Dublin’s Henrietta St is well off the beaten track for most city dwellers. Bob Fitzpatrick took a gawk around it for us and discovered some rather unusual commemorative plaques.
You stumble upon Henriettta St after straying too far past the boozers and restaurants of Capel St, or if you’re the more privileged sort swotting it up to enter the law profession it provides a handy back entry to the various Kings Inn. For the great unwashed of the Northside it’s a far more scenic route for us to scurry into town along than the glum monotony of Constitution Hill.
Like all well beaten tracks, it’s easy to be forgiven for largely ignoring the charm and down on its luck splendour of Henrietta St. Every once in a while, the trucks and RV’s of film production companies shake you awake and remind you of its importance as a popular period location set used in such luminous TV shows as Penny Dreadful and much earlier in RTE’s brilliant Strumpet City.
The street’s bedraggled brick work and boarded up windows belie its status as one of Europe’s most important conservation sites. Henrietta St dates from the 1720s and was developed as part of a parcel of land progressively bought up by a chap of mysterious origins called Luke Gardiner.
Gardiner came from what some believe were humble enough beginnings in the Coombe, he rose into one of Dublin’s most preeminent property developers, devouring whole plots that once belonged to the Cistercian monastery of St Mary’s Abbey which had been dissolved and ripped of its assets, nearly two centuries beforehand during the reformation.
It’s not just the architectural quality of the street that gives Henrietta St its unique historical importance, there’s also the living cross section of Irish society that passed through its buildings at different times.
Not only is it the single remaining intact example of an early 18th Century street of houses but it also provides ample evidence of the misery of the tenements and how landlords cannibalised the grander buildings into machines for rent extraction when decay took hold of the north inner city after the Act Of Union.
At the time of the 1911 census an astonishing 835 people were said to have lived in its 15 houses while at number 10 Henrietta Street, the Sisters of Charity ran a laundry with more than 50 single women held inside.
Also, if you look carefully as you move down towards Bolton St you’ll spot two plaques marking James Bryson House running somewhere alongside numbers 5-7.
Given the early opulence of the street, when its residents included such luminaries as four All Ireland Primates, including Archbishop Boulter, the first resident of Henrietta Street – it’d be very easy to assume the plaque marked out a character of similar historic scope.
The engraved detail above it it is rubbed out and weathered, yet a bit of internet research led me to an academic article that recorded it as being engraved with “this five bay town house, the entrance of which has long been removed was commenced in 1730 by Nathaniel Clements Member of the Irish Parliament College Green, Teller of the Exchequer and ranger of Phoenix Park, who lived for many years here in Parisian luxury. In 1908 its fine door cases and chimney pieces were removed by Alderman Meade who turned the houses into tenements in which more than 70 lived. Is saoranach Eireann anois e”
These houses had been privately purchased in an effort to save them from decay by Uinseann MacEoin – a famed conservationist and protector of Dublin’s heritage, the properties were largely let out to artists and others who could not find accommodation elsewhere.
Uinseann had a background in the republican movement and in 1940, he was brought in under the Offences Against the State Act and spent a year in Arbour Hill prison before being interned in the Curragh. MacEoin died in 2007 at the age of 87.
Meade was said to have been the worst of the slum landlords and so he is is named and shamed in that plaque. What’s interesting is the name on the plate below too. Bryson was a famous provisional IRA activist from Ballymurphy. Who had been shot dead alongside Patrick Mulvenna, the brother-in-law of Gerry Adams, in a British army ambush in 1973.
In the 60’s and 70’s as much of the Georgian fabric of the city was being ripped up, in what a steel and glass worshipping gombeen class often tried to pass off as a nationalist re-conquest of the city from its own imperial past, one can only imagine how both these plaques served as a harsh rebuke needing little explanation.