From Townhouse to Tenement – and Back


In recent weeks a succession of events in Dublin have commemorated the centenary of the Lock-Out, an occasion when many of the city’s larger employers, determined their workforce should not become trade-unionised, denied access to factories, yards and docks to anyone suspected of involvement in the movement for labourers’ rights. One of the consequences of this remembrance has been to recall how many Dubliners of the period lived in extreme poverty, occupying houses which had been built for the wealthiest members of 18th century Irish society but were subsequently divided into tenement dwellings in which entire families would rent a single room. It is worth pointing out, incidentally, that the owners of these properties were not absentee landlords but, as is made plain in James Plunkett’s 1969 novel Strumpet City (which deals with the 1913 Lock-Out), members of the indigenous Catholic haute bourgeoisie.
The area north of the river Liffey was especially given over to tenement housing, a far cry from the circumstances in which these buildings had first been erected. Such was the case, for example, on Henrietta Street, originally laid out in 1729-30 by the period’s most visionary developer, Luke Gardiner whose descendants would subsequently become Earls of Blessington. Gardiner’s ambitions are reflected in the size of the Henrietta Street houses, some of which are four- or five-bay wide, making them considerably larger than other terraced properties of the time. As befitted such splendid residences initially Henrietta Street was occupied by some of the wealthiest aristocratic families in the country; early occupants included the Earl of Bessborough, Viscount Mountjoy and Lord Farnham; a 1792 city directory lists one Archbishop, two Bishops, four peers and four MPs as living there.




Together with its immediate neighbour to the north, No. 12 Henrietta Stree is among the earliest extant terraced houses in Dublin and dates from 1730-1733 when both were erected by Luke Gardiner with the intention of being either rented or sold. A surviving drawing for a stone-cut doorway by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce suggests that this pre-eminent architect had a hand in the design of the houses, although both have been so much altered since their original construction that only fragmentary evidence survives of their appearance when newly-built. In the case of No. 12, some of the greatest structural modifications occurred from 1780 onwards when Richard Boyle, second Earl of Shannon, decided to join the pair of buildings in order to create one vast town residence for himself.
A descendant of the original Richard Boyle, the early 17th century Great Earl of Cork, Lord Shannon inherited considerable wealth and political influence from his father Henry Boyle who for a long time served as both Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer and Speaker of the Irish House of Commons. Seemingly described by Sir Robert Walpole as ‘king of the Irish House of Commons’ he eventually relinquished his seat there in 1756 when he accepted a peerage and became Earl of Shannon. Although his son never played as significant a role in the affairs of the country, even so he became known as ‘the Colossus of Castlemartyr’ (the name of his country seat in County Cork) due to the power he wielded by controlling so many electoral boroughs. If only for this reason, he needed to have a residence close to the centre of power in Dublin and thus settled on linking the two houses on Henrietta Street.




Among the most significant changes made to No. 12 Henrietta Street after its acquisition by Lord Shannon was the removal of its main staircase and, on the first floor, the instatement of windows very much longer than their predecessors which, as was the fashion earlier in the century, had only dropped to dado level. Some of the wooden window and door frames appear to have been recycyled on the floor above, where they remain to this day. The piano nobile rooms were also re-decorated during this time with simple neo-classical plasterwork cornices designed by Dublin stuccodore Charles Thorp. What most impresses a visitor today are the height and volume of these spaces, and the purity of light with which they are suffused.
The Earl of Shannon remained in residence until his death in 1807 after which the two buildings were once more divided. From 1821 No.12 was occupied by Captain George Bryan of Jenkinstown Park, County Kilkenny, known as the richest commoner in Ireland – although he suffered a dent in his wealth through the long and ultimately unsuccessful legal claim he made to a dormant Irish peerage. Presumably it was during his time that the present staircase was installed in the rear hall; its antecedent had been located immediately inside the front door as remains the case next door. Until the close of the 20th century, Captain Bryan was the house’s last owner-occupier since it next became offices for a solicitor and a Proctor before passing into the possession of the British War Office which from 1861 onwards used the premises as headquarters of the City of Dublin Artillery Militia. After which it went into precipitous decline and sunk into an open-door tenement building, remaining such until rescued in 1985.




When No. 12 Henrietta Street came into the hands of its latest owner – who has since invested it in a legal entity called The Irish Land Trust – he had to undertake an enormous amount of work to secure the house. At the time of his acquisition there was extensive dry rot, deteriorating timbers, roof valley decay and many other daunting structural problems. All of these have since been resolved and the property can now look forward to a secure future. Some internal decoration has also been undertaken, not least the removal of internal partitions which had been fitted in order to accommodate more tenants. The original chimneypieces had long since been taken out and sold, as had all intercommunicating doors but the latter have since been replaced. Fortunately, buried beneath successive layers of linoleum, the original wood floors had survived, as had the window shutters.
Despite its great size, the house does not hold very many rooms: just two on the ground floor and three on each of those above. Limited financial resources means the interior has been lightly decorated, and in some places, such as the smallest of the first-floor rooms, evidence of the house’s use as a tenement has been retained: look at the way successive layers of paint were applied to walls only as high as could be reached by the inhabitants. One advantage of this light touch is that the building’s remarkable architectural qualities can be appreciated without the distraction of furniture and pictures. In particular the main reception rooms come into their own when lit at night by candles alone. On such an occasion it is possible to imagine the house as it must have looked more than 200 years ago when the Lord Shannon was in residence and entertaining his political cronies.


