Feb 18, 2012

Guest Post: House 29

House 29: A Beautiful Museum by Jamie Chavez

It’s a source of endless fascination to me that the electric company in Ireland (the ESB, or Electricity Supply Board) is so dedicated to Irish history.

In this post, I told you about the ESB’s massive Archives department; in this one I told you about their special dam, Ardnacrusha, down near Limerick. Now I want to tell you about the lovely House 29.

 “Number Twenty Nine, Fitzwilliam Street Lower,” the official guidebook says, “was first occupied in 1794, during a time of great change in Ireland’s capital … On the surface at least, Dublin in the 1790s was booming. A relative peace had reigned since the late 1600s and the population grew from approximately 60,000 at that time to nearly 180,000 a century later. Ireland had its own Parliament that sat in College Green in Dublin. The capital was being rebuilt in a modern style.”
The beautiful College Green Dublin, here is the Bank of Ireland building, which was the former Parliament building! Enjoy the history, present and the future!:)
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/uggboy/

And, as previously discussed, the prevailing style of architecture was Georgian. Upscale homes were laid out on four sides of a central square, or fenced park; only homeowners had keys to the gate. Many of those townhomes still exist. Some are still homes. Some—because they are in the heart of Dublin—have been converted for other uses.
Merrion Square is a Georgian square  near Dublin city centre.
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/uggboy/
The ESB, in fact, owned a whole block of these houses on Fitzwilliam Street Lower, in which resided their offices. They’d taken over the rooms one by one; it was a veritable rabbit warren of offices.

By the 1960s, more than twenty townhouses on the street, a continuation of the east side of the square, were set to be destroyed to make way for a brand-new headquarters for the ESB. The resulting public outcry caused the company to join with the National Museum of Ireland; if the ESB could build a new building on most of the block, they’d keep one home intact.

Thus House 29 (and, technically, number 30 as well: it’s the entrance and gift shop) was reborn in the late 1980s as a showpiece Georgian home, remodeled to look just as it did when its first owner, Mrs. Olivia Beatty, the widow of a prominent Dublin wine merchant and mother of seven, moved in. She was just thirty-three years old at the time. (You can read more of her history here.)

They were expecting us at the House: the Irishman’s colleague, curator of the museum, bustled out and greeted us warmly. Then we sat down with an English couple who’d arrived just before us and watched the introductory film; afterward we were whisked off on the tour, just ahead of a boisterous group of school kids. As we began, we were joined by another Englishwoman, and these three Brits kept our guide on his toes, getting answers to questions that further illuminated the tour. Veddy English, right down to the sensible shoes. :-) (Cindy's note: an Irish friend of mine told me he could always spot the American tourists by their big, stark white athletic shoes!)

 And this was fascinating stuff! I learned, for example, the origins of the phrase counting the silver: in those days, the silver (huge platters, serving dishes, teapots, utensils, and so forth) would have been displayed right in the dining room in a locked cabinet. After dinner, when the family and their guests had moved on to other activities, the silver was washed right in the room, counted, and locked back up!

The housekeeper kept these and other keys on a belt around her waist—everything was kept under lock and key. The lady of the house herself, however, would have kept a particularly special key—to the box of tea leaves—on a chain around her neck, as tea was very, very expensive. (Hence the outrageousness of a certain group of upstart colonials dumping an entire shipload of the stuff into Boston Harbor right around this time.)
And did you know that the real reason the ladies withdrew from the dining room—ostensibly so the men could have their after-dinner port and cigars—was so that the men could (ahem) make use of their after-dinner chamber pots (also kept right in the dining room)? Enquiring minds want to know!

Having seen the House many times, the Irishman lingered in the tearoom with a pot of tea and a plate of cookies while I took the tour. At the end, I joined him there and was brought tea brack (here’s a recipe), a traditional Irish cake. Teabrack is similar to what we’d call fruitcake, the difference being that the fruit—currants, in this case—is soaked overnight in tea before being baked into a loaf-type cake. Yum.

Irish fruit brack
Photo by
Ben Ostrowsky 

 When next you visit Dublin, I’d highly recommend a tour of House 29. The ESB has a very thorough website, so you can read more about it here.

JamieChavez is an editor, writer, and blogger. This article reprinted by permission, © 2012.

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