In the summer of 2019 our family had the chance to spend almost three months in Dublin and I’ll try to tell you about everything interesting, popular or not, in the city. Overall, I wouldn’t say that I liked Dublin much, unlike Ireland. If you go out of the city everything is gorgeous, but Dublin itself not so much… There were amazing places, of course, and I will tell you about one of them now.
Nominated for European Museum of the Year 2020, 14 Henrietta Street captures over 300 years of family and city life within the walls of one address. Intimate guided tours bring visitors on a truly moving journey from the houses’ grand Georgian beginnings to the tenement dwellings of its later years.
Henrietta Street is the most intact collection of early to mid-18th century houses in Ireland. Work began on the street in the 1720s when houses were built as homes for Dublin’s most wealthy families. By 1911 over 850 people lived on the street, over 100 of those in one house, here at 14 Henrietta Street.
Numbers 13-15 Henrietta Street were built in the late 1740s by Luke Gardiner. Number 14’s first occupant was The Right Honorable Richard, Lord Viscount Molesworth and his second wife Mary Jenney Usher, who gave birth to their two daughters in the house.
Number 14, like many of the houses on Henrietta Street, follows a room layout that separated its public, private and domestic functions. The house is built over five floors, with a railed-in basement, brick-vaulted cellars under the street to the front, a garden and mews to the rear, and there was originally a coach house and stable yard beyond.
In the main house the principal rooms in use were located on the ground and first floors. These grand rooms began as social spaces to display the material wealth, status and taste of its inhabitants. Dublin’s Georgian elites developed a taste for expensive decoration, fine fabrics, and furniture made from exotic materials, such as ‘walnuttree’ and mahogany.
Now, here on the first floor, you can see the remains of this wealthy past, as well as some furniture. The staircase is quite impressive. The room are not fully furnished yet, but the museum hopes that they will be able to set exhibitions in them soon.
After the Acts of Union were passed in Great Britain and Ireland in 1801, all power shifted to London and most politically and socially significant residents were drawn from Georgian Dublin to Regency London. Dublin and Ireland entered a period of economic decline, exacerbated by the return of soldiers and sailors at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
This marked a turning point for the street, professionals moved in, and Henrietta Street was occupied by lawyers. In the 19th century the rooms of the house took on a different more utilitarian tone. Fine decoration and furniture gave way to desks, quills and paperwork with the activities of commissioners, barristers, lawyers, and clerks who moved into the house.
Family life returned to the street in the early 1860s when the Dublin Militia occupied the house until 1876, when Dublin became a Garrison town, with their barracks at Linenhall.
Dublin’s population swelled by about 36,000 in the years after the Great Famine, and taking advantage of the rising demand for cheap housing for the poor, landlords and their agents began to carve their Georgian townhouses into multiple dwellings for the city’s new residents.
In 1876 Thomas Vance purchased Number 14 and installed 19 tenement flats of one, three and four rooms.
In Dublin, a tenement is typically an 18th or 19th century townhouse adapted, often crudely, to house multiple families. Tenement houses existed throughout the north inner city of Dublin; on the southside around the Liberties, and near the south docklands.
Houses such as 14 Henrietta Street underwent significant change in use – from having been a single-family house with specific areas for masters, mistresses, servants, and children, they were now filled with families – often one family to a room – the room itself divided up into two or three smaller rooms – a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom. Entire families crammed into small living spaces and shared an outside tap and lavatory with dozens of others in the same building.
By the time we reach the basement, it’s clear we’re on a journey that’s as much about the life of Dublin as this single building. The air is dank. A picture of the Sacred Heart sits over a hole-in-the-wall fireplace and an overcoat is stretched on the bed (people called them “duvets with arms”). At their worst, tenements were rife with disease, overcrowding and rats.
By 1911 number 14 was filled with 100 people while over 850 lived on the street. The census showed that it was a hive of industry – there were milliners, a dressmaker, French polishers, and bookbinders living and possibly working in the house.
With the establishment of the new state, improvements to housing conditions in Dublin became a priority. In 1931 Dublin Corporation appointed its first city architect Herbert Simms to improve the standard of housing in the city. Simms and his team created new communities outside the city centre, amidst greenery and fresh air, this was the dawn of the suburbs. The development of these new communities signalled the end of tenement life in Dublin.
The exhibit is placed on different floors, each one showing a different period of time.
After the establishment of the new state, the housing problem become a priority in Dublin. New houses were built in the suburbs of the city, among green parks and clean air. This was the beginning of the tenant houses. Oddly, but most of the tenants didn’t want to move despite the miserable conditions they were living at. A long time passed until the last resident left.
The final room you will see is an understated ‘wow’ moment — a door opened to reveal a replica flat crammed with the cosy bric-a-brac of family life. There are China dogs on the mantelpiece, a toy gun slung off a bed, a whiff of carbolic soap on the way out the door. This is the homeliness Tracey was talking about. It almost hums with nostalgia.
The last tenement residents of number 14 left in the late 1970s by which time the building was virtually abandoned by its owners after the basement and third floor (attic) had already become uninhabitable. During this period of neglect the processes of decay accelerated, leading to the rotting of structural timbers, loss of decorative plasterwork, and vandalism, leaving the house close to imminent collapse.
Dublin City Council began a process to acquire the house in 2000, and as a result of the Henrietta Street Conservation Plan and embarked on a 10-year long journey to purchase, rescue, stabilise and conserve the house, preserving it for generations to come.
In September 2018 14 Henrietta Street opened to the public.
The price for the tour is 9 euro and this were the best spent money and the museum that impressed me the most in Dublin. Everything was so real that I personally felt the pain, the happiness, the sorrows and the joy of the thousands people that lived here. You can buy tickets here.
Stay tuned and don’t stop believing!