14 Henrietta Street is a museum that will change how you understand Dublin, its residents, and its path to independence.
On a wintery December day, I walked into a Dublin Georgian mansion, crossed the foyer, climbed the staircase, and marveled at elaborate rooms where the The Right Honorable Richard, Lord Viscount Molesworth and his family once entertained at their residence.
But when I walked through the parlor door at the 14 Henrietta Street museum, I entered a dreary 19th century Dublin tenement. The dark hallway was bleak. The walls are scuffed and scarred. Black paint ran along the hall. The scarred wooden floor plank showed the passage of many feet. (Check out my 14 Henrietta Street reel on my Instagram page.)
14 Henrietta Street is both an address and a museum, tucked away on a hilly side street in Dublin. From the moment I mentioned my interest in architecture to any Dubliner, I was told that I must visit this one-of-a-kind museum. I am so glad that I took their recommendation.
“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,” according to the website.
Life & Times
Someone has written a message on the grey wall about the consequences that vandals will face: “Any person who tampers wit anny ting or who is not reardint in this house will be prosachuhted by law.”
Five of the words are misspelled: with, any, thing, residing, and prosecuted. The calcified white streaks block parts of the graffiti. The white droplets look like tears.
The graffiti illustrated how children growing up in a tenement didn’t have the luxury to stay in school. They had to go out and earn money to put bread on the table.
Tour guide Gillian Ryan said the graffiti illustrates how children growing up in a tenement didn’t have the luxury to stay in school. They had to go out and earn money to put bread on the table.
“I know people who are now in their 60s and 70s who have gone their whole lives without learning to read or write as a result of those early experiences,” said Ryan.
She said it makes her heart breaks a little when people giggle about the misspellings.
“Today, education is so important and it is something we encourage and strive for in our children. In tenement times in Dublin, things were different and I know of many people who would have left the education system by the age of 13.”Docent Gillian Ryan
Through the website, I learned that Gillian’s own family hailed from Henrietta Street which “gives her a unique insight into the stories of the house. She’s particularly interested in the tenement period, and has an in-depth knowledge of Irish social history of that time.”
I would experience over 300 years of city life in the walls of one address. On my two-hour tour, my docent, Shelia, gave a history lesson about life in Dublin in the 18th century. She reminded us that in the 1700s, Dublin was considered “the second city of the British empire.” The 1800s ushered in poverty and desolate living conditions in the city.
Whole families were forced to share one room where they lived. More than 100 individuals once were jammed into the house at 14 Henrietta Street.
From the outside, the museum looks like a stately Georgian mansion. The high-style red brick edifice features tall windows. The symmetrical design is pleasing to the eye. I can see the outline of the lintels as the brick is lighter in these areas above the windowpanes.
The term for this style of architecture is named after the first four British kings—George I, George II, George II, and George IV—of the House of Hanover. Georgian architecture was popular between 1714 and 1830 in English-speaking domiciles.
Irish Architect Luke Gardiner built the homes as 13-15 Henrietta Street in the 1740s. He chose to construct the townhouses for his wealthy patrons on a hill because the community would be raised above the offensive industries in the city (e.g. breweries, tanneries, and distilleries). The noxious odors were sickening to smell. It was also believed that residents living on the hill would be protected from the disease-ridden streets across the river.
14 Henrietta Street
Gardiner’s style of property development would change the face of the North Side of Dublin.
According to the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Gardiner’s design of terraced townhouses facing each other across a broad street “influenced later housing fashions and land values” and would make Henrietta Street one of the most fashionable streets in Dublin.
“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.14 Henrietta Street
The Right Honorable Richard, Lord Viscount Molesworth and his wife Mary Jenney Usher were the first residents of 14 Henrietta Street. Mary gave birth to two daughters. Their “city home” was richly appointed in the 1740s, as a house was considered a vessel to showcase one’s wealth, status, and taste. Dublin’s elite chose furniture made from exotic materials, such as “walnuttree” and mahogany.
Our group tours two formal rooms, which include a model of the house. We see portraits of the home’s famous residents. We also watch a video about this time period in Dublin. Shelia also shows us the private bedroom where the matron was confined during her pregnancy. The room features a majestic four-poster bed. The wooden canopy “top” blocks any view of the high ceiling.
Act of Union
After the 1798 Irish uprising, the new Irish constitutional arrangements were stripped. The Parliament of Ireland was dissolved. (A bank now occupies this august building.) Through the Act of Union, Ireland was absorbed into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland on January 1, 1801. The legislators serving in the Irish Parliament now returned permanently to London, discarding their residences in Dublin.
Sheila said “everything changed in 1801 [after the Act of Union].” The North Side neighborhood slowly deteriorated. The Famine of the 1840s halved the population of Ireland. Rural population moving into the city for work had to find cheap rent.
In the 1880s, the new owner of 14 Henrietta Street divided the house into 17 flats. He put in partitions (half walls) to divide the flats. The “palatial townhouses” were crammed with large families living in tiny spaces. A 10,000-square-foot space housed one household.
Sheila said, “they had to bring their waste in a bucket until 1979. The smells of boiling cabbage, turf on the fire, dry rot in the timber, and smell of disease permeated the residence.”
Before the bulldozers could pull down the derelict house at 14 Henrietta Street, advocates saved the property. Today, the Dublin City Council owns the 14 Henrietta Street museum and the Dublin City Council Culture Company runs the museum.
“The purchase and conservation of 14 Henrietta Street was a direct result of the Dublin City Heritage Plan 2002 – 2006 and the Henrietta Street conservation plan. The restoration and conservation of this building were funded by Dublin City Council, with additional support from a Centenaries Capital Grant from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht,” according to the website.
The museum’s three-pronged mission to share, engage, and discover. Shelia described her personal pleasure as a docent to meet Dubliners who actually lived at 14 Henrietta Street as a child.
Aim 1: Share
I was fascinated by Shelia’s stories about how the residents drew together in the tenement to watch over the children. Despite their impoverished conditions, the families drew strength as a community.
“We tell stories by retelling the story of the lives of the people of 14 Henrietta Street.”
My favorite part of the tour was seeing the reconstructed flat of an Irish family who lived for decades at 14 Henrietta Museum. A blanket and sheet with ruffles covered the bed situated in the corner. The Bible lay open on the wooden table nearby. Coats hung from a shelf on the wall. A Singer sewing machine stood ready for the tap of a shoe to sew a seam.
Aim 2: Engage
In the kitchen, everyday cooking items were stacked on the four-shelf pantry. The everyday items included Chivers’ Olde English Marmalade jar, distilled vinegar, Cozade, and Wills’ Woodbines.
Cleaning products were positioned on the top shelf—Ajax, Brasso, Sunlight, and Jeyes Fluid (“the household disinfectant”). The woman of the house polished the floors with a round tin of Lavender Wax Polish.
Our group stood around a dining room set for the family tea. There were six wooden chairs. The mismatched china plates sat on a yellow and orange striped waxed tablecloth. The teapot snuggled in a knitted green cozy. The lid resembled a ski hat with a pompom. A ceramic pie took center place.
Shelia entertained us with facts about the family who lived in the flat. The head of the house earned her keep as a seamstress. I could just imagine the children eagerly waiting for their mother to put the kettle on for tea and place the box of biscuits on the table for tea time.
Aim 3: Discover
In addition to serving as a museum to teach visitors about the tenement house, the museum also actively works to connect with the community, including visitors, historians, local residents, former residents and their families. “We uncover history continuing to research the house and its occupants and continuing to learn from the memories and knowledge of others,” according to the museum’s website.
A great example is the museum’s living history research. I particularly enjoyed watching the video projected up on the tenement’s scarred wall. You can hear the voice of a child interviewing a former 14 Henrietta Street resident about play time for the tenement children.
“Toys? There was very little toys. Some of the families who had two or three children they would have toys and a lot of them were sent home from England or America.”Former 14 Henrietta Street resident
During my tour, I was also charmed by the story of a family who recently donated a child’s crib.
Former childhood resident Patrick Horrigan donated his handmade “baby’s cot.” He lived from 1943 until 1954 at 14 Henrietta Street. His grandfather William Horrigan built this wooden crib.
The original baby mattress is stuffed with horsehair. Stickers from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” are plastered on the headboard and the footboard. The crib now sits in the place of honor in the flat where Horrigan once lived until age 11.
My visit to 14 Henrietta Street combined all my favorite aspects of travel—meeting locals, learning history, and taking a walking tour. Although my guided tour was limited to the interior of the house, I would definitely go back to take the neighborhood walking tour when I visit Dublin again.
I found my guide to be extremely knowledgeable. She answers all our questions about the period as well as provided information about former residents. This is one Dublin museum that you must visit if you are really interested in learning about Dublin’s past.
Just as I was fascinated to walk the streets of writer James Joyce’s childhood neighborhood, explore a Victorian Christmas at Dublin Castle, and ramble down the twisting streets on my Dublin Food by Foot Tour in the historic Liberties neighborhood, I would have ignored a huge part of Dublin’s history if I didn’t visit this Georgian townhouse turned tenement museum.
14 Henrietta Street is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10 am to 4pm.
Museum visits to the house run Wednesday to Sunday, on the hour, starting at 10 am.
The outdoor walking tours run Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday at 11.30 am and 2 pm.
Prebooking is essential. Guided tour only. A tour costs €10 adults and €8 (over 60s, students).