During the forthcoming Open House Weekend (October 4th-6th) No. 12 Henrietta Street will be the location for an exhibition of contemporary artworks, which will launch a new venture called @TheDrawingRoom designed to develop public awareness of architecture, culture and heritage through a series of events in some of Dublin’s finest Georgian houses. For more information, see:

27 comments on “From Townhouse to Tenement – and Back

  1. Kelly says:

    Love to see neglected beauties like that loved again!

  2. barrett eagan says:

    An interesting contrast to the ‘ghost estate’ problem!

  3. Sandra says:

    Seeing these neglected homes makes me very sad. Wish I could buy one and take care of it. Does Ireland not have a National Heritage program to restore some of these homes. Once these homes are gone, you cannot bring them back.

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  5. An excellent article. I’ve been fortunate to shoot in the house on a number of occasions, and there’s always something new to see – and learn.

    The small room on the first floor; the change in colour is actually where there was a floor inserted previously to turn a 12″x16′ room into a duplex! They really crammed them into the building…

  6. Seamus Laverty says:

    Do you know if there were any pictures of Captain. George Bryan (1810-58) and or George Leopold Bryan (1828-1880) in the property?

  7. elizabeth sambrooks says:

    My father and his family lived in this house and i remember going to visit my great aunts and uncles in the seventies,is it open to see,I would love to retrace my steps and show my own family.

    • Thank you for getting in touch. The house is not as such open to the public but I have the impression that the owner has always been most generous at allowing access and I am sure if you made contact directly (drop a note/ring the bell) something might be organised.

  8. Hola. Soy española y visito bastante Dublín. Estoy enamorada de Henrietta Street. Siempre paso por allí para contemplar las magníficas casas georgianas. He estado en centenario Easter Rising. Amo Dublín e Ireland. Muchas gracias por los artículos tan brillantes. Saludos.

    • Thank you for your kind email: I wish that I could do you the courtesy of replying in Spanish but it is not a language in which I can communicate. Nevertheless, your generous words are much appreciated, as is your interest in Ireland’s architectural heritage and culture.

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  11. John says:

    Thank you for a fine and detailed piece on No. 3 Henrietta Street, but please note that you have given one of the front rooms a ‘deep freeze’. I know Dublin in the 18th century was ahead of its time, but . . .

  12. histsoc says:

    My gr grandfather lived in #12.2 with his grandmother and siblings in the 1901 census (Three rooms with 5 people). Do you know who owned it then? Are there rent registers anywhere that can be found? Three rooms seems a lot for a tenement, which part of the house was this in? I’d love to come see it next time I’m in Ireland.
    Thank you!

    • Thank you for getting in touch. I’m afraid I don’t know who lived in which building when but there is some work being carried out on the subject as Dublin City Council is opening a ‘tenement museum’ in 14 Henrietta Street shortly: I suggest you look at that ( and it may be of interest/assistance to you…

  13. Jonas says:

    Are the public allowed inside and to visit them? Or is it only by special invitation?

    • Thank you for getting in touch: some of the houses on Henrietta Street are on occasion open to the general public, but it varies quite a bit. Number 14 is due to open at some point in the autumn as a Tenement Museum which will have public access.

  14. Pete Millington says:

    My 2xGreat Grandfather John McDonnell owned numbers 12 and 13 Henrietta Street in the late 1890s and early 1900s, he also owned 2 properties around the corner in Bolton Street. McDonnell was an interesting character, full of contradictions, blind since birth he had set up a basket making factory on Chancery Street and was a founding member and chairman of the League of the Blind in Ireland, a trade union for blind workers. He also became a Poor Law Guardian and donated money to the nationalist cause. My research points to the fact his parents were people of wealth but died tragically in a road accident in around 1870. At odds with his apparent socialist values McDonnell also aspired to become a gentrified property and land owner. He died in 1916 and his Will was quite strange as he appeared to leave everything, including the properties in Henrietta Street to a grand daughter who was still a child. There remains a lot of mystery around either end of his life, his origins and the disposal of his assets, though I know quite a lot now about his life – he was a colourful and principled character and probably not the stereotypical exploitative landlord you might have imagined owning these buildings when they were despicable tenements. I’m a working class Brummie as my grandparents eloped from Dublin in the 1930s. Would love to know more about John McDonnell’s ownership of nos. 12 and 13. Thanks for the blog by the way.

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