Dublin in detail


Until a couple of decades ago, if you'd asked your average Dubliner the key to the city's complex history, they'd most likely give you a version of the past punctuated with '800 years'. This refers to the duration of the English (then British) occupation, the sine qua non of everything that happened to this city. Yet within that narrative is a rich and storied tale of invasion, rebellion and transformation, as Dublin works its way through the various epochs, from Viking to Georgian and beyond.

Early Footprints & Celtic Highways

Stone Age farmers who arrived in Ireland between 10,000 and 8000 BC provided the country's genetic stock and lay the foundations of its agricultural economy. During the following Bronze Age, in addition to discovering and crafting metals to stock the future National Museum, they also found time to refine their farming techniques and raise livestock.

Iron Age warriors from Eastern Europe, who were known as the Celts, arrived in the country around 500 BC and divided Ireland into provinces and numerous districts ruled by chieftains. Roads connecting these provinces converged at a ford over the River Liffey called Átha Cliath (Ford of the Hurdles) – which