Henrietta Street – Tenement Living

An imge of Dublin's Henrieta Street in the 1920s, in black and white. Shows groups of children gathered towards the archway of a brick building, at play.

Artifact: Henrietta Street

Category: Urban Growth and Infrastructure 

Group: Spencer Beck, Bella Rocha, Sarah Spalding

Photograph: Henrietta St, early 1920s


This image, entitled “Children at play on Henrietta Street, Dublin in the early 1920s,” captures a snapshot from the period of tenement living in Ireland’s capital. In the image, groups gather at the end of the cul-de-sac, just outside the back entrance to the law library of the Honorable Society of King’s Inns, an institution controlling the entry of barristers-at-law into the Irish justice system still active today. This later photographic depiction of the once statuesque homes for prominent legal officials shows them post-transformation into the dingy tenement buildings the working-class living in poverty came to inhabit. Children like the ones in the above image lived and grew up together in cramped quarters, finding freedom for play in the often unsanitary and potentially dangerous streets.  

Henrietta Street, considered to be the earliest Georgian street in Dublin, is popularly believed to be named after the wife of Charles FitzRoy, the second Duke of Grafton. Construction first began in the mid-1720s on land purchased by the Gardiner family in 1721, and continued until the 1750s. While the origins of the Gardiner family are unclear, patriarch Luke, a well-known banker in Dublin, and his wife Anne Stewart, a lesser member of the English nobility, are credited with financing much of the development within this area of the city during the Georgian period. Their daughter, Henrietta, serves as another potential inspiration for the thoroughfare’s name. A final possibility stems from its proximity to Bolton Street, named after Charles Paulet, the second Duke of Bolton, whose third wife’s name was Henrietta. 

Once home to many upper-class citizens, including archbishops and members of parliament, the street boasted grand townhouses designed to accommodate large families and their servants. The law library for The Honorable Society of King’s Inns was constructed at the end of this cul-de-sac during the eighteenth century. It replaced three private residences, one of which was home to the Archbishop of Armagh, the head of the Church of Ireland. Then, a shift in Ireland’s governmental system—in which the Irish Parliament was abolished and the British Parliament created, effectively moving the central Irish government from Ireland to England at the start of the 19th century—resulted in the abandonment of these estates. As the city’s population boomed, many property owners converted the vacant homes into multiple apartments to address this need and maximize profit. The street fell into a state of disrepair after these large private residences were transformed into tenement buildings, and by 1911, there were 835 people living in just 15 houses—most of whom were working-class Dubliners.

As observed in the description for the image above via the virtual exhibition, Poverty and Health, “nearly 26,000 families lived in inner-city tenements, and 20,000 of these families lived in just one room.” To combat the pressures of constant unemployment, many singular rooms hosted not just nuclear, but also extended family, and some families took in non-relative lodgers or children as nursing charges. In such confinement and squalor, occupants faced increased mortality rates, either from contagious diseases like tuberculosis (especially for children), or from structural abnormalities. Even after inspection, some buildings, like those of a Mrs. Ryan on Church Street in 1913, collapsed and killed those inside. Additionally, the Dublin Housing Corporation “intervened to foil the enforcement of regulations against their properties,” further endangering all those who resided within (The National Archives of Ireland). Unfortunately, though relief efforts existed, charity aid became a competition of generosity rather than actual philanthropy by many relief organizations. With different members of distinct congregations living in the same buildings, and even rooms, theological divisions amongst denominational leaders distracted from the original motivation to provide charitable aid. Rather than unrestricted sanctuary one might expect from a Christian heart, many granted assistance only to those of their own religious faction, with churches vying in particular over who would get to “rescue” children in need. However, the National Archive explains that the Catholic Church retained “a conservative approach to state relief of poverty,” even towards Catholic tenement dwellers. The lack of substantial change to combat such sup-par living conditions exacerbated a lethal and often desperate situation for those residing in the tenements. 

At number 10 Henrietta Street the Sisters of Charity, a religious organization primarily concerned with benefiting the community through their establishments, ran a laundry where over 50 fallen women worked and lived. The list of those classified as fallen women were either “promiscuous,” unmarried mothers and their daughters, considered to be a burden in their families, sexually abused, or grew up in the care of the Church. This laundry run by the Sisters of Charity belonged to the Magdalene Laundries system, which consisted of 10,000 women and girls forced to perform labor for little to no pay while enduring psychological and physical maltreatment. In an interview with the Sister-in-charge of the Sisters of Mercy, another religious organization participating in the Magdalene Laundries, the Sister describes the women as “backward,” emphasizing that seventy percent of them are unmarried mothers. The women are said to be “free,” but when asked if the girls can leave when they choose, the Mother Superior cuts in to clarify, “No, we’re not as lenient as all that. The girl must have a suitable place to go…” obligating many to stay for life (Smith 44). These women became reliant on the system over time and unable to re-enter society. Various Magdalene Laundries continued operating until 1996. In recent years, civic lawsuits have been filed against the Sisters of Charity for abuse suffered under their care.

The features of Henrietta Street are very similar to the settings of James Joyce’s Dubliners. For instance, the main character of “Clay,” Maria, is an older Catholic woman who lives and works at a Protestant charity house called the Dublin by Lamplight Laundry. She notes that beyond some unfamiliar idiosyncrasies she had to get used to, the Protestants running the establishment are very kind to her. However, she only came to rely on their charity once her nannying charges no longer had need of her, essentially rendering her another one of their “Fallen Women.” As Marian Eide interprets, by setting the story of this naive, older woman within a Magdalene home, Joyce combines the characteristics of the genuinely charitable Virgin Mary and the period typical depiction of the “fallen woman” imposed on Mary Magdalene, a process which contrasts the lack of actual charity offered by these institutions to those most in need (58). The Dublin by Lamplight Laundry has actually existed since 1856 along the river Dodder, acting as a “charitable institution for Penitent Females supported by voluntary contributions and by the inmates own exertions” to offer “an excellent laundry […] with all modern appliances” (Cullen 19). This is similar to those of Henrietta Street, which exploited the labor of the lowest classes with no alternative options, either as a result of their poverty or because they were not given the choice to resist. The tenements also feature in Sean O’Casey’s famous play, Juno and the Paycock, which presents a vivid and gripping depiction of the ways in which tenement conditions can impact everyday life. The play’s characters face trials such as depression, alcoholism, desperation, and familial disrepair or neglect as a result of inhabiting a state of extreme poverty. This is made worse by their tenement’s lack of privacy and their stress over not being able to get by. Both works create immersive representations of a way of life that was normalized for many of the lower classes in Ireland, like those who lived and died on Henrietta Street. 


“About the Magdalene Laundries.” Justice for Magdalenes Research, jfmresearch.com/home/preserving-magdalene-history/about-the-magdalene-laundries/.

Cullen, Clara. “Dublin by Lamplight: Locating Joyce’s ‘Clay’ within the 1911 Census of Ireland.” Dublin James Joyce Journal, vol. 3, 2009. P. 19-29. Project MUSE, doi: 10.1353/djj.2009.0008. 

Eide, Marian. “James Joyce’s Magdalenes.” College Literature, vol. 38, no. 4, 2011, pp. 57-75. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41302888. Accessed 21 May 2020. 

Joyce, James. “Clay” from Dubliners. Dover Publications Inc., 1991, pp. 64-70.

Kenny, Colum. “King’s Inns and Henrietta Street Chambers.” Dublin Historical Record, vol. 47, no. 2, 1994, pp. 155–168. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30101087. Accessed 17 May 2020.

Murphy, Sean J. “The Gardiner Family, Dublin, and Mountjoy, County Tyrone.” Studies in Irish Genealogy and Heraldry, Windgates, County Wicklow, 2010, pp. 28-35. 

O’Casey, Sean. “Juno and the Paycock” from Three Plays. Macmillan Press, London, 1970, pp. 1-75.

“Poverty and Health, Ireland in the early 20th century.” The National Archives of Ireland, Dublin Census. Accessed 20 May 2020. 

Smith, James. “The Magdalen Asylum and the State in Twentieth-Century Ireland.” Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries and the Nation’s Architecture of Containment, 2007, pp. 44–84., doi: 10.2307/j.ctvpj76pf.7.


  1. Amazing annotation guys!!! It’s crazy how just one street can physically represent the sorrow and exploitation of the lower class in Dublin. I loved the connections you guys were able to make to the class readings, and I learned a lot from your annotation in general!

  2. This was really interesting and I enjoyed seeing the connection to Clay! It’s also so horrible that the magdalene laundries kept operating until so recently. I definitely learned a lot, great job!

  3. What an interesting and tragic history… I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I clicked into your annotation, but this was both a really gripping and saddening read. I had no idea about the Magdalene Laundries until I read this. I agree with Brenda–the textual connections you formed made for a really interesting conclusion! Great work!

  4. Thank you for such a wonderful annotation, it was a great read! In my opinion, your annotation perfectly complements Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock because we get the historical background on the Dublin tenements and we get a further inside look at what life was like under a tenement. It was heartbreaking to read the conditions so many people and children were forced into, and it reminded me a lot of our annotation on the workhouses in Dublin – who had similar crammed and disturbing conditions. I find it very interesting how certain locations, buildings, and symbols in Ireland reflect years of sorrow, suffering, and tragedy in Irish history; at a glance these places appear like any other but they all hold a story and they play an important role in telling a part of Ireland’s history.

  5. This was a very interesting annotation, I really enjoyed reading it. It was nice to understand how these authors and their pieces we read relied on history of Ireland to teach readers of it. The annotation was filled with such informative facts that allowed to to really comprehend how Irish history was at that time and the hardships that certain citizens had to experience. I also thought of how in the annotation the subject of what woman experienced was included to all know how they dealt with this situation in history. Very well put together.

  6. Thank you so much for this annotation! I found it really interesting to trace the different definitions of philanthropy– especially when you wrote that it became a competition of generosity. I think that in some instances, this definition can still exist today.

  7. I love how your annotation on Henrietta Street show that unsanitary conditions caused by the lack of health guidelines from the government are constantly at place. Books like “The Jungle” really reinforce the fact that governments need to step in to make places sanitary, because without the guidelines, many places will be left to rot.

  8. I learned so much while reading this! I thought it was great how you were able to integrate historical information with a melancholy tone that adequately described the disparities that existed during this time. I also thought you had a very cohesive flow throughout the annotation, and it was easy and informative to follow.

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