Dubliner recalls living in city centre tenement during World War II

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Being born in the basement of a Dublin tenement six weeks before World War II broke out would sound to most like the stuff of nightmares.

But Peter Brannigan cherishes what he admits was his “tough” start in life and said he counts himself “lucky” because he was surrounded with love.

The 82-year-old is closely involved with the tenement museum at 14 Henrietta Street which has transformed his childhood home into a living memory.

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The award-winning project provides an invaluable link to the past, bringing three centuries of social history to life with tours of the Georgian building.

Peter was the middle child of 13 – 11 of them born while they were living in a tiny room in the north inner city tenement building.

He told the Irish Sunday Mirror: “I was in the centre, six before me and six after me.

“I became the runner for my mother – I would do all the errands to the pawn shops, deal with the money lenders.

“I was about nine or 10 years old I remember doing that. I missed a lot of formal education so I would be on hand.

“Occasionally I went back to school to avoid the courts, but I did end up in the courts eventually for missing school.”

The family started their tenement life in the dark and damp basement but soon after Peter was born they moved up to a “room” in the partitioned hallway.

He recalled: “It was hard times certainly, we had rationing after the war.

“The house was four storeys including the basement, and every room was occupied. They were big rooms in a big Georgian house, and the rooms were partitioned.

“You had some smaller families in bigger rooms – it was a lottery system, whatever room became vacant was what you got.”

The Georgian terraces in Dublin’s north inner city were designed in the 1720s and number 14 was built in 1748.

Its first residents were Lord Viscount Richard Molesworth and Mary Jenny Usher and their two children. The street was home to peers and merchants until it was bought by a landlord in 1877 who removed the stairs and sub-divided the grand rooms to make 19 “flats”.

By 1901, there were 17 families totalling 87 people living there – a number that increased to 100 residents 10 years later according to the 1911 census.

There was no electricity, heating or running water, and Peter counts himself fortunate he was born in the summer rather than the harsh depths of winter.

He explained: “The rest of my family was born in the Rotunda [maternity hospital], I’d say it was the local women who helped to deliver me.

“For all my life I celebrated my birthday on July 18, but in actual fact I recently found out it’s the 19th.

“There were not many babies who survived the winter. There was no heating and the mortality rate for newborns was high.

“There was no sanitation either, we had running water out the back of the building only.”

The four-storey house had just two toilets in the back yard which had to cater for 100 people in the building.

Peter recalls banging on the walls on his way out to scare the rats away.

He revealed: “The toilets were cleaned out twice a week on a Monday and a Friday, that would only last a day before they’d be blocked up again.

“A lot of the women including my own mother would all clean their own patch. The house was reeking of Jeyes Fluid.”

Peter remembers a great sense of community and told how all the families did their communicating on the back stairs rather than yelling on the street.

He said: “We were at the front and if the postman came we would take the post and run up to each of the rooms to deliver it.

“There was Mrs Mooney, Mrs Fitzgerald, Mrs Hannigan… it was a great community in Henrietta Street, that is how we all survived.”

Times were undeniably tough and the family of 13 shared just two beds, sleeping top and tail and using their coats for warmth. Peter added: “We’d no sprung mattresses, they were filled with straw. Once a week you’d collect fresh straw at the stables.

“Circumstances were very poor. There was a convent at the top of the road and the Sisters of Charity used to give us some food.

“You’d go up with a big enamel mug and they might give you a bit of stew, or more usually a dessert like rice pudding or semolina, that kept us going.”

Peter has vivid memories of the day the family moved out in May 1949 bound for a new home three miles up the road in Donneycarney.

He said: “It was a sad day because we were leaving our friends, but exciting because we were moving to a new house.

“My mother had two more children after we moved. She only lived 10 years after the tenements, she was 53 when she died in 1959.

“Dad was a brilliant man, the most brilliant of fathers ever, we were really blessed with the parents we had. We may not have had anything substantial but we had love in abundance. I cherish the memories, I was extremely lucky.”

Decades later Peter has only moved a few more miles out from the city to Whitehall on the capital’s northside.

A plaque in the hallway of 14 Henrietta Street still hangs from the nail it was first put up with by his family seven decades ago.

He is still a regular visitor at the house and has been involved with the museum project from day one.

He said: “It’s telling the whole story of the house from the beginning when it was for the aristocrats, to its decline, finally closing in the 1970s.

“The house has a lot of memories for me, and now it has a new beginning. It’s absolutely wonderful.

“If you go on the tour it’s the interaction between the visitors and the tour guide that really makes it.

“The memories… the more I go into it the more it feels like home to me.”

The project, run by Dublin City Council and named European Museum of the Year in 2020, is ready for a new chapter.

A campaign is being launched to invite people to share their tenement memories with an open day this Tuesday.

It wants to hear from former residents relocated to suburbs including Cabra, Drimnagh, Ballymun Crumlin, Ballyfermot and Finglas.

Peter said: “People need to tell their stories, we’re nearly missing it, letting all these reminisceses go because we’re getting older, but it’s important.

“I hope it will allow other people to come back and tell their tales.”

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Brian Adam
Professional Blogger, V logger, traveler and explorer of new horizons.