Dublin is overflowing with medieval gems from the Book of Kells, one of the most beautiful manuscripts in the world, to Dublin Castle and the fine cathedrals of Christchurch and St. Patrick’s. The city is steeped in cultural significance and hosts some of Ireland’s finest national treasures. Dublin’s medieval streetscape is faithfully preserved around Temple Bar, where it provides the backdrop to a vibrant cultural quarter. Other relics of this time can be found in telling street names such as Winetavern and Fishamble Street around Christchurch Cathedral. Stretches of the City’s walls can still be found in Wood Quay and at St Audoen’s Arch.
A not so brief history of Dublin
The first known settlement was Áth Cliath, which took its name from a major ford across the tidal River Liffey. At around the sixth century a monastery Duiblinn (blackpool) was founded due south of the tidal pool in the River Poddle, a tributary of the Liffey on the south bank. Later on, the bay and the pool attracted the Vikings who came from both Norway and Denmark. Having settled nearby they corrupted the Gaelic name into Dyflinn. In the course of the tenth century a recognisable town developed at the meeting of the Liffey and Poddle.
Functioning as a wealthy emporium and slave centre for the Viking World it was ruled for a period in the 10th century by the Scandinavian ruling dynasty of York. By the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1170 the town had a street pattern, defensive walls and suburban development outside the walls and on the northern bank of the Liffey, a cathedral, parish churches and monastic houses. Dublin became the capital of the English Lordship of Ireland from 1171 onwards and was populated extensively with settlers from England and Wales. In the early 13th century the archbishop of Dublin began the building of Dublin Castle. A hundred years later in 1317 the city was in danger of imminent attack by a massive army lead by Scotsman Edward the Bruce and his brother King Robert, causing the mayor to order the suburbs to be burned as a drastic siege precaution. In 1348 the Black Death was carried to Dublin by trading ships reducing the population by a half by 1400. With Dublin weakened opportunities arose for local Irish kings, notably Art McMurrough to take advantage. This caused Richard II to visit in 1394 and make the Irish kings swear allegiance in Christ Church Cathedral.
A hundred years later in 1487 Henry VII was on the English throne, despite having no legitimate claim. His enemies saw their chance in a ten year old boy, Lambert Simnel, who was taken to Christ Church and crowned Edward VI of England then paraded around the town. The plot ended in failure when Lambert was taken to England, captured and forced to serve at table by his rival Henry VII. In 1534 Lord Thomas Fitzgerald, known as Silken Thomas, heard false news that his father had been executed by King Henry VIII. He raised an army and marched on Dublin storming the Chapter House of St. Mary’s Abbey where the king’s council were having a secret meeting. He slammed down the great sword of state on to the table and declared himself a sworn enemy of the king. After besieging the castle and gate he was defeated and executed for treachery.
The early 16th century was a turbulent time and Henry VIII’s split with the church brought more trouble to Dublin. He plundered and broke up the religious institutions that remained loyal to the Pope, ordering relics to be burnt in the streets. The closure of the monasteries brought about a revolution in landholding in the city, including the adaptation of All Saints into Trinity College, Ireland’s first university.
Dublin and its inhabitants were transformed by the upheavals of the 16th and 17th centuries. While the English community of Dublin and the Pale were happy with the conquest and disarmament of the Irish, they were deeply alienated by the Protestant reformation that had taken place in England, being almost all Roman Catholic. By the end of the seventeenth century, Dublin was the capital of the Kingdom of Ireland, ruled by the Protestant New English minority.
In 1663 a decision was made by the City Assembly to develop Saint Stephen’s Green, which “added nothing at all to pleasure or profit” and in 1664 96 freehold plots were let for development. Not only did the City Council determine the size of the building plots, they also prescribed the building materials used, and the rental yield. Its development was piecemeal and took many decades to complete. Oxmantown was a comparable municipal suburban development to the northwest of the city, but it failed to take off in the same way as Stephen’s Green. Similar municipal developments of the following decades include the reclamation projects and subsequent laying out of the North and South Lotts.
A substantial development beyond the city walls began with Francis Aungier, Lord Longford, who between 1669 and 1685 started to develop the Aungier Estate, located between Dublin Castle and Stephen’s Green. He laid out his estate with wide and regular streets and capitalised on a demand for large houses during the Renaissance, offering substantial sites on which to build. Many of these large 17th century houses survive today on Aungier Street.
In 1661 James Butler Duke of Ormond was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland by Charles I. He was one of the most important and influential figures in the last quarter of the 17th century in Dublin. The most important legacies of the late 17th century associated with him include the Phoenix Park (from 1662), the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham (1680), as well as Ormond Quay and Capel Street.
The Williamite victory at the Battle of the Boyle in 1690 set in motion measures to exert more control over the Catholic majority in Ireland. These culminated with the oppressive Penal Laws, which were implemented vigorously during the Georgian Period. For the city, the 18th century was more peaceful and prosperous than at any time in its previous history. The Protestant Ascendancy was thriving, and the city expanded rapidly from the 17th century onward. By 1700, the population had surpassed 60,000, making it the second largest city, after London, in the British Empire.
William Conolly, Speaker of the House of Commons from 1715-1729 made his fortune following the confiscation of lands after the Williamite Wars in Ireland. From the early 18th century his influence in Dublin was very significant. He promoted the construction of the first Customs House and the building of the Parliament House.
Ultimately the development of 18th century Dublin is shaped by the development of its urban estates. At the beginning of the 18th century building activity was concentrated north of the Liffey on the Jervis estate and the Dawson Estate to the southeast of the city. From the 1720s Luke Gardiner advanced the development of north Georgian Dublin, eclipsing contemporary developments on the south side. He began with Henrietta Street, laid out in 1729, and went on to develop eastwards with Sackville Street, Gardiners Mall, and Summerhill counting among his achievements. The construction of Leinster House in 1745 led on to the development of the Merrion Square and the Pembroke Estate, effectively South Georgian Dublin.
The 1800 Act of Union which created the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is considered by many to have had an enormous impact on Dublin and been the cause behind its decline. Its Golden Age was over. The loss of the parliament in Dublin meant that much of the Ireland’s governing class, the aristocracy and gentry left for London or travelled back to their Irish estates. Dublin slowly became more distinctly middle class and mercantile. Its Parliament House was sold to the Bank of Ireland (who remains there to this day). Dublin continued to develop, but more slowly and less dramatically than before. Smaller houses, still adhering to the Georgian tradition were constructed, this time for merchants, doctors, lawyers and bankers.
The striking loss of confidence in the city can be seen in the development of suburban Dublin around along the southeast coast from Sandymount to Killiney and inland to Ranelagh and Rathmines. The glorious Victorian suburbs emerged as the places to live. The city centre became the place where business was done, but where the destitute lived. Dublin’s tenement era had begun and this was nowhere more acute than in the north Georgian city.
The politics dominating the Ireland of the 19th century are characterised by constitutional, social and revolutionary struggle. The campaign to repeal the Act of Union and restore self-government had Daniel O’Connell as its leading protagonist. Later in the century the Home Rule movement under Charles Stewart Parnell, eventually led to the culmination of modern Irish political history, the struggle for independence, which played itself out dramatically on the streets of Dublin. The 1916 Rising, the Irish War of Independence (1919), the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922 and the Civil War the following year all left their mark on the city. The destroyed areas were rebuilt and Dublin became a capital once again.
For further information on the city’s history contact:
Charles Duggan, Heritage Officer, Dublin City Council
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