Historys Boulevard - A Secret Dublin Street
Henrietta Street in Dublin needs fixing-up, but its Georgian homes echo with a glorious past.
Henrietta Street is one of my favourite secrets in Dublin. Just a five-minute walk from the busy main thoroughfare of OConnell Street Dublin, its a short, cobble stoned and gently rising Georgian street on Dublins north side – a quiet cul-de-sac, where the crowds and din of the city, although barely down the road, seem miles and years away.
In its heyday during the 18th century, Henrietta Street was the byword for opulence and aristocratic living in Dublin. It was home to peers, bishops and Members of Parliament. Not that you can tell today, for most of its fifteen houses are seriously dilapidated and a couple even appear abandoned. Number 14 has weeds sprouting through its cracks and is crowned by the luxuriant outgrowth of a flowering bush at the top of its drainpipe. In short, the former architectural highpoint of Georgian Dublin is in a sorry state. You cant even tour the houses though kind strangers may let you in. Given all this, you may well ask, whats the attraction of Henrietta Street?
300 Years of Dublin History
Well, for me, the streets houses and former residents tell the history of Dublin over the last three hundred years. Its a peaceful spot that lets the imagination free to roam through the citys changing times and fortunes.
Henrietta Street was laid down in 1721 by Luke Gardiner, the man responsible for the development of most of Dublins Georgian townhouses north of the river. Gardiner Street still bears his name today. Edward Lovett Pearce, the renowned architect associated with many of the citys finest eighteenth century buildings, including the former Irish Parliament House, designed number 9 and 10 at the top right of the street. Gardiner himself resided in number 10 in suitable splendour.
Nathaniel Clements, architect and Member of Parliament, designed five houses – from numbers 3 to 7 – and also lived on the street. Hes the same architect who designed Aras an Uachtarain, today the Presidents residence. Henrietta Street was home to several bishops too, giving rise to its nickname of Primates Hill.
But after the Act of Union in 1800, Henrietta Street suffered the same gradual decline as the rest of the country. The aristocrats were replaced by lawyers, the houses began to be sub-divided. By the turn of the twentieth century, they had become slum tenements, as indeed had many of the citys Georgian townhouses. This is the dramatic landscape of many Sean OCasey plays.
In 1908, Nathaniel Clements former residence was gutted of its ornate fittings, probably to allow its 70 plus inhabitants to live there. Sweeping staircases were taken away to create space for further tenants, whose stories live on in the houses today. No dancing or drinking is written in the hallway of number 12. I saw this, as well as the impressive size of its interior, when I was lucky enough to be let in one day.
But while many other Georgian houses, particularly those on the south side, have been restored, for some reason Henrietta Street has been left to its disrepair. Thirty-six families were still living at Number 13 when it was bought by Georgian enthusiasts Michael and Aileen Casey in 1974. Their aim was to restore the house in painstaking detail to its former glory. Not that you can really tell from the outside as it still appears very run-down today. Restoration work is time-consuming but still, thirty years should yield some signs of visible improvement.
On a positive note, Henrietta Street survived the over-enthusiastic demolition of colonial architecture during recent decades. Quite a number of Georgian houses did not. But Henrietta is a Dublin street that could easily have been the showpiece of Georgian Dublin. It should be. And hopefully one day it will be.