I recently visited an exhibition in Dublin’s North inner city called Dublin Tenement Experience: Living the Lockout 1913.
I had been sent to write a feature for thejournalist.ie and I was really looking forward to it, as a bit of a history buff. I have always had a weird fascination with glum history.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as I hopped on to the luas. I got off at the Jervis stop about six minutes before ten in the morning so I hailed a taxi to take me to Henrietta Street to ensure I wasn’t late.
I was really glad I did this. Usually, when I am walking through this unfamiliar part of town I am too busy figuring out where I am going to take notice of anything.
The short taxi ride gave me the opportunity to really see this side of the North inner city.
Stepping out of the taxi, I couldn’t believe how beautiful Henrietta street was. I have a big thing for Georgian architecture. Sure, I got married in a magnificently renovated Georgian house which I chose specifically for it’s architecture and decor. So, you can imagine my nerdy swoon as I stepped out of the taxi.
Henrietta street is the original Georgian street in Dublin and although it was left neglected for a long time it has been so well preserved by Dublin City Council over the last few years. It’s spotless clean and the cobble street carries the townhouses up to Kings Inn law library which caps the top of the street in grande palatial style. It is one of the wider Georgian streets in the city so you have a better opportunity to appreciate it and just for a moment step back in time.
I went in to no14 which has been leased until the end of August to showcase the exhibition on Dublin tenement life. The interactive drama brings you through tenement living, focusing specifically on life during the 1913 lockout.
The actors were just brilliant- really raw and authentic although I was suffering from a bit of stage fright myself during the interactive parts. I like to be a wall flower, you see; taking in everything from behind the scenes.
When you look around the rooms you can see remnants of old painted walls and ceilings. There are countless holes in the walls. They look like bullet holes but are actually just holes from families nailing typical sacred heart pictures and the like. This touched me more than anything- the memory and the story behind each and every hole in the wall- I wanted to touch them and be zapped back in time.
The story dramatised during the exhibition is a personal one, rather than a factual historical approach which, I guess, is why I left feeling so raw.
The starvation and the striving to maintain some dignity during the descent into pauperism is overwhelming.
These are my ancestors I realised.
For the first time, I have felt confronted with my heritage.
Although I am not really very ‘tribal’ in nature, I always had a basic ‘I’m Irish’ approach to heritage. I have never actually said or thought I’m a Dubliner.
The reality is, based on the 1911 census and through oral tradition, I am very very Dublin (at least 3/4’s)- with only a small portion of recent ancestors coming to Dublin from Meath (who were of French descent, apparently) along with a vague connection to Clare.
Only two generations ago and beyond, most of my ancestors lived in or came from tenement Dublin.
As I sat on the Luas heading toward my family home in the suburbs, I thought and felt the journey my people before me have taken, leaving a hard rock in my stomach.
Not because of their hardship.
Because I have never acknowledged them.
As mentioned in my article, free education, suburban living and our contemporary cosmopolitan culture has completely changed so many people. Also, I’m an eighties child so I have never really experienced hardship. Even during that recession I was too young to notice my parents stressing over their next mortgage payment and I have never felt hunger.
So, despite my perspective, I can still see that old Dublin culture is being left behind. This culture that is completely foreign to me, yet one that- through this exhibition- I have come to recognise as a significant part of my heritage.
I have wondered since about how much further away from it my own children will be, especially now that we have left Dublin.
Looking around the Wicklow commuter town where I now live, I find it interesting to meet so many Dublin people (and beyond) from all walks of life blending so well with each other- creating a new culture. It feels so enlivening to be part of such a diverse town and watching my local society change and diversify.
Still, I think it’s good to remember where your ancestors brought you. Until the 1913 lockout, most tenement dwellers were actually living a better life. Moving into these buildings was an improvement in living standards for many.
Sometimes I think the Celtic Tiger brought us a new, uninvited culture- a kind of commercial greed and a sense of social climbing that rejected its roots.
Maybe that’s why we collapsed.
If there is one good thing that has come out of this current recession, it is that we as a whole have been brought back down to earth- exactly where that typical Dublin culture has always been.
Well, some of us anyway. Or, being positive- most of us.
I would highly recommend you make the effort to visit this exhibition- it’s so contemporary, raw and hits you harder than any HBO series will at home.
If you would like to see the exhibition you can book online here. It only costs €5.
It opens 6 days a week (closed Wednesdays) and is open until the end of August.
NB: This exhibition is not suitable for children under 12.