No street in Dublin illuminates the history of the city quite like Henrietta Street. The vast houses on this cobblestone street have run the gamut from Georgian grandeur to tenement squalor within the three hundred years of their existence. Now, Number 14 Henrietta Street has been restored as a museum, telling the story of the house’s journey from being the grand residence of a family of four in the 1720s, to a home to over one hundred people by 1911.

All the big events of Irish history buffeted the residents here. The Act of Union of 1801 moved aristocracy away, and the Famine moved the poor here in droves, “Dublin’s broken union men” died on Flanders field. These are the giant history book moments, so many of us already know. Here, the impact lies in smaller stories.

There was a nail just inside the front door of 14 Henrietta Street that was preserved throughout the decade-long restoration of the property, waiting patiently until the explanation for its existence came knocking one day. Peter Branigan, who was born in Henrietta Street in 1939, came to visit the house, pointed at the nail, and told the restoration team that it was put there by his father to hang a Holy Family picture. Branigan was one of a family of 11 children who shared the room that is now the entrance hall of the museum. Branigan’s family dug out the original picture and reunited it with the nail on the wall of the museum where it sits today.

14 Henrietta Street

The restoration of old buildings like Number 14 is a restoration of the relationship between the people of a city and the spaces they occupy. It’s a process of choice, of what stays and what goes. How do you reveal the layers of life in this building without erasing one era to showcase another? There were no frantic moves to fill in the gaps. Instead, it was a slow uncovering – of remaining loyal to bits of wallpaper hidden behind bookcases, of slowly scraping away thick layers of paint to uncover Georgian stucco. It was leaving a nail in the wall until its story came in the door.

On a guided tour, we walk the grand rooms of the first storey, where thousands of feet have over the years made the wooden floors uneven. Here in the mint green drawing room is the high ceiling-ed splendour of the house when property developer Luke Gardiner first built it as part of the most fashionable street in Dublin. When the aristocracy left, the house slowly became undone. In 1877, Thomas Vance pulled out the staircase and partitioned the space into nineteen flats.

We step from the fine rooms out into the dimly lit hallway, and there is a murmur of recognition. The walls here are painted in Raddle Red and Reckitts Blue of the tenement era. Women once used the red on the walls as rouge for their cheeks. We head down the back stairs where the bannister was plundered for firewood in desperate times; 94 steps to climb with buckets and bedpans in a building with no plumbing.

Another small story: The main front door of the building was always left open at night so anyone without a roof of their own might find some shelter in the hallway. Peter Branigan’s mother, when doing her nightly prayers with her children, always told them to remember “the poor unfortunates on the stairs.”

We descend through time to the dark of the basement, a typically bleak tenement room with grey army coats as blankets on the beds – recreated from the famous 1913 John Cooke photographs. At one time, one-sixth of Dublin’s population lived in tenements. Disease was rampant, one family on the street lost 12 of their 14 children. In another room, ghostly black and white footage of children playing in the street is projected on the walls — two women in our group sing along with the playground rhymes.

Tour guide Tracey Bardon was herself born in a tenement, as were her parents, and she became involved with this house almost by accident – she would pass it almost daily on a shortcut into town from her home on Constitution Hill and stepped in one day for a look. “I felt like I belonged in that house, it felt really homely.” Enthralled by the restoration process, she embarked on a Culture and Heritage course in Dublinia. Now she is front of house manager. She delights in visitors’ memories of tenement times. “They’re not always happy stories, but they make light of them. Sometimes people do get upset remembering a different life.” Visitors are keen to tell her that “just because you were in a tenement didn’t mean you were poor. There was always someone worse off.”

Tracey’s favourite part of the tour is the 1960s flat of Mrs Dowling, the last tenant of 14 Henrietta Street, which has been lovingly restored down to the lino on the floor. One of the older men on the tour group exclaims “Aw, me mammy!” when we walk in. With the precision of the detail, some collective memory is triggered, and people rush to those long lost objects that speak to their childhood; toy guns are slung on a bedpost, a clothes wringer sits in a hallway. Objects once commonplace are now museum treasure.

14 Henrietta Street

Remembering the tenements: Working life

At Number 14, the building itself is the artefact, but the residents’ stories as whispered by the tour guides in the stairwell are its lifeblood.

“We consider 50% of the museum collection to be the building itself. The research history and personal stories are a huge part of the experience”, says Iseult Byrne, chief executive of the Council’s Culture Company. “A decision was made to keep as much as possible, which was almost harder than pulling it all out and starting again. It allowed the people who lived there to become an important part of the story; a story of the people we don’t usually see in museums.”

To find out more about 14 Henrietta Street, visit their website.

Catherine Conroy is a Dublin writer, regularly contributing to The Irish Times, and dabbling in fiction in The Dublin Review. Her novel continues to wait patiently in a drawer.

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