Aston, Ernest Albert (1873–1949), journalist and urban planner, was born 6 October 1873 in Dublin, eldest of at least three sons and a daughter of Thomas J. Aston, book-keeper, and Jane Hawkshaw Aston (née Bennett). After education at Wesley College and training as an engineer, he was engaged in various commercial and industrial pursuits, and was employed as a local government inspector under Henry A. Robinson (qv) before becoming a journalist.
He contributed articles for more than forty years to the Irish Builder and Engineer, often using pseudonyms (‘Artifex’, ‘Pathfinder’, and ‘Nomad’). Sub-editor of the Irish Times, he wrote articles on transport, and campaigned vigorously for the orderly development of city, region, and nation. He was always ready to denounce mediocrity and procrastination, and was a frequent critic of local government ministers.
A pioneer of the Irish town-planning movement, he sympathised with Patrick Geddes (1854–1932) and his garden-city principles as a solution to the poverty and inadequate housing conditions of the Dublin working classes. He argued that town planning must be closely associated with housing developments to prevent new housing schemes becoming future slums. In 1907 he was honorary secretary and organiser of the Cork Exhibition. Honorary secretary of the Dublin Citizen's Association (Incorporated), he was a founder member (1911) of the Housing and Town Planning Association of Ireland, which was central to many town-planning initiatives such as the Civic Survey and the Dublin Town Planning Competition (1914). In 1913 he appeared before the public inquiry into working-class housing conditions in Dublin, and presented imaginative and radical proposals for a comprehensive plan for the city: they included a joint housing authority to coordinate extensive rebuilding in the inner city, the development of garden suburbs on the outskirts, and ‘plantations for city workers in convenient rural areas’ connected by rail and tram. He was a founder member of, and the driving force behind, the Greater Dublin Reconstruction Movement (1922), which formulated a bold and comprehensive plan to solve the problems facing Dublin after the destruction wrought during 1916–22. In a lecture (December 1922) to the Engineering and Scientific Association of Ireland, later published as Greater Dublin reconstruction scheme described and illustrated, he set out its principal proposals, which included municipal reform, transport considerations, and housing schemes for the working class. The proposals received government approval, and though few were implemented, they were valuable in focusing attention on the need for planning as a basis for city development.
A man of many ideas, Aston contributed to the building of the Killester garden suburb for ex-servicemen, and was directly involved with the development of the turf industry and the initiative to generate electricity on the bogs. He initiated and kept alive the twenty-year debate on the use of North Bull Island, Dublin Bay, known as the Blue Lagoon scheme; in 1929 he suggested the development of a 1,000-acre marine lake to replace the swamp dividing Bull Island from the mainland. The proposal aroused opposition, led indirectly to the founding of An Taisce, and highlighted the need for a regional dimension to metropolitan planning.
A member of the Dublin Parliamentary Debating Society (1892), he supported home rule and was co-founder of the Dublin Liberal Association in 1910. Acquainted with many of the political leaders of 1908–20, including Éamon de Valera (qv), Arthur Griffith (qv), and Eoin MacNeill (qv), he was suspected of providing political intelligence to the British authorities. In 1917, together with J. Malcolm Lyon, an Englishman, Aston sponsored the Irish Labour Party's newspaper Irish Opinion: a weekly journal of industrial and political democracy, which he monitored closely to prevent any support for Ireland as an independent republic or sympathy for Sinn Féin extremists. A founding member and honorary secretary of the Proportional Representation Society of Ireland (est. 1911), he campaigned in Sligo for the introduction of the single transferable vote in its borough council elections (1918), which contributed to its adoption after independence. He also published An Irish constituent convention: the Sligo “mouse” and the Paris “lion” (1919).
A staunch methodist and a deeply committed and public-spirited man, he was ‘an aggressive and violently persistent pioneer [who succeeded by his] sheer strength of character . . . an unrepentant champion of lost causes . . . His charity was limitless’ (Ir. Times, 9 Mar. 1949). He died 6 March 1949 and was buried in the cemetery on the side of Howth Head, Co. Dublin. Aston married (1897) Lizzie Layng Irvine; they had at least two sons and one daughter.