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Opinion: The best address - a history of Henrietta Street and its first residents

Dr Melanie Hayes’ new historical book looks at Dublin’s first Georgian street, Henrietta Street, and its colourful residents in the eighteenth century.

Dr Melanie Hayes

Once Dublin’s most exclusive residential street, throughout the eighteenth century Henrietta Street was home to the country’s foremost figures from church, military and state.

Here, Dr Melanie Hayes discusses her book, The Best Address: Henrietta Street Dublin and Its First Residents, 1720-80 and takes a look at the quirky characters behind the Georgian front doors:

IN THE EARLY years of the 1730s two major building projects were taking place in Dublin city, one in the public sphere, the other in the domestic arena.

Both stood as visible manifestations of the enormous wealth and ambition of Ireland’s governing elite. Both looked to the latest imported architectural models and fashionable tastes of London’s beau monde and both involved the same close-knit group of architects, builders, developers and occupants.

The first of these was Edward Lovett Pearce’s Parliament House at College Green (1728), a pioneering and virtuoso exercise in neo-Palladian design. The other was Luke Gardiner’s similarly pioneering domestic development at Henrietta Street – palatial homes built to house the most influential power brokers in Ireland.

The best address

These lofty dwelling houses were more than bricks and mortar, more than the judicious disposition of rooms, a finely finished facade or an elegant interior: they served as symbols of success and social status, as spaces for living in and the settings for life.

bank-of-ireland-college-green-dublin-co-dublin-ireland-former-houses-of-parliament-built-in-the-18th-century Bank Of Ireland College Green, Dublin, Co Dublin, Ireland; Former Houses Of Parliament Built In The 18Th Century (Credit Image: © The Irish Image Collection/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire) Source: The Irish Image Collection

Looking behind the red-brick facades of these once-grand Georgian townhouses at the people who populated these spaces we can still catch a glimpse of life when Henrietta Street was the best address in town.

In terms of scale and grandeur, Henrietta Street was the most significant residential development in early Georgian Dublin. It served as an exemplar for later developments such as Sackville Street and Gardiner’s Mall, as well as elite domestic architecture in provincial towns such as Drogheda and Waterford.

90324605 16/12/2013. Georgian Dublin Doors. Pictured a Christmas Wreath hangs on a Georgian door on Merrion Square in Dublin. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

The Best Address: Henrietta Street Dublin and Its First Residents, 1720-80 not only explores the purpose, function and usage of these vast brick houses that set a new standard in Dublin’s high-class housing, it also takes a peek behind the walls of these stunning residences, and focuses on the people who originally lived there.

Once Dublin’s most exclusive address, throughout the eighteenth century Henrietta Street was home to the country’s foremost figures from church, military and state. Here, in this elegant setting on the north side of the city, peers rubbed shoulders with property tycoons, clerics consorted with social climbers and celebrated military men mixed with the leading lights of the capital’s beau monde, establishing one the principle arenas of elite power in Georgian Ireland.

In a century where ‘show’ was essential and ‘taste’ was king, these domestic spaces provided much more than mere shelter – they stood as very visible symbols of the wealth, status, and above all, the fashionable taste of their occupants.

90078146 Henrietta Street in Dublin's north inner city. Source: Albert Gonzalez/Photocall Ireland

An eccentric Dublin gentry

In the first thirty years of its existence, Henrietta Street was home to no less than six titled residents, two army generals, three archbishops, two speakers of the Irish house of commons and the lord chancellor of Ireland.

Here, this distinguished group of neighbours formed influential and often far-reaching networks, utilising their lofty new townhouses in their bids for advancement.

Bonds of friendship, family ties and mutually advantageous alliances united many of these early residents, and cronyism was rife. As key players in the burgeoning associational culture, they joined similar clubs and societies, from the Freemasons to the Hellfire Club, and moved in the same social circles, promoting new forms of urban sociability among the Dublin’s Georgian elites.

Yet beneath the convivial facade, bitter rivalries and divisive political fault lines ran deep, with these close-knit networks splintering off into smaller cliques and cohorts, all intent on furthering their individual agendas.

Among these, there were some extraordinarily colourful residents, from darker characters like Nicholas Loftus, who kept his only son captive behind-closed-doors, or the libertine Lord Kingsborough, who’s dalliances with the fairer sex brought scandal to the street, and ultimately led to his untimely death, to the vastly wealthy and powerful Henry O’Brien, 8th earl of Thomond, for whom the largest house on the street was constructed, now 5 and 6 Henrietta Street.

O’Brien’s life was spent largely in England until political considerations caused him to return to Ireland, where he was described as ‘a wicked man both for wine and women’, an assessment partially borne out by the vast amounts of wine and champagne accumulated for the basement of the Henrietta Street house.

Another resident, Thomas Carter, is also shown to have moved in elite London circles and was an associate of Lord Burlington, the architect earl.

img2.thejournal.ie Source: 14 Henrietta Street

The most intriguing figure of all in the story of Henrietta Street was ‘the famous’ Luke Gardiner, a politician, private banker and property tycoon, who bought and developed the site.

