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: www.thedrawingroom.info