A casual walk around the city centre doesn’t reveal much of Dublin’s history from before the middle of the 18th century. Besides the city’s modern Irish name, Baile Átha Claith, meaning ‘Town of the Hurdle Ford’ – in reference to the original Celtic settlement on the Liffey’s northern bank – there is absolutely no visible evidence that the Iron Age Celts ever arrived here. But they did, around 700 BC.
Even the three 12th-century behemoths of the Norman occupation – Dublin Castle, Christchurch Cathedral and St Patrick’s Cathedral – which ushered in 800 years of British rule, owe more to Victorian home improvements than they do their original fittings. The story behind the famous well by the side of St Patrick’s, where the saint is said to have baptised the heathen Irish into Christianity in the 5th century, is nothing more than a tale told to visitors.
To get a tangible sense of Dublin’s history, fast-forward through the occupation, past the outbreaks of plague and the introduction of the Penal Laws prohibiting Catholics from owning or being much of anything, until the middle of the 18th century. It was then that the Protestant gentry decided that the squalid medieval burg they lived in wasn’t quite the gleaming metropolis they deserved, and set about redesigning the whole place to create Georgian Dublin.
Scarcely had the scaffolding come down on the refurbishments, however, when the Act of Union in 1801 caused Dublin to lose its ‘second city of the Empire’ appeal and descend into a kind of ghost-town squalor.
Disaster & Independence
While Dublin escaped the worst effects of the Potato Famine (1845–51) when the staple crop was blighted by disease leading to the death of at least one million people, the forced emigration of another million or so and the general collapse of Irish rural society, Dublin’s streets and squares became flooded with starving rural refugees. The British government’s refusal to really address the gravity of the situation fuelled rebellious instincts; while the 19th century is littered with glorious but vain attempts to strike a blow at British power, after the Famine it was only a matter of time. Following another ill-planned revolt at Easter 1916 – which laid waste to much of the city centre and resulted in the leaders’ execution in the grounds of Kilmainham Gaol – the tide turned firmly in favour of full-blown independence, which was achieved after a war of sorts lasting from 1920 to 1921.
From Free State to Celtic Tiger
The partition of Ireland that followed the War of Independence wasn’t to everyone’s liking, so a civil war quickly ensued – more bloody and savage than the war against British rule. Thereafter, Ireland settled cautiously into its new-found freedom; conservative and Catholic, it moved carefully through the 20th century until the 1960s, when the first winds of liberal thinking began to blow. Universal free secondary education was introduced and the Republic joined the European Economic Community in 1973.
Dublin’s economic climate changed dramatically in the 1990s as interest rates tumbled, business burgeoned and (mostly US) foreign investment injected capital and led to hugely reduced unemployment. The now legendary Celtic Tiger economy continued unabated for 10 years.
And then it all went belly up: the global financial crisis of 2008, coupled with the puncture of the grossly over-extended construction bubble, led to the highest unemployment rate for a quarter century, the collapse and bailout of banks and the steady disappearance of many a foreign company, tempted by cheaper markets and lower wage costs in Eastern Europe and Asia.