For all his significance in the history of Dublin’s eighteenth-century development, Gardiner’s personality is difficult to discover, while his origin’s and more pertinently, his financial dealings are shrouded in mystery – perhaps as he would have wanted.
Yet by creating this high-class development, and surrounding himself with an influential group of neighbours, this self-made man acquired the connections necessary to become one of the most powerful figures in Irish politics.

The role of women

The Best Address: Henrietta Street Dublin and Its First Residents, 1720-80 reveals details of some of Henrietta Street’s noble heiresses such as Lady Henrietta Boyle, Lady Alice Moore, the Hon. Mary Granville and the Hon. Anne Stewart, women of great fortune but of whom little trace remains in history. Indeed in the case of the latter three women, not even a portrait or likeness survives.

90231699 Henrietta Street is the earliest Georgian Street in Dublin on land bought by the Gardiner family. Luke Gardiner developed the street as part of his cultivation of the land on the North side of the city. Source: Sam Boal

At this time no respectable woman would be mentioned in the public press, except in announcements of births, marriages and deaths. The intimate and everyday events of female life would of course have been closely chronicled in letters and diaries, but few of these have been uncovered to delineate their experiences.

Yet, in the eighteenth century these wives, mothers and daughters played integral and often very visible roles in the running of elite households, with the mistress of the house successfully negotiating the blurred boundaries between the private sphere and the public world of their husbands.

brian-friels-plays-the-home-place Actors Hugh o'Connor (David Gore) and Derbhle Crotty (Margaret o Donnell), in costume, for a photocall of Brian Friels, new play 'The Home Place', which runs in the Gate Theatre from the 1st of February. The photocall took place in Henrietta Street, Dublin. Photo: RollingNews.ie 18/1/2005 Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland!

The same can be said of the scores of servants who lived and worked in these houses. Although they made up greater numbers than their elite employers, these domestic retainers are shadowy figures, seldom mentioned in documentary sources and largely overlooked in anecdotal accounts, their stories have been relegated to the margins of history.

A vibrant society

For their wealthy owners, these spacious establishments served as suitable abodes from which to enjoy the delights of Dublin’s social season, which ran through the winter months.

From Michaelmas to St Patrick’s Day Irish high society would abandon their country estates for the pleasures of the city and the seemingly never-ending round of social engagements.

During this time these houses were intensely, if only periodically, used, regularly hosting large-scale entertainments and overnight guests. Cutting a ‘grand figure’ on the social stage was an essential element to advancing one’s ambitions in the official sphere at this time.

The city’s many theatres, clubs and music halls provided regular opportunities for upper-class sociability throughout the winter months, while the multitude of gardens and greens which sprung up on both sides of the river proved popular settings for a Sunday promenade in milder weather.

Formal balls and assemblies were held at Dublin Castle, and later in the century at the Great Assembly Rooms in Brunswick Street and the Rotunda Assembly Rooms at Parnell Square, while a variety of more informal or private entertainments took place throughout the city’s grand townhouses.

An impressive array of refreshments was always served throughout the evening and large balls or ‘routs’ became popular, stuffing even the most palatial establishments to bursting point.

The arrival of the summer, and with it unhealthy heats and polluted air, along with an increased risk of disease, heralded the end to the season, which was time for these peers and politicians, these Georgian elites, to pack up their possessions and close up their town residences and return to their country estates until winter.

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Weathering the changes

Georgian Dublin was a city of two-faces, and while the upper-class minority lived in great luxury, poverty was rife among the majority of its citizens.

At Henrietta Street, the vast wealth of the homeowners and the opulence on display in the houses meant they were never safe from crime, and there are tales of daredevil intruders coming ‘over the railings’ and making off with several valuable silver objects.

The dawn of a new century brought a change of guard at Henrietta Street. The passing of the Acts of Union on 31 December 1800, which abolished the Irish parliament and created a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, triggered a seismic societal change throughout the city and beyond. With the move of the parliament to Westminster Dublin’s governing class began their withdrawal from the capital.

No longer requiring a city residence, the several hundred members of parliament closed up their pied-à-terre for the last time, selling or subletting their townhouses to the emerging professional class.

Even before the union, there were indications that Henrietta Street was beginning to lose its exclusive cachet but the change happened slowly, and although there was a notable shift in the tone of the street in the early nineteenth century many of Henrietta Street’s titled families stayed on well into the following decades.

90305667 Number 14 on Henrietta Street in Dublins Inner City. Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The centuries have wrought great changes at Henrietta Street. Of the thirteen surviving houses, several show a somewhat shabby face to the world, and the marks of their changing inhabitants are keenly felt inside. Today, though there is a renewed vigour to the street, the passage of time is much in evidence.

Henrietta Street is the most intact collection of early to mid-18th century houses in Ireland and in September 2018 14 Henrietta Street opened to the public as a museum where you can now get a guided tour bringing you on a journey from the houses grand Georgian beginnings to the tenement dwellings of its later years.

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The Best Address: Henrietta Street Dublin and Its First Residents, 1720-80 by Dr Melanie Hayes and published by Four Courts Press is now available. Dr Melanie Hayes is a research fellow in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Trinity College Dublin, working on an Irish Research Council Laureate project, CraftValue. Melanie was an academic researcher during the development of the 14 Henrietta Street museum by Dublin City Council.

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Dr Melanie Hayes

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