use of the manuscript materials of the census, including: Gerry Kearns, Researching the History of a Dublin Neighbourhood, Lower Sheriff Street 2: Demography and Economy 1911 (2018),


  1. […] in 1911 (for the location of this ward at the western side of the City of Dublin, see Figure 6 in SJD8 #2), this blog describes some of the layers of its urban palimpsest. This provides the background for […]


  2. […] environmental crises, including environmental, spatial, and place-based justice (see also Kearns, SJD8 #2). This is because geographers do not understand space, place, and environment as static containers, […]


  3. […] extortionate fees to bury their dead in Protestant graveyards (ibid; see also Kearns ‘SJD8 #2 The Historical Geographies of Injustice in Dublin 8). At the time, the three main graveyards used by Catholics were St. James, Bully’s Acre, and St. […]


  4. […] Overall, Dublin was characterised by low wages and a low skilled workforce, with a working poor that accounted for 40% of the population (Yeates, 2017). While over a third of the city’s residents lived in one-room tenements (CSO, 2016), the housing conditions in Inchicore’s railway village were far superior. Evidence from 1914 suggests that the wages of skilled and semi-skilled workers in the railways were around double the wages of male labourers and similar to comparable workers in Great Britain (Ó Gráda, 1994). Thus, the households discussed in this blogpost represent the relatively well-paid section of the working class in Dublin (for comparison, see section on ‘Spatial Justice’ by Kearns, SJD8 #2 ‘Historical Geographies of Injustice in Dublin 8′). […]


  5. […] of inequities and interest-motivated decisions (Kearns, 2022; see also Kearns, SJD8 #2, ‘The Historical Geographies of Injustice in Dublin 8‘ and SJD8 #3, ‘The Urban Palimpsest of New Kilmainham, […]


  6. […] and outcome of the distribution of valued resources and social goods (see also Kearns SJD8 #2 ‘Historical Geographies of Injustice in Dublin 8’). In their edited volume ‘Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis’, Kearns, Meredith and Morrissey […]


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