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Last Thursday afternoon, Michael Casey opened the door to 26 Fishamble Street, dressed neatly in a tweed suit and tie.
Lining the steep staircase into the house were rust-eaten rifles, photographs, muskets, busts, sculptures and books, books, books. “This is the nonsense I have to sort out. Books on every damn step,” he says.
Members of the same family have lived in this iconic building in Temple Bar, or earlier incarnations of it, since the 1600s, when it was built. Inside, they’ve kept track of their own story, and kept many of their belongings.
“The house remains in exactly the same family,” says Casey, whose son lives here now. Casey also lives here most of the time, he says, when he’s not at home on Henrietta Street.
The windows look out at the Civic Offices on Wood Quay, and don’t seem to offer much protection against the elements, but the countless artefacts, paintings and books don’t seem affected by the cold air. A bust of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty sits in the corner.
Pallas, Holmes, Casey
“The house was rebuilt in 1721, and the outer shell today was built in the 1850s by my great-great-grandfather,” says Casey. He gestures to a portrait of “this gentleman over the chimneypiece”. The image is of a young man with a stern face, dark hair and a small patch of beard.
This is Thomas Holmes. Holmes, says Casey, married the owner of the house, Elizabeth Pallas, who was one of the original Pallas family who lived there in the 1600s.
“Their children were Holmes, and a daughter inherited. She married a Finlay; their daughters inherited. One of them married a Casey,” says Casey.
In the 18th century, the family were merchants. There is some continuity to that. The first Pallas family here were gold and silver merchants in the 1600s.
“The family’s connections remain more or less intact, from generation to generation. If each generation is sufficiently interested to listen, record it,” he says.
“When you own a house like this, it’s relatively easy to keep track of who went through it,” says Casey. “And because it’s probably larger than average, all of the traces of previous generations remain in it.”
Pinned to the wall are pale dried flowers that were presented to his grandmother on her ninetieth birthday. From beside the fireplace, he produces the whip his great-great grandfather was carrying when he had a fatal horse-riding accident.
The nostalgia of items now found in antique or junkshops was a permanent feature of Casey’s childhood, he says. Some of the reason these things remain is simple accumulation.
“[We] put together a modest library, which is now thrown all over the house, which I’m in the process of sorting,” Casey says.
His family’s interest in the past is less to do with mummifying it, and more rooted in an interest in what came before, he says.
History is taught in certain ways and recorded mainly in textbooks, says Casey. But when you hear about people’s lives, houses, entertaining tales of what happened to them, “you instantly get a new reference to something that’s going on in history”, he says.
His father and uncle, he says, were “particularly conscious of when their own ancestors were born”. They could tie dates and events in history to events in their family’s own story.
“You begin to see both the general history […] of the city as it developed, against what your own ancestors did or didn’t do,” he says.
Casey grew up in relative isolation from others his age, he says. It was only at school that he realised not everybody lives like this.
“My memories of 60 years ago seem to be one blissful summer’s evening,” he says. “The sense that this house gave was one of immense stability and importance.”
As a child, Casey never understood his great-grandmother’s relationship to the house. He puzzled over why she had inherited it, when she was apparently American.
He found out later that she was born and raised on Fishamble Street. But she then moved to Brooklyn, where she launched her own business and attended the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, before returning to Ireland.
“It was an odd thing for the Irish to come home in the 1880s,” says Casey. Beside the fireplace, he points to a small glass frame, inside which are her “steamer” tickets to New York and back.
The City Walls
Below the staircase by the front door is a narrow passage to another part of the house. It is stacked with more books. A door to the right opens into a large room where most of the “library” now lives, and some theatre props from years gone by.
Casey lifts up a pair of boots. They’re his father’s army boots, he says, the kind of objects some people would throw away as time passed. But here they are part of the “household archaeology”, which will be labelled and kept, he says.
As he retraces his steps, Casey pulls aside a pram from a corner in the dimly lit hallway. A half-hidden doorway opens onto a sheer-drop of a staircase, releasing the must of ages. This is the oldest part of the house.
The rooms below the ground floor are dark and damp. A room to the right of the stairs is paved with the original stone of the first building to stand here, in the 1500s, before the house. A fine fur of white mould skirts the floor’s edges, like dry ice.
The door-facing wall is part of the medieval city walls from about 1225, says Casey, running a hand along the stone.
“It was reconstructed in 1721, on top of an early 17th century house, built about 1610, 1620, on top of the city walls. So the black stone that was in the side wall of the house is all part of the city walls. Rather than go look for stone elsewhere, they just quarried it off the city walls,” he says.
Accident, more than anything else, has kept this house in continuous ownership for so long, says Casey. “My own first cousins are riveted by the fact that my own great-great-grandmother, and a group of very strong-willed women controlled things here.”
“For one’s great-great-grandmother to instruct her own daughter to dispose of a business in North America and come home, was the exact opposite to what would have happened in most other places in Ireland.”
What the future for the household will bring is always uncertain. “From my point of view, and I hope, from subsequent generations’ point of view it would retain that,” he says. “It’s sort of precious. And if you can impart that sense of preciousness to another generation, you’ve succeeded in maintaining it, at least for that long.”