Dublin in the ‘Good Old Days!’

Henrietta Street, Dublin circa. 1900. Photo: National Library of Ireland.

By Cheryl Devaney

Henrietta Street, in Dublin’s north inner city, dates from the 1720s and represents the best collection of early to mid eighteenth century aristocratic townhouses in Ireland. Number 14’s first inhabitants were Lord Richard Molesworth, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Irish Army, and his second wife, Mary Jenney Ussher.

After the Act of Union in 1800 when all political powers moved to London, many of the Anglo-Irish upper classes returned to England as Dublin had lost much of its significance. Number 14 was then occupied by lawyers, courts and even used as a barracks.

With nearby King’s Inns, founded in 1541, and its Honorable Society controlling the entry of barristers-at-law in Ireland, Henrietta Street proved to be a popular site for the legal profession. In 1877, a landlord named Thomas Vance, purchased the property and divided the house into nineteen tenement flats.

So began Number 14’s deterioration with structural timbers rotting and vandalism widespread until, in 2000, Dublin City Council acquired this empty shell of a once graceful house. After years of conservation and at a cost of €4.5 million, its doors were opened to the public in September 2018.

This restored palatial house is one of Dublin’s newest museums so it will take time for its grand rooms to be filled with furniture of the period. However, it is fascinating to see the beautifully plastered ceilings of what would have been the principal rooms on the ground and first floors.

The music room’s coving is embedded with plaster musical instruments. As the wealthy owners would not have spent the whole year there, many returned to England in the summer months. One of the rooms has a four-poster bed, which could have been dismantled and taken on their journeys.

When Thomas Vance acquired Number 14, he took advantage of Dublin’s increasing population, which had risen by thirty-six thousand as a result of the Great Famine. The house had only one toilet that was outside in the rear yard but, because of this uncommon amenity, he was able to raise the rent. Henrietta Street, which had been home to generations of lawyers, now had its fifteen houses filled with eight hundred and thirty-five people, over one hundred of them being resident in Number 14. The street was filthy, overcrowded, disease-ridden and full of malnourished children.

The hall and staircases, which had been stripped of their artifacts, had the lower part of their walls painted with Raddle red. Instead of using rouge some women as they passed would touch the paint with their fingers and rub it on their cheeks. The higher parts of the walls were painted with Reckitt’s blue, which was thought to ward off diseases. Many of the stairs’ balusters are missing, as these were used for firewood. The front door was never closed, since people used to walk through the house as a shortcut to other properties. At night, the homeless would sleep on the hall’s floors.

Timber-framed partitions subdivided the large rooms into many smaller rooms, each of which were used by one family. Into these tiny rooms extended family members and even lodgers were sometimes brought! Money for rent was scarce as unemployment was rife and families depended on finding intermittent casual labour.

During the conservation work, many of the partitions, which did not go right up to the high ceilings in order to let air circulate between the rooms, were removed. Today, red lines on the floors indicate the size of the tenement rooms.

People whose parents often lived in such homes guide the tours. Our guide pointed out graffiti on a wall: ‘Ann persion who tampers with anny ting or who is not readint in this house will be prosacuhtead by law’! She also said that lit newspaper was flung over the staircase to help children find their way back from the outside toilet. This dangerous practice resulted in another tenement being burnt to the ground.

Down in the basement, you can really feel the gloom and grime of the place. One room had a single cast-iron bed with an overcoat thrown over it – known as ‘a duvet with arms’! It also had white enamel bowls, a chair with shortened legs – the stumps had been used for firewood – and a rough looking range.

The tour’s last room is a replica of a compact flat, partitioned into a miniscule kitchen, parlour and bedroom. Filled with bric-a-brac from the 1960s, these rooms have an upright piano with family photos on top of it, a dresser, china dogs, carbolic soap and other household items, all in their original wrappers.

The last tenement families were moved out by Dublin Corporation in 1979 to council estates in the Dublin suburbs. Many of them missed the close community spirit of Number 14 and, even though they were given spacious houses, some families still tended to cram themselves into a single room!

During the visit, archival videos of the life in the 1800s and 1900s were shown and these all helped to bring the past to life. The house certainly portrayed the social unfairness that characterized this period.