Architects and builders were difficult to find; the cost building materials had increased sharply; the centre of Dublin hummed with new construction for which skilled labour was in scarce supply; Clery’s department store stood idle; and Ireland slowly emerged from a period of austerity. One might be forgiven for supposing that this refers to Dublin today but in fact it describes the restoration of Sackville (now O’Connell) Street and adjoining thoroughfares in 1918. During the 1916 Rising they had been devastated by fire and military bombardment, and many contemporaries had likened the smouldering ruins to a scene from the First World War. As a result, thousands of Dublin’s citizens suffered material losses ranging from bicycles to entire buildings.
Compensation culture is by no means a recent Irish phenomenon. As the sense of shock at the insurrection subsided, attention swung quickly to the issue of restitution. A compensation campaign was initiated even as the executions were taking place. In early May 1916 traders and property owners came together to form the Dublin Fire and Property Losses Association to deal with insurance companies and the government. The driving force behind this was William Martin Murphy, one of the most prominent businessmen of his day, whose interests in Clery’s department store, the Imperial Hotel and Dublin United Tram Company were all significantly affected by the insurrection.
A consensus swiftly emerged that the state had failed to protect the community, despite numerous warnings of a possible outbreak, and therefore the Imperial Treasury should make good the loss to private citizens, as the Irish Times put it, of those rights that the government exists to protect. The British government quickly conceded that it would have to pay for the damage caused by the military and, in particular, by the use of artillery. But this was on an ex gratia (out of goodwill) basis and not in recognition of any right to compensation. Politically, a generous measure of compensation was a means of conciliating the Dublin business community, citizens, and municipality. Given British anxiety for the US to enter the First World War, a demonstration of statesmanship in Ireland might sooth inflamed Irish-American opinion.
The outcome was the establishment in mid-June 1916 of the Property Losses (Ireland) Committee to deal with compensation claims. The committee was impressively efficient and completed its work in less than ten months. Three rubrics were adopted: property claims would be dealt with on the basis of insurance; second, looting (widespread during Easter week) would be deemed the same as burning for settlement purposes; and, despite loud protest, claims for consequential losses, such as loss of profits or customers, would not be entertained. Fortunately, the committee’s interpretation was sympathetic in that it recognized that buildings were allowed to burn out as the fire brigade could not intervene, the police were withdrawn, and owners were prevented by the military from approaching their burning premises. Consequently, nothing could be done to save property from fire or looting. In each case, where loss could be proven, the committee recommended payment of the sum which an insurance company would have allowed had the loss been fully covered by insurance.
The claims themselves are fascinating and were divided into two categories: damage to buildings and damage to contents. Some 7,001 claims were received of which 90 per cent were admitted. Unsurprisingly, the largest awards were for the 210 cases in which property had to be completely rebuilt. The largest of these awards was Clery’s which was granted £77,292 for the destruction of 21-27 Sackville Street. On the instruction of the lord lieutenant, claims in respect of government property destroyed or damaged were not considered. In this way, the GPO was excluded. The business community were not, of course, the only claimants. The committee recognized the importance of promptly settling the claims of workmen and employees who, owing to the loss of tools or clothing, were in many cases unable to obtain work. A total of 3,200 small claims for personal effects or minor damage to property were processed. The amounts involved were generally modest. Margaret Kiernan received £1 7s. 5d. for the loss of an apron and shoes; George Whiteacre of Drumcondra was awarded £1 10s. for the loss of his ladder at 6 Eden Quay and his neighbour Nora Dickson was awarded 15s. for the destruction of ostrich feathers! The claims have recently been digitized by the National Archives of Ireland. Predictably, no grant was made in respect of the property of anyone complicit in the outbreak and each list of claims was subjected to police inspection.
The Property Losses Committee did not actually disburse awards. Its purpose was to investigate claims and recommend a sum for the Treasury to approve and after a delay pay out. From January 1917 owners could inspect the notes of award at Dublin Castle. Funds for actual expenditure on rebuilding were released on a phased basis on the production of a certificate from the architect or builder. For example, William McDowell was paid £2,070 in six instalments between May and December 1917 for the restoration of 3 Upper Sackville Street.
The Treasury was one source of delay; the other was the Dublin Reconstruction (Emergency Provisions) Act without which rebuilding could not commence. Led by James Gallagher, the lord mayor, Dublin Corporation petitioned the government for workable town planning regulations to ensure that buildings were restored in a manner not worse than before. The corporation also sought additional financial assistance to cover loss of rates, to purchase ground areas for street widening and to provide financial aid to private owners over and above the ex gratia grant where the compensation did not allow rebuilding in an improving architectural style or meet elevated building costs. This put the corporation on a collision course with the business community which fiercely resisted any regulations that might impinge on rebuilding or add to its cost. After protracted debate, the Act was passed in December 1916.
The end of the First World War greatly accelerated the pace of reinstatement and by mid-1920 the restoration of Sackville Street, so important for the commercial life of Dublin, was almost complete. So what did the 1916 Rising cost the British government? The scale of compensation – £1,844,390 in ex gratia grants and a £700,000 loan to Dublin Corporation – was staggering given wartime austerity. In simple purchasing terms the relative value of the combined compensation sum and loan is about €200 million. Ultimately, however, the British government received little gratitude for its investment. For mollified property owners avoiding financial disaster was not really cause for celebration. Moreover, the compensation gesture could not arrest the steady transformation of Irish public opinion in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising.