Henrietta Street tells the story of Dublin
A glimpse of Dublin’s first Georgian street.
Dublin boasts wonderful Georgian style properties- one thinks notably of the famous coloured doors immortalised on postcards from the city. This style of architecture is particularly impressive on Henrietta Street, where most of these imposing buildings have been renovated recently. This New York Times article offers a glimpse of a street full of history and secrets…
In 1787, Mary Wollstonecraft, later to become the mother of the writer Mary Shelley — and therefore, in a way, the grandmother of Frankenstein — moved to 15 Henrietta Street, Dublin. She was 28 and had been hired as a governess to the aristocratic family of Lord Kingsborough. It wasn’t a job she particularly wanted — she had already established her own school in London and had written a book about the education of girls — but times were hard, and she needed to support herself.
2. Ten years later, one of the girls ran off with her own uncle, and a furious Lord Kingsborough murdered him. Although Wollstonecraft had died by then, the influence of her radical feminist teachings was widely blamed. The scandal inflamed Ireland. Lord Kingsborough was acquitted.
BUILT FOR THE ARISTOCRACY
3. This is just one of the tales with which these cobblestones are scorched. A stubby, single-block dead end on the supposed wrong side of town, Henrietta Street is enor-
mously wide, and the 18th-century brick houses that flank it are flat-fronted and vast: four stories high, with as many as five windows across each. The earliest Georgian street in Dublin — and the most intact collection of early-to-mid-Georgian houses in Ireland — it was built beginning in the 1720s for the Irish aristocracy.
4. After the Acts of Union were passed in 1800, uniting the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, the country lost its own parliament, and the great and the good, who now spent most of their time in London, no longer had a need for Dublin grandeur. Over time, Henrietta Street became more deprived and more inhabited: In the tenement era, which began in the late 19th century and lasted until the 1970s, up to 19 families lived in each house.
5. In photographs from the 1960s, many of these buildings appear as carcasses, huge smashed things left for dead. More recently, they were still derelict. No. 3, bought in November 2016 by the 63-year-old developer Patrick Wigglesworth, is in the process of being restored through a partnership with the 59-year-old architectural conservationist named Ian Lumley, who lives at No. 12.
A NEW MUSEUM
6. Over the time I spent listening to the inhabitants of Henrietta Street, its story came to sound not like one of simple regeneration, but like a much stranger fable, with a moral bent. Blinding ambition, of the kind that enabled these aspirational homes to be built, had disintegrated into hardship, and at least two residents referred to a passage in James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), in which a young legal clerk walks down the block and makes his way through a “horde of grimy children,” “minute vermin-like life”. This period is the one enshrined at 14 Henrietta Street, a new tenement museum. Although that house was first inhabited in 1751 by Viscount Molesworth and his family, that era is only faintly traced, as if the actual builders were just the outlines and the real lives that mattered were those from the late 19th century.
NOT GENTRIFIED YET
7. “‘Gentrification,’ ” Lumley says, is a word that “would really be resented” by the residents, nor is it particularly apt. There are no boutique hotels here yet, nor shops that sell expensive sneakers. Fergus Martin, a 63-year-old artist who has a studio inside No. 6, notes, with some pride, “I think this is the Wild West.” Technically, it’s the wild North. There is, as in London, a waterway dividing the city, and it is the northern territory above Dublin’s River Liffey that has traditionally been seen as the rougher side of town. Although the buildings on Henrietta Street are beautiful, they are also daunting. 8. Still, a few intrepid buyers and developers have sought to tame them. Until the 1970s, they were predominately owned by tenement landlords. There are now four owneroccupiers of the street’s 13 houses, as well as four institutions: the Honorable Society of the King’s Inns, where lawyers are trained; the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, where nuns live; Na Píobairí Uilleann, a pipers’ club, where a valuable collection of Irish bagpipes is held; and now the tenement museum.
Over time, Henrietta Street became more deprived and more inhabited.
PRESERVING AND RESTORING
9. Some of these landlords have sought simply to preserve the buildings from destruction; others have restored them in detail, with attention to history; one or two live privately enough to simply call them home. “From childhood, I was drawn to old houses,” says Lumley, sitting at the top of his house, in a room painted Venetian red. In buying this property in 1982, he continued his involvement in a loose movement he refers to as “the conservation scene.” For years, [Henrietta Street] appeared to have been forgotten. But now, in its new life, there’s a purposeful remembrance.
Henrietta Street is the earliest Georgian Street in Dublin.