ATGI recently arranged a visit to one of Dublin's new historic visitor venues as part of the CPD programme for our members. While many of our guides are experts on the various elements and features of Georgian architecture, this house brings to life again the families who occupied these once lovely houses and will be an important addition to Dublin's historic attractions.
The story of 14 Henrietta street in Dublin's north inner city is definitely a tale of two halves - the original grand townhouse was built in 1740ies in one of the city's emerging upper-class areas and initially was home to the Molesworth family, but eventually became a slum tenement and "home" to dozens of Dublin's poor.
In the initial years of the Georgian building period, (1715 - 1830) , the North side of the Liffey was the place to be, with the grand Parnell & Mountjoy squares being laid out, along with adjoining Gardiner, Blessington and North Great Georges streets. The houses in Henrietta Street were built to house Ireland's legal profession, due to its proximity to Kings Inn, the first residents in number 14 were Rt Honourable Richard Lord Viscount Molesworth and his second wife Mary Usher. But the Act of Union in 1801 followed by the Famine forty years later, obviously brought about major changes to the country and one result was the rapid deterioration in Dublin's housing. Following the departure of the Molesworths, the house changed hands a number of times and was actually occupied for a short while by the Encumbered Estates Court - set up after the Famine to facilitate the sale of estates whose owners had fallen into debt - the 19th century's version of NAMA - who said history always repeats itself?
A house is just a building, it is the people who lived in them that really interests me. Unfortunately, the Molesworths did not have happiness after they left Dublin - the Rt Hon & Mary had seven children - some while living in this house, actually naming one of their daughters Henrietta - but in 1763 a fire in their London home claimed the lives of Mary along with two of their children as well as a number of servants. )
By the mid 1870ies, this former grand house was divided into 19 tenement flats and by the time of the 1916 Rising, more than a hundred people lived here in awful slum conditions. By the 1930ies, with the huge social housing programmes initiated by the new independent Government, conditions in the house "improved" to one or two roomed flats per family, until finally (and unbelievingly) the last family - the Dowlings - left the house in 1979.
That was then, this is now.....
Dublin City Council has done some restoration to the house, mainly to make it safe for visitors but also restoring some of the room features to the former glory days, while leaving other areas as they would have been during the tenement times. All tours are guided only, last approx. 1.5 hrs and include a video in some rooms.
Justine our guide was very knowledgeable was able to bring us through the history of the house and uses of the individual rooms. There have been minimal changes made to the fabric of the house, other than peeling away the layers of paint to show the underlying plasterwork and mouldings. In one of the rooms there is a large 4-poster bed, belonging to Bartholomew Moss, founder of the Rotunda Hospital , in another a lovely "dolls house" type model of what the house would have looked like in the good days.
However it is in the stark bare rooms where you begin to feel what daily life must have been like for the hundreds of poor Dubliners who lived here. Justine explained it was an "open house" - front and back doors were open to anyone, people used these houses as a shortcut to another street, homeless people used the hallways & landings for overnights. It was generally one family per room, but as the rents were high, families were often forced to take in lodgers or sub-divide their one room to others. There was an outdoor flushing toilet - in those days this meant that someone came twice a day to "flush" it - if you were lucky. There was a large fireplace in every room which doubled as a cooker and water heater, the rooms eventually had gas lighting but the landings were unlit. Several of these rooms have samples of the furniture and household items from those times. The walls on the landings and stairs were painted with Reckitts Blue, which was a laundry bleach to lessen the spread of germs and disease.
However, it is the last room, formerly owned by the Dowlings, the final family to leave in 1979, that will jog memories for most visitors to the house. Some of the family members are still alive and have donated dozens of personal family items to the exhibition. You can see many familiar things (if you're old enough of course!) such as the Green Shield Stamp book, glass milk bottles, Post Office Saving book, gaudy patterned lino and wallpaper, not to mention the holy pictures, several on each wall. Do you remember the Fry's Drinking Chocolate, the tin box of Oxo Cubes, and the bucket of "slack" at the fireplace?
Very interesting and thought provoking tour - makes you think twice about complaining that the telly is rubbish and the rising cost of the bin collections.
Our member, Geraldine Moran would like to take you on a tour through Dublin's History. You can book her service here and you can access our full directory on www.tourguides.ie