The Dublin Tenement Experience

August 1, 2013

General Interest, Reviews

I have two young children and on one occasion the roof fell in on us. We were not able to contact the landlord. In fact, not since May 1960 has anybody come near us for rent. The place is appalling. There is one toilet for the whole three-storey building and rats are running all over the ground floor.

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No. 14 Henrietta St
(Image author’s own)

Mrs Bridie Perry was describing the conditions at number 8 Hendrick Street. The tenement building in which she lived, as well as the two beside it, collapsed in mid-June 1963. Four people were killed and 155 families were evacuated from other houses considered unfit for human habitation. The incident prompted a debate in the Dáil on dangerous housing in Dublin.  Statistics requested from the Minister for Local Government, Neil Blaney, provided a shocking snapshot of the depth of the problem. Of the 75 housing authorities that returned surveys on the number of problematic houses that were suitable for economic repair, 39 found that more than half of the unfit dwellings in their area would not qualify. Extremes cases could be found in Mayo County Council, where only 38 of the 4,894 problematic dwellings were deemed suitable for repair, and in Kilkenny District and Borough Council where none of the 143 could be repaired at a viable cost. In only two areas – Castlebar District and Borough Council, and Granard Town Commissioners – was there a 100-percent possibility of economic repair. The scene described by Mrs Perry bears all the hallmarks of tenement living at the turn of the century. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that some of the protests that took place against housing conditions in the 1960s happened on many of the same streets to which attention had been drawn by the 1913 strike and lock out. Less than fifteen minutes walk from Hendrick Street is No. 14 Henrietta Street, built before 1748 and divided into tenements around 1883. It is there that tenement living is today brought to life through a superb exhibition.

Given that my research has touched on housing conditions in 1960s Dublin, I had a special interest in visiting the Dublin Tenement Experience, but there are so many dimensions to this exhibition that it has a broad appeal.  Religion, relationships, family dynamics, and politics are just some of the themes contained within the walls of a house with a diverse past.  These themes are wonderfully played out by the actors from ANU Productions.

Religion

The experience begins with a short AV explaining the background to and context of the 1913 Strike and Lockout, but it is when ‘Dennis’ bursts into the room that the tour is really transformed.  Shirt unbuttoned, looking dishevelled, his singing takes us by surprise.  Traces of blood suggest he’s been in some sort of fight.  He invites us to join him in the next room.  Lying in the corner of that room appears to be holy pictures and it is here that we are first, indirectly, introduced to one of the underlying themes of the experience: the place of religion in people’s lives.  Later we meet ‘Mary’, a struggling mother whose husband is caught up with the lockout.  The room her family shares is bare, except for an iron-framed bed.  It is the only item of value left that they possess.  Her husband had wanted her to sell it.  To do so is a dilemma she repeatedly ponders as we watch, uncomfortably, from the corner of the room.  The bed was a wedding gift from her family.  To sell it, she explained, would be ‘a sin’.  She is tormented with reconciling her Catholic guilt with the reality of the situation in which her family find themselves.  Earlier, when introducing herself, she had described the tenants of the house as respectable people, contrasting them with those across the road.  ‘Protestants’, she tells us in a barely audible whisper, as though speaking the word aloud would somehow be blasphemous.

Relationships

The activity in ‘Mary’s’ room centres around the bed.  Sleeping peacefully in it are her two young children.  Later, the bed will also be shared by ‘Mary’ and her husband, ‘Tommy’.  From her small bump and the strategic placement of her hand on her stomach, it is evident that ‘Mary’ is pregnant.  The matter of the bed’s usage consequently hangs in the air as the great unspoken challenge of the tenements.  With families living in such close quarters, cases of incest or abuse were often inevitable.  The Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse noted

In the years leading up to independence, Crown books (court records) show that prosecutions for sexual crime involving children – indecent exposure, gross indecency, indecent assault, buggery and unlawful carnal knowledge – arising out of acts occurring in the Dublin tenements, were commonplace (sect. 3.14, part 1, chapter 3, volume iv). 

But even leaving aside cases of abuse, the cramped living conditions of the tenements posed real challenges for love, romance and affection within marriage.

Though it is hoped that this will eventually become a permanent exhibition — fingers crossed this happens — for now, the Dublin Tenement Experience is due to close at the end of this month.  The current focus, coinciding with the centenary, is ‘Living the Lockout’, which is done brilliantly.  At present, only three rooms and a hallway are used to play out that theme.  The rain had just cleared as Claire McGing and I were taking the tour this afternoon, and it was still reasonably cool out (certainly compared to the fabulous weather of late).  Early in the tour, one of the large windows is opened and the contents of a basin of water are dispensed with, through it.  The gust of cold air that flooded in not only made me shiver, but also focussed my attention on the challenge of heating the room using little more than a hearth.  If No. 14 Henrietta St does become the permanent home of the tenement experience, it would be wonderful to see the scope expanded so that visitors are offered a closer look at the reality of living in one of those houses.  

Politics

Through all the rooms, the strike and lockout is the over-riding theme, and various views are offered as we move from room to room.  ‘Dennis’ is the young idealist, convinced that Jim Larkin will be their saviour.  Nothing can deter him.  He has witnessed fighting in the streets — even been part of it — and believes the cause of the workers to be worth fighting for.  When we first meet his brother ‘Charlie’, he too shares the views of ‘Dennis’.  ‘Charlie’ will return later, but before he does ‘Mary’ and her unseen husband ‘Tommy’ are cleverly introduced to us.  ‘Mary’s’ dilemma over the sale of her marital bed has been prompted by the harsh reality of the lockout that has directly affected her husband and, consequently, her children.  She tells us that her children receive a free breakfast, often the only meal they have each day.  They wake while it is still dark to take their place in a growing queue to be fed.  Her family are at serious risk of going under; money for food is scarce and they in arrears with their rent.  By the time that ‘Charlie’ returns, we have the context for his change of attitude.  He has become a ‘scab’, willing to turn his back on the ITGWU and to sign William Martin Murphy’s controversial pledge.  We learn that ‘Mary’s’ husband has also signed.  ‘Dennis’ is disgusted with his brother, and in a hallway they fight — physically and verbally — over their principles.  Their shouting wakes ‘Mary’s’ children who can now be heard crying loudly.  Throughout the tour, as we passed from room to room, sounds could be heard emanating from other parts of the building.  One is struck by the constant activity, and the unlikeihood that tenants would have had a ‘quiet space’ within the house.  

Watching the brothers argue, our group, not for the first time, feels uncomfortable.  When ‘Dennis’ exits, we stand in awkward silence watching  ‘Charlie’ as he breathes heavily, starring at the floor, tormented, until eventually another tenant tells us to leave him be.  We are ushered out and the tours ends.  That periodically-experienced feeling of being uncomfortable forces the visitor to consider what it must have been like in a house home to one hundred people where some continued the support for the locked-out workers, and others, through necessity, were forced to abandon their principles.  The tension must have been palpable.     

Hints of Grandeur

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Entrance to No. 14
(Image author’s own)

Though no. 14 is principally about tenement living, one cannot escape the hints of former grandeur that betray the house’s origins.  As posters in the reception area explain, the 3rd Viscount Molesworth was the first aristocratic occupant of no. 14, but by 1911 — according to that year’s census — it was home to 17 working class families, accounting for 100 people living in this building.  Though in a state of disrepair, the style of the main door harks back to the Georgian era, when these houses were once symbols of great power and decadence.  Further traces can be found inside, where moldings from an earlier period still border the ceilings.

As the tour came to an end, it felt as though we’d only been there for about ten minutes.  In fact, the experience plays out over a forty-five minute period. Aside from the building’s rich history, the event is worth attending for the sheer entertainment value alone!  And with an entrance fee of only €5.50, it is money well spent.  But be quick!  The curtain comes down on this performance at the end of August.  Pre-booking is to be advised — you can get your tickets here.  For more information, visit the website or check out the Dublin Tenement Experience blog.

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About Dr Ciara Meehan

I am a political and social historian, specialising in Ireland's twentieth century. My first book, The Cosgrave Party, was published by the Royal Irish Academy in 2010, while my new monograph, A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-87, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in October 2013. Having previously lectured at University College Dublin, I joined the History staff at the University of Hertfordshire in September 2013.

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3 Comments on “The Dublin Tenement Experience”

  1. thelittlereview Says:

    Really interesting piece, and reminds me that I must go to the tenement experience very soon. Sounds like it’s definitely worth a visit! The idea of social history as performance is a particularly interesting one and I’m curious to see how it works out. I went to the Tenement Museum in New York a few years ago and found that experience excellent. There was a similar focus on individual stories there – there were different themed tours based around the homes and life-stories of different immigrant families, ie Irish, Italian, eastern European. The idea of connecting the life stories and individual social histories to the living spaces worked really well – sounds like the Tenement Experience is attempting something similar.

    Reply

    • Ciara Meehan Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Niamh. I’d definitely recommend you catch it before it ends. The museum in NYC sounds great. Were the stories acted out there, too? Would be great to see the other rooms and upper floors of No. 14 Henrietta St opened up to the public with a closer look at life stories.

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. In Pictures: Kilmainham Gaol | Ciara Meehan: Historian, Author, Researcher - August 12, 2013

    […] and Simon Donnelly were never actually named in this particular tour. Unlike recent tours of the Dublin Tenement Experience and Glasnevin Cemetery, I have very little to say about today’s. It was rushed, familiar, […]

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