Through the Fanlight Glass: Space and the Dublin Townhouse

By Patrick Walsh

Recently I have begun to think anew about space. No not what lies above in the starry heavens, but instead the spaces we inhabit and how we use them. Some of these spatial thoughts have been influenced by the practicalities of an impending move abroad, and the realisation I won’t have space for my whole library! Most of these thoughts have been inspired by my rather eclectic reading and watching experiences over the last few weeks, not to mention ongoing discussions about a proposal for a TV documentary on cooking and eating in the Irish country house (More of that in the future perhaps).

Watching TV3’s fantastic documentary on Dublin’s Tenements has encouraged me to consider more fully the changing functions and arrangements of Dublin’s townhouses. The programme together with a relatively recent visit to New York’s brilliant Tenement Museum (why don’t we have one?) has given me a new insight into the appalling reality that lay behind so many beautiful if faded Georgian facades. Till recently my perceptions of Dublin tenement life owed much to the plays of Sean O’Casey which for all their gritty reality still conveyed a short of romanticism, though perhaps this is the difficulty of imagining the dank smelly interiors while sitting comfortably ensconced in the Abbey Theatre? My point however relates more to the vivid picture granted in the documentary series of the changing and adapted spaces off these once expensive and expansive interiors. Seeing these spaces being used in the excellent, and sensitively done, ‘reality’ sections of Tenements only served to raise the question: how were these same rooms used in earlier periods when some of these tenements had very different functions? Just how did the eighteenth century townhouse work, and were they all the same?

The answer to the latter question is surely not. Just as the TV3 documentary showed that there were a range of tenants living in each tenement building – something also evident, now that I think about it, in O’Casey’s plays – eighteenth century townhouses in Dublin and elsewhere had a disparate range of occupants. Some were palatial residences; homes to peers, clergy and members of the upper gentry like the houses on Henrietta Street built by Nathaniel Clements for the earl of Shannon and Archbishop Stone. Others were divided into varieties of lodgings, some suitable for a gentleman, some more amenable to tradesmen and craftsmen, while still others were the homes of the ever expanding population of journeymen and maids of work who served the needs of the expanding cities.

The upstairs-downstairs nature of the former is perhaps our most familiar image of the townhouse , and it remains a topic of great scholarly and public interest, particularly as people begin to think about the range of activities that took place under each roof. Space for cooking, cleaning and stabling jostled with more formal and refined spaces for dining, leisure and work let alone sleeping. Different hierarchies of visitors, each with greater expectations of access to the owner’s inner sanctums, needed to be accommodated and managed. This was perhaps especially true of the houses of political and legal luminaries, each of whom could expect large numbers of callers, some welcome, others not, almost all trying to solicit favours or offering services. All however needed to dealt with and accommodated even very temporarily in the house. Reading a fascinating collection of essays, edited by Christine Casey, on Dublin’s townhouses has given me insights into how all of these functions were managed, and how the residents of these houses adjusted to what were often alien urban environments. One intriguing vignette concerns a bishop newly arrived in a house on Stephen’s Green who was advised that while stables adjacent to a house were convenient, they could also smell and therefore he should fill his windows with well perfumed flowers! On street parking had its disadvantages!
However it was in the latter type of townhouse – those always occupied by multiple residents from the time of their building – that the complications of space were perhaps most intriguing. In such houses residents vied with other for the best rooms, sought better cooking facilities, and worried about the security of their possessions, while all the time trying to create a home for themselves. The contested spaces of London’s townhouses are explored in Amanda Vickery’s brilliant Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England which draws on a range of evidence from court records, to diaries, to inventories, to advertisements to explore how these houses functioned. Some of her conclusions demonstrate that life in the eighteenth-century townhouse was not altogether different to life in the tenements or apartments that replaced them in later years. Her book after all is replete with discussions of the often fraught relationships between landlady and lodger, between neighbours and even between family members domiciled together showing that some things don’t change. In this vein she also demonstrates that the takeaway, the last refuge (or is it the first?) of the bachelor living on his own too has its antecedents: eighteenth century lawyers and clerks regularly called upon their local chophouse for a delivery rather than provide for themselves. Stories like this, as well as some of those told in the Dublin townhouse book, help us to imagine not only how these spaces were used in the past but they also allow us to imagine who used them, and what their lives were like.

This entry was posted in Books, Film and television, History, Ireland and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Through the Fanlight Glass: Space and the Dublin Townhouse

  1. Cormac says:

    ‘Recently I have begun to think anew about space’ – I see you have seen the light! maybe there is a hidden geographer in there after all!

  2. Just found your blog and found it very rich. Will explore more. My Grandmother grew up in a house on Gardiner Street. Just found that out in the census. Her brother went to the First World War aged 19, in 1916, and died a decorated hero a few months later. I love what you are doing here, agree about the tenement museum, and think now I must go to see Juno at the Abbey. Greetings from the SE.

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