Wednesday 22 October 2014

Nellie's Flat

Last weekend was Open House weekend in Dublin.  For anyone who doesn't know, Open House happens in cities all over the world around this time of year and, for one weekend, buildings that are normally closed to the public open their doors.  This year, there was only one building I really wanted to see: the Iveagh Trust Museum Flat in Dublin's Liberties.

The flat is in a building complex owned by the Iveagh Trust, a philanthropic body set up by the Guinness family in the late 19th century to build social housing for the poor of London and Dublin.  I've always been a bit fascinated by these distinctive red brick apartment blocks in one of the oldest parts of the city (sandwiched between the two cathedrals, just up from the old Viking settlement) so when I heard one of the flats had been preserved as a museum, I waited for the opportunity to visit.  Thank you Open House!  

Henry and Anne Molloy moved into Flat 3B in 1915, having previously rented two other flats in the building.  Their daughter Nellie was born in one of those flats in 1907 and lived in 3B from 1915 to her death in 2002.  There's a film on the Iveagh Trust site all about Nellie - and a photograph of her is one of the first things you see when you enter the flat.

When Nellie died, her family agreed with the Trustees that the flat should be preserved as a museum - a reminder of how these flats looked and how people lived here in the past.  

The flat has three rooms: a general living room and two bedrooms.  The original design provided for four flats accessed from the same landing to share two toilets and a big sink.  Although other flats in the complex have been modernised over the years, Nellie resisted offers to add a bathroom or a proper kitchen.  When you look at these photos, please consider: at one time there were EIGHT people living here.  Six children sharing one bedroom, their parents the other, with the third room serving as living room, dining room, kitchen.  And this would have been considered a pretty good standard of living at the time.  

No space in the living room is unused.  In a space about 9m2 there is a range set into the fireplace, a kind of pantry/cupboard in the corner,

a long leather sofa, a table with four chairs, two easy chairs, another folding table, a sideboard and sundry photos, holy pictures, ornaments.

Oh, and a piano.  Did I mention the piano?

One of the bedrooms has space for two twin beds, some hooks and a chest of drawers.  The second now only has one brass bed, but this is where, once upon a time, the six children would have slept.  You can still see a curtain rail running across the ceiling - a curtain was used to divide the boys' side of the room from the girls' side.

Tucked behind the door was a small, slightly more modern, stove.

The washing facilities:

What struck me most about the flat was not the size (although it's hard to imagine how it worked when everyone was at home - squeezing past the piano, taking it in shifts to eat meals ...), nor the decor (though you have never seen such a range and variety of holy pictures and memorabilia) but the  quality of light which gilded everything like in a Dutch Golden Age painting.  While I'm sure the atmosphere in the flat wasn't always as serene and lovely as it was last Saturday afternoon, I think I can understand why Nellie might have wanted to keep it as it was - a kind of illuminated shrine to her family.

Visiting the flat can be arranged by appointment, by contacting the Iveagh Trust.

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