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Reading the Rookery: The Social Meaning of an Irish Slum in Nineteenth-Century London

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Original languageEnglish
Article number2
Pages (from-to)16-30
Number of pages15
JournalNew Hibernia Review
Volume16
Issue number1
DOIs
Published1 Apr 2012

King's Authors

Abstract

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Located at the southern area of St. Giles at the northwest end of Drury Lane, the St. Giles “Rookery” was the first and the most notorious Irish district in nineteenth-century London. About eight acres in extent, the Rookery was a perpetually decaying slum seemingly always on the verge of social and economic collapse; in her study of the Irish in Victorian Britain, Lynn Hollen Lees described it as “one of the foulest places in London." At the heart of this sprawling settlement was a tangled mass of alleys and walkways, which became known during the eighteenth century as the “Irish Rookery” or “Little Dublin.” As the names suggest, the residents were almost entirely of Irish extraction; the district often served as the first accommodation for those newly arrived in the city. This was in part because, as Roger Swift notes, “it had a reputation in Ireland for being generous in poor relief,” although—in Swift’s account, at least—this generosity had an unfortunate side effect of attracting “the least desirable Irish who quickly became demoralized and absorbed into a rookery of thieves and beggars.” Even by the standards of the time, living conditions at St. Giles were appalling. As Thomas Beames noted in an account from 1852, “Rookeries are bad, but what are they to Irish Rookeries?”

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