Thursday 11 April 2024

Spendours and miseries of Henrietta Street

Advice for any first-time visitor to Dublin: skip the Book of Kells experience (10 Euros to see two pages when we went on an unsuccessful lottery-win trip as Dublin virgins) and, to find out about crucial, very different aspects of the city's identity, head for 14 Henrietta Street. This is not the 'Tenement House Museum', as it's sometimes advertised; it embraces the whole history of a Georgian street in North Dublin, from opulent commission through 100 to a building by 1911, on to the more humane divisions of the 1930s-70s, and to what the place is now. Frankly, the finest museum experience I can think of; it recently won an award from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) for Shaffrey Architects' conservation and restoration work.

Luke Gardiner was the architect of Nos 13-15 in the 1740s; first residents were Lord Viscount Richard Molesworth and his second wife Mary.  The grand staircase, the first thing you see and then ascend, offers the opulent front of the five-floor house.

The guide - ours was excellent - begins the talk in the room on the first floor to the right, which is bare save for a fine model of the house in the centre

and finely restored cornicing. The firts two of four beautifully done films pertain to Molesworth family life. The fact that Lady Mary gave birth to two daughters in one of the back rooms overlooking the garden cues the biography of Bartholomew Mosse, for whom the fine bed in the room was made to order.

Mosse made himself unpopular with the medical establishment but got his way in founding a lying-in hospital, raising money impresario-wise as theatre manager and fashionable garden maker, and eventually opening the Rotunda Hospital, where the girl on the right being hugged by her mother was born.

Following the 1801 Acts of Union, the well-to-do retreated to Regency London, though the houses continued to be inhabited by legal practitioners (the fine King's Inns building designed by James Gandon is at the top of the street).

The Dublin Militia took over for a while until 1876, until after the Great Famine landlords starting carving up townhouses into multiple dwellings for the poor who had flooded into the city. As No. 14's website puts it,  

In 1876 Thomas Vance purchased Number 14 and installed 19 tenement flats of one, three and four rooms. Described in an Irish Times advert from 1877:

‘To be let to respectable families in a large house, Northside, recently papered, painted and filled up with every modern sanitary improvement, gas and wc on landings, Vartry Water, drying yard and a range with oven for each tenant; a large coachhouse, or workshop with apartments, to be let at the rere. Apply to the caretaker, 14 Henrietta St.’

,,, 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 (tailoress!), French polishers, and bookbinders living and possibly working in the house.

As the advert suggests, there were more amenities than in many such tenement set-ups, but the packing- in of a whole family to a single room was very far from the situation in the purpose-built tenements of Scotland. One recent visitor remembers sleeping as a child on the floor in the corner of this basement room. The bed in the recreation is actually a luxury. 

The stairways and halls in this part of the building have been left more or less distressed, with some telling injunctions on the walls.

Life on the street itself could, nevertheless, be enriching from the social angle, and a film full of children's songs in another renovated room points that out.

Improvements stalled by the Great War and the 1916 uprising finally became a priority of the new Irish state, and from 1931 onwards the first Dublin city architect, Herbert Simms, planned new conditions. One of his blocks can be seen out of the back windows, 

and the deco curves are apparent on another model.

Simms also designed garden suburbs, but many of the older residents pined after the lost communities of tenement life. No. 14's last tenemenr residents left in 1979, The building decayed until Dublin City Council acquired it in 2000, renovating and restoring; the museum opened in 2018. Its final apartment shows the relative cosiness of the later years. Colin Farrell, a recent visitor, told our guide it was exactly as he remembered his nan's home.

Afterwards I wandered through the King's Inn grounds

and admired the row of cottages parallel to Henrietta Street, a quiet corner of North Dublin.

So much more to explore - people keep telling me Dublin's small, but it has thousands of interesting places to see and stories to tell.


Peter said...

More Georgian gems! Thanks so much for this guided tour. How I'd love to have another visit.... All good wishes Peter

Anonymous said...

Thank you David, great articule and I agree with you . It is one of the best museums in Dublin. It is amazing how through a house you can read the social story of a city. Keep showing us more of Dublin.

David said...

Thanks, both. I hope I haven't forestalled too much the excellence of the tour, but there's no substitute for the real thing. The integration of the short films was especially impressive.