‘The tenements’ – what does the term mean? In 1913 Dublin was literally teeming with poverty-stricken people, many of whom were crowded into ‘the tenements’, their destitution made so much worse by the Lockout. Some, like Rashers Tierney in Strumpet City, had nowhere to live at all, unless somebody was kind enough to offer a basement. As for ‘the tenements’ – it is strange to think that those houses, in Henrietta Street, Dominick Street, and around the Gardiner Street area of North inner city Dublin, to name but a few places, were built many years earlier for the elite of Dublin. They were the show houses of their time, replete with the requisite designer fireplaces, a la mode plasterwork, and sweeping hand-made staircases. They had several large airy rooms filled with plump couches, leather armchairs, pianos, paintings, and large windows with thick-lined curtains. The houses formed squares and long streets of domestic architecture that suggested wealth, power, and social conformity. But as the wealthy families moved away, the houses were rented and allowed to go to rack and ruin – rapidly becoming ‘the tenements’ where Dublin’s poor lived, or rather, survived if they could, several families to one of those rooms, with nothing by way of facilities or privacy; no curtains to keep out the cold, no plush seating or bedding, and no food. The houses were so cold that many of those hand-carved staircases were ripped out and burned as fire-wood; the tenants couldn’t afford the price of a bag of coal. Body heat had to suffice, and the birth rate was high. It’s strange to think of the little children, lying on their thin beds at night, their bellies aching for the want of food, staring at the plasterwork confectionery on the ceilings – the white iced Christmas cake that they’d never have. Perhaps their parents invented stories about the characters on the ceilings: lullabies about the icing of the wealthy, sung to quicken the poor to the temporary peace of sleep. Take a walk up Henrietta Street someday soon, before this 1913 centenary is over. It’s not the wealthy owners who’ll come to mind, or the William Martin Murphy’s, but the ghosts of grey-clothed, harried, and worn out women, and the noisy spirits of their ever-hopeful, but haunted-looking children – skipping, singing and dancing amid the ruins of their parents dreams for them. As for Rashers Tierney:
“He lay on the floor on his bed of straw and accumulated rags. A little of the light from the street lamps found its way through the broken window. It touched the ceiling and the upper part of the wall, leaving the rest of the basement in darkness. … He did not want to move. It had been a mistake to lie down …
In the corner furthest from him sacking covered the body … “He’s been dead for several days….” (James Plunkett, Strumpet City, Gill and Macmillan reprint, 2013, pp. 521 and 542).
One can only hope that the cold, bleak little basement in which he died was a little better than the occupied cardboard boxes to be found on the streets of Dublin in 2013, the centenary of the Lockout.