Lockout look-in: tenement life, up close and personal
An interactive show to mark the 1913 Lockout is taking place in what was once a grand house but later became a tenement
Actors Lloyd Cooney, Eric O’Brien, Bairdre Ní Aodha and Laura Murray in a tenement house in Henrietta Street, Dublin’s inner city. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Mothers at the entrance to a tenement building in Dublin, circa 1945. Photograph: Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty
In 1813, in a room on the ground floor at No 14 Henrietta Street, a maid is polishing the silver of Charles Viscount Dillon, an agent of the British government, who has a base in Dublin, as well as in London and Roscommon. She squints in the gas light, which throws shadows on walls lined with ornate wallpaper and topped with plaster friezes.
A century later, an Irish mother is minding her children in the same room, which has now shrunk, thanks to the partitions erected to give her a bit of privacy from the family of 13 who live on the other side of the makeshift wall. The walls are bare plaster, painted blue with copper sulphate to disinfect them; disease spreads rapidly in such crowded quarters.
The grand four-storey over-basement Georgian building is now home to as many as 17 families and an astonishing 103 people. The mansion is now a tenement.
In 2013, No 14 Henrietta Street has been given new life as a tourist attraction: an opportunity to experience tenement life in all its intimate squalor.
A partnership between the Irish Heritage Trust, Dublin City Council and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Living the Lockout: The Dublin Tenement Experience has been created by site-specific theatrical stalwarts Anu Productions as part of the centenary celebrations of the 1913 Lockout.
Louise Lowe and her collaborators had already been interested in the landmark industrial strike when they responded to a call to tender for “interpretation services” at the preserved tenement.
“We didn’t really know what ‘interpretation services’ were,” Lowe recalls, “but we did some research and thought that it was something that we could have a go at.”
The result is an incredible, emotional and visceral glimpse into the life of two families during the 1913 Lockout.
Family life, 1913
In the tradition of Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, it brings us political events through a domestic lens: two brothers on either side of Jim Larkin’s call for action, and a mother forced to sell the last piece of furniture in the barren room she occupies with her children.
From the rest of the house, we hear the soundtrack of death and disease, a premonition of the future and an ever-present awareness of the residents’ precarious mortality.
When Anu won the tender and took up residence at No 14, Lowe saw it as a perfect opportunity “to do the kind of immersive historical research” that has informed all of the company’s work.
Its trilogy of performances set around the Foley Street area of Dublin’s north inner city was inspired by oral testimony and interaction with the community. Lowe took a similarly inclusive approach to creating an event for the Henrietta Street building.
She is the most democratic of directors, and the actors played a key role in researching the history of the house, the area and the lockout. This produced personal, first-hand evidence from the actors.
Lowe herself had a personal connection with Henrietta Street: her mother had grown up in the house opposite No 14 and offered personal memories of life on the street, as well as photographs, which added to the visual records that Anu Productions were collecting.
Laura Murray, meanwhile, drew on her own grandmother’s letters to create her character of a mother torn between love and necessity.
Where the production process differed for Lowe and her team, however, was that they were “creating work for a very specific set of stakeholders”. Anu usually creates work with only an audience in mind, for Living the Lockout, the brief was “cultural tourism” rather than artistic expression.