Tracey Bardon picks up a large block of soap – it’s about 10cm long, cuboid, dull red – and sniffs it. The familiar, distinctive smell brings her back. Carbolic soap was cheap, she notes, and people used it to clean anything and everything. The clothes, your body, the floor; she even remembers a woman lengthening her daughter’s hair and rubbing it with carbolic. What people cleaned with carbolic soap was determined “depending on your situation.”
Bardon was a child of Dublin apartment buildings. Born in 1977, she spent her early years in the family’s flat on Seán McDermott Street in north Dublin city center where her parents Martin Nugent and Kathleen Gallagher had moved when they married. His family lived in a building on Gardiner Street; he was a newspaper seller as a child, and his mother and grandmother worked at the nearby Williams and Woods factory, which made chocolate and pickles. His mother’s family had more difficult circumstances, moving to different apartment buildings, which were usually a single large room in an old large house, with these rooms subdivided into smaller “rooms”. The buildings had shared toilets and no running water.
With several families in each house, the front door was permanently open and there were no lights in the common areas (designed in Reckitt blue and Raddle red, the building’s distinctive paint colors). Bardon’s father remembers shouting upstairs for a neighbor to open the door for him, letting out the light from his single light bulb. He also recalls kicking the stairs on the way up to their apartment; it was to chase away ghosts, he said. Tenement folklore recalls these kicks as scattered rodents and cats.
We sniff the carbolic and poke around inside the kitchen press in Mrs Dowling’s apartment, which has been recreated as it was in the 1960s, complete with a sewing machine and a piano, pictures and holy pictures, blue and white striped mugs, only one bedroom and another bed in the living room, good wallpaper and lino. It is comfortable and compact, and has no running water. It really was the home of Lizzy and George Dowling, and their children Lily, Peter and Joseph, one of the last families to live in the buildings at 14 Henrietta Street.
The entire apartment is one of the former Great Rooms at 14 Henrietta Street, once the heart of the Dublin building. Today Number 14 is a social history museum (Silletto Prize winner at the European Museum of the Year 2020 awards), evoking 300 years of city life by peeling back the layers of Georgian grandeur to the urban slum, in connecting it to the personal stories of those who lived there.
The building is located in a former street of beautiful 18th century mansions of deputies and lawyers, which became a street of buildings from 1877. A Thomas Vance bought number 14, emptied it and created 17 apartments. In the 1911 census, 100 people lived in this house, with two toilets and a water source.
Concern over the unsafe and unsanitary living conditions of Dublin’s urban poor eventually led to the relocation of families in social housing to newer suburbs: Ballymun, Crumlin, Drimnagh, Donnycarney. These days, Bardon is responsible for visitors and engagement at 14 Henrietta Street, working with the building’s former residents and their families to preserve their stories and care for their memories. In this context, the museum is planning a new awareness campaign to collect more memories of buildings.
On one of the tours of the building last week, Gus Keating led a small group of us around the house, from the damp basement room where Peter Brannigan was born in 1939, one of 11 children , to the relative comfort of the Dowling apartment. That basement apartment decades ago had been damp and cold, with no electricity or gaslights, and only candles for light; six members of his family slept in one bed, seven in the other. Later they moved to the ground floor where conditions were better – this apartment was originally the hallway of the large house. Today, it is again a corridor, the entrance to the museum.
Another room is dedicated to childhood memories, recalling songs and nursery rhymes, games and adventures. After the 1940s, living conditions improved, and photos from the 1950s and 1960s show well-dressed children playing. With hundreds of children living on the streets, there was great social interaction, fun and happiness, says Keating.
Former residents of the building pass regularly. Keating mentions that Peter Brannigan called recently, along with Lily Dowling’s son, Trevor Butterworth, and niece Linda Dowling. The museum hopes many more people will come next Tuesday for its Your Tenement Memories open day, as well as a series of related events at local libraries and community centers in Dublin neighborhoods where tenement residents have dispersed from 1930s to 1970s.
The Dublin City Council Culture Company is also inviting those who lived in an apartment block, or knew someone who did, to make an appointment to reminisce. The goal is to share memories and preserve living stories for future generations in the museum’s collection.
The Your Tenement Memories Open Day will take place on Tuesday May 3 (10am-1pm, 2pm-4pm) at 14 Henrietta Street, Dublin. Community sessions to capture new memories are scheduled for May 3 to June 28 in Cabra, Ballymun, Ballyfermot, Inchicore, Pearse Street, Finglas, Ilac Library, Dolphin’s Barn, Coolock, Ballybough, Walkinstown, Kevin Street, Aughrim Street. More information can be found on the 14 Henrietta Street website