As she reached the ground floor, ten-year-old May Malone looked back up the stairwell to see her mother still holding the burning piece of paper at the top of the house. An orange glow flickered through the shadows, briefly illuminating the crumbling wallpaper and the chipped cornices. And then the flame went out and the house was darkness again. There was still plenty of noise, as you would expect from a house with over eighty residents. May opened the front door and walked out onto Henrietta Street.
May, the eldest of ten children, was born in 1945 and spent the first decade of her life growing up in a single room on the top floor of a decrepit four-storey townhouse, No. 7 Henrietta Street. She shared this one small room with her parents, her grandmother, her uncle and four of her younger siblings.
May is unsure when the Malones first moved into No. 7 but it was probably in the wake of the Great Famine. By the time of the 1911 census, nineteen families were living in No. 7, comprising 104 men, women and children. And at least sixteen of those families were still living there when May’s father Michael Malone was born at the top of the house in 1922.
May never knew her grandfather but she was well acquainted with her devoutly Catholic grandmother Katie Malone who operated as midwife on the street during the 1920s and 1930s. All three of Katie’s sons started work before they were teenagers – Peter as a carpenter, Stephen as a butcher and Michael as a general labourer down in Dublin’s Docklands.
In 1943, young Michael went to a dance and met Cathleen McCabe, a butchers daughter from Viking Road. After their marriage, Cathleen moved into her husband’s home, a solitary room at the top of No. 7 that he shared with his mother and brother Peter.
By 1955 there would be nine Malones living in the same room, five of whom were children. And when uncle Stephen came to stay with his wife and daughter every Christmas, as he insisted on doing, that upped the number to twelve.
‘There was a partition in the room to make it into two rooms,’ recalls May. ‘In one part there was a range cooker where we lit the fire. And there was a double-bed where my mother and father slept, a dresser with all the plates on it, a table and a couple of chairs. Most of us sat on a side of the bed when we ate’.
‘You could see over the partition into the smaller room where there was a bed for my uncle and a bed for my grandmother. I slept at the bottom of my grandmothers’ bed and my sister slept at the top end.’
Running water was limited. ‘The sink and the toilet were appalling. They were out on the landing and we had to share them with the other three families living on our floor. The water came from the bottom up and if people down below were using the water, we’d shout down, “Turn off the water downstairs please”.’
‘We never had a dog or a cat or we might have eaten it,’ she chuckles. ‘But mostly we ate very simple food like stew and coddle. On Sundays we’d always eat cabbage, and maybe roast beef. My mother’s brother was a butcher on Moore Street so we were sent down to him every Saturday evening.’
From the Malone’s room to the street involved eight flights of steps, six narrow zig-zag backstairs, followed by two rather more formal sweeping staircases down which the upper classes had strolled 150 years earlier.
In the darkness of tenement night, with no lighting in the house, the residents crept carefully up and down the steps, keeping close to the wall, with perhaps a burning wax candle or a lighted piece of paper from above to guide them. Sometimes they’d have to step over a sleeping drunkard who’d been locked out of a nearby hostel – ‘the spunkers, we used to call them’.
‘The street was all gas lamps at that time,’ says she with Dickensian delight. ‘I remember the lamplighter would light them all up whenever there was a big ball up at the King’s Inn for the barristers. We’d watch all the carriages going by, lit up by the lamps’.
But her mother was never happy in Henrietta Street. When she returned home from the Rotunda Hospital with baby May in her arms, Cathleen was appalled to find there wasn’t even a crust of bread in the house. She vowed to get her family out.
‘My mother was a small woman but she was very strong,’ explains May. ‘She liked things to be clean and ordered. She’d wash the floor every Saturday night to make sure it was clean for Sunday. But she went into a place that was like the pits and she built it up and got things going. She got the new cooker in. She got the new wardrobes, the new bed. And when I was six or seven, she was the one who had electricity put in.’
Kathleen’s main motivation for installing electricity was so that the family could listen to music on the radio. ‘Music was a big part of our lives’, says May. ‘There was a lot of emigration back then and people were always coming home for visits so we had plenty of hoolies and singsongs. I remember a big party down in one of the basements which my Dad took me to when I was about eight. It was great fun although when I think back on it, there was an awful lot of alcohol.’
The sorrow and hardship of inner-city life was always present in the tenements. During the first decades of the 20th century, huge numbers perished from cholera, typhoid, influenza and tuberculosis, including one of May’s uncles.
Alcoholism was also rife. ‘My uncle Peter was a wonderful man. My father was illiterate but Peter taught me how to read. He was in the British Army in the Second World War and was injured. He got a big pension which he spent on drink. He was always in and out of the hospital in Leopardstown and whenever he came home there’d be a big hoolie and he’d go down to Paddy Reilly’s pub on the corner – it’s the King’s Inn nowadays – and I’d be sent to tell him dinner was ready. Of course he’d have had too much to drink already and he’d be saying, “Now don’t you be putting me out of the pub” and all that.’
Nonetheless, May’s childhood recollections are happy ones. She tended to socialize with adults rather than children, although her best friend was a girl from No. 12 on the opposite side of the Street. The girls would entertain themselves by skipping, playing hopscotch and smacking tennis balls off walls, or playing round upon round of ‘Queenie-I-O’ on the green grass of the nearby Law Library. (‘I play that game with my grandchildren and they love it’.)
Turtle Bunbury is a best-selling author, historian and TV presenter http://www.turtlebunbury.com/