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A truly horrible history

IT'S fitting that Fair City star Bryan Murray should be the presenter of The Tenements, TV3's three-part exploration of life in what the opening episode described as "one of the largest and most enduring slums the world has ever seen".

Murray has a personal connection with the tenements. In 1980, the then 31-year-old actor was filming his role as Fitz in Strumpet City, RTE's ambitious, seven-part adaptation of James Plunkett's sprawling novel of working-class life in Dublin set against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1913 lockout, when he casually mentioned to his mother that they'd been shooting on Henrietta Street on the north side of the city.

His mother just as casually remarked that the family used to live on Henrietta Street. Murray was stunned, because nobody had ever mentioned this before. "Why had my mother never talked to me about it?" he said. "Was there a stigma attached?"

This was perhaps an unnecessarily dramatic tone with which to open the series. If there ever was a lasting stigma attached to the tenement legacy (and I'm not convinced there was), then it's one shared by thousands of present-day Dubliners, yours truly included.

If anything, my extended family take pride in their roots.

Although unlike many families in the city, who remained stuck in tenement buildings until as recently as the early 1970s, they were lucky enough to move, long before I was born, from the tenements of Longford Street to the Iveagh Trust Buildings in New Bride Street, which were built by the Guinness family to better the lot of the working class.

The Tenements is perfectly serviceable as broad-brushstroke history, outlining how, in the 18th century, Dublin was regarded as "the second city of the British Empire", elegant, glamorous and confident -- at least on the surface.

The magnificent Georgian houses were home to society's elite. But the failed 1798 Rebellion led to the 1801 Act of Union, which closed the Irish Parliament and ushered in direct rule from London. The aristocracy, the bishops and the rich merchants fled.

When the Great Famine brought the country's starving masses spilling into the capital, the remaining wealthy moved to the suburban townlands of Rathmines, Rathgar, Ballsbridge and Clontarf, leaving the buildings -- and the people -- at the mercy of unscrupulous property speculators, who snapped the houses up at knock-down prices and subdivided them into cramped living quarters.

A single tenement house with no running water and no indoor toilet facilities would often accommodate more than 100 people. Disease was rampant and child mortality rates the worst of any civilised society.

The worst of the slum landlords was Alderman Joseph Meade, twice Lord Mayor of Dublin, who pretended to be a friend of the poor while ruthlessly exploiting them. Meade's yearly income as a landlord, which was nothing more than a sideline activity for him, brought in £1,500, which equates to about €160,000 today.

The Tenements was at its best when it let ordinary people who lived through the squalor speak. Noel Byrnes grew up in the 1940s, when life in the tenements was every bit as bad as it had been under British rule. "I ate a cut of bread off the ground, I was that hungry," he said.

Author Lee Dunne, whose breakthrough novel Goodbye to the Hill was set in the tenements, emotionally recalled his mother slicing a loaf of bread in two to share with neighbours who had none.

"I wrote for all the little f****rs around me who died of TB," he said, bitterly.

With material as powerful as this, it's regrettable that The Tenements feels the need to introduce a reality TV element to the mix, whereby several generations of the Winston family will be spending a weekend recreating the tenement experience by living in the old family home at No 7 Henrietta Street, which, like many of the old dwellings, is now an artist's studio. The grim history of Dublin's tenements is a compelling story that doesn't require questionable gimmickry to prop it up.

The Tenements ***