There’s a big story behind 14 Henrietta Street, the Georgian townhouse and former tenement building that officially opens as Dublin’s newest museum today.
But it’s the small details that hit home.
The nail sticking from a wall, where somebody once hung their washing line or coat. A hand-written notice in the hallway, warning against tampering with “anny ting” (sic). Tales of residents opening their doors at night, so cracks of light could help children find their way to the loo. Or the moment we see fading ‘Raddle Red’ paint in the hallway, and I twig why several older Dubliners on my preview tour seem so enchanted.
“When we were kids, you couldn’t go near it,” one gent says of the famous tenement colour. “Your clothes would be destroyed.”
But back to that big story - Dublin City Council’s rescue of this historic 18th century building from rot, and its stabilisation, conservation and adaptation as a museum. The €4.5 million project took a decade, and its craftsmanship feels both sensitive and quietly inspired (from centuries-old floorboards beneath our feet, to wallpapers and linoleum reproduced from dangling scraps).
Just as detailed was the gathering and curation of artefacts and oral histories. I guess you could call the results a tenement museum. But labels quickly show their limitations on a visitor journey that starts with a dark door on a distressed street, and quickly disappears down a rabbit hole of Irish social history.
“People feel like they’re going to get a sense of ghosts or something, but it’s really homely,” says Tracey Bardon, our guide for the 75-minute tour — herself raised in a tenement on Seán McDermott Street.
“I always feel welcome and cosy, like I belong in here.”
As the tour starts, you may wonder what she’s talking about. No. 14 was built in 1749, and following an overview of Henrietta Street’s Georgian heyday, we step into a first-floor drawing room. It’s unfurnished, but a scale model and musical instruments embedded in the plasterwork hint at the former splendour of a building that began life as the home of Lord Viscount Molesworth and his family.
The townhouse was “a vessel designed to display their wealth and space”, we learn — a dose of Downton Abbey in Dublin.
Its next chapter was not so glamorous. After the Acts of Union, power shifted to London, and Dublin and Ireland entered a period of economic decline. 14 Henrietta Street was occupied by lawyers, courts and even a barracks during the 19th century. By 1877, a landlord called Thomas Vance had torn out its grand staircase and carved it into 19 separate flats. By 1911, it was home to 100 people.
The change comes vividly to life when Tracey opens a door leading from Georgian grandeur into a distressed-looking hallway. Light dips. Temperatures cool. And there’s that murmur of recognition as the Raddle Reds and Reckitt’s Blues reveal themselves.
“No. 14 is the first time we’ve had a chance to really explore the history of the urban so-called working classes,” says Dr Ellen Rowley of UCD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, who was a consulting curator on the project. “The unique thing about Dublin’s tenements was that they were framed in these most glorious neoclassical spaces.” She describes “a museum of memory”, and a challenge to avoid “a privileging of one history over another”.
By now, we’re truly backstage. Gathering around a tight stairway, Tracey tells us how front and back doors were often left open in tenements, with people using the houses as shortcuts between streets. “You can imagine the use and abuse they would have got,” she says, recounting a story of one man who took a horse up to his flat. “But one night the horse got the better of the floor and went though onto the family underneath.”
By the time we reach the basement, it’s clear we’re on a journey that’s as much about the life of Dublin as this single building. The air is dank. A picture of the Sacred Heart sits over a hole-in-the-wall fireplace and an overcoat is stretched on the bed (Tracey’s father called them “duvets with arms,” she recalls). At their worst, tenements were rife with disease, overcrowding and rats.
Broader social issues were obviously at play, but short videos beamed onto walls as we go keep the story human. This is a space where “lives were lived, babies born, women worked, families grew... and tea was made,” a narrator says.
That hits the heart. The grander spaces I find too sparse (14 Henrietta Street will benefit greatly from future plans to fully furnish Georgian rooms and add a shop or bookstand), but I understand why the journey is choreographed in this way. It’s about layers and folk memory as much as factual history. When we watch archival footage of children playing in the street, several visitors start singing along to their songs. Tracey encourages them. It feels like a flickering community spirit breathing life into the building.
The final room is an understated ‘wow’ moment — a door opened to reveal a replica flat crammed with the cosy bric-a-brac of family life. There are China dogs on the mantelpiece, a toy gun slung off a bed, a whiff of carbolic soap on the way out the door. This is the homeliness Tracey was talking about. It almost hums with nostalgia.
The last tenement families moved out of No 14 in 1979. By then, housing policies were changing, suburbs sprawling, and Henrietta Street was cut adrift. Its unique collection of early 18th century houses may be “as important to the record of settlement in these islands as... Clonmacnoise or Wood Quay,” as Dublin City Council said in its 2006 conservation plan. Some houses may have fared better than others. But it still sits grimly on its own, just a short walk from O’Connell Street.
Will this thoughtful restoration change that? 14 Henrietta Street lacks the interactive whistles and bells of new attractions like EPIC: The Irish Emigration Museum or Titanic Belfast, yet it feels emotive and authentic. It makes me think about Dublin’s historical growing pains, its rich social history, but also — and importantly — the housing crises of today.
And the community out-reach continues. As I leave, a man stops by with a few pages of his family tree. He used to live at No 14, he says.
The story doesn’t end here.
Tours cost €9 (book online at 14henriettastreet.ie). If you have memories of growing up in Dublin’s tenements, email firstname.lastname@example.org.