When I receive visitors from out of town, I like to take them to a museum or a gallery. Ideally I’d visit Kilmainham Gaol, but this tends to get booked months in advance due to the limited capacity and widespread popularity of the guided tour. When I checked availability for Kilmainham this weekend all tours were fully booked. I had an idea. I would check availability for a guided tour of the 14 Henrietta Street Museum. There was space on the tour so we selected the 2pm Saturday slot.
I’ve been to this museum previously and it’s a fascinating place. Unlike the National Museum or the National Gallery, at Number 14 Henrietta Street, the precious objects are not encased behind glass. The building itself is the attraction.
Henrietta Street is a street with nineteen Georgian buildings that was constructed in the 1740s by Luke Gardiner (of Gardiner Street fame). The first resident of No. 14 was the Lord Viscount Molesworth (of Molesworth Street fame). At the time the street was inhabited by the Anglo-Irish aristocracy who were living it up, like pigs in muck in a Dublin that was the second city of the empire. These grand five story buildings were the winter dwellings of the Irish nobility who entertained their wealthy chums in these grand houses. At five stories each, these houses were the height of opulence and splendour – and staffed by the Irish poor – who were regarded as personal property of the house.
After the Act of Union in 1801 which saw the closure of the Irish House of Commons and House of Lords to centralise power in London, the nobility fled to London. The houses on the street were sold to, and occupied by the barristers and solicitors who had been trained in the Kings Inns College at the top of the street. The occupants – while not as grand – were still very wealthy.
After the Famine in the 1840s the population of Dublin swelled (despite over a million people having died of starvation and disease, and another million emigrating), as impoverished rural dwellers who’d been evicted from their farms by absentee landlords flocked to Dublin for work. The Georgian houses – including number 14 – were carved into apartments. In 1876, Number 14 was converted into seventeen flats of one, three or four rooms. So began the tenement era. As rents were high, families were crammed into the rooms where they lived in forced squalor and deprivation – one toilet for the entire house for example. The 1911 census shows that number 14 alone, was home to almost one hundred people; and Henrietta Street had a thousand residents living in terrible poverty on this slum street. Life was incredibly harsh for the residents of this open door tenement house (the front door was never locked) as they eked out a miserable living in a city where thirty percent of children would not live to see their fifth birthday.
It continued as a tenement building until 1979 when the final residents departed to the suburbs that were built from the 1930s to the 1970s – Ballymun; Finglas; Tallaght; Crumlin etc.
The guided tour takes us through each era of the building’s existence. It’s a remarkable museum giving us a glimpse of a slice of recent Irish history in a very evocative and moving manner.
Our tour guide made an observation that brings shame to the Ireland of 2019. In the 1930s and 1940s when Ireland didn’t have two brass pennies to rub together, we somehow managed to succeed in a major housebuilding campaign to rehouse hundreds of thousands of inner city slum dwellers to more sanitary and humane housing conditions in the suburbs. The Ireland of 2019 – allegedly one of the wealthiest countries in Europe is failing miserably to adequately house its population – throwing the population to the whims of the market, thereby ensuring housing supply remains low to extract maximum profit, regardless of the human suffering involved as a consequence.
The Fine Gael government has embarked on a new campaign of tenement living – the so-called ‘co-living developments’. In these there will be forty people living per floor. They will have a small bedroom and bathroom but share kitchen facilities. For a few years these will be occupied by high earning employees of multinational companies. It is almost a foregone conclusion however that within a decade they will be converted to twenty-first century tenement slums leased by vulture funds like Bartra Capital to Dublin Corporation to cram families into. This will be Leo Varadkar’s shameful legacy of housing failure, unless there is a drastic overhaul of government housing policy.
I’d encourage everyone to book a trip to 14 Henrietta Street Museum – a very interesting museum and a timely reminder about how as a nation we are failing to learn from the past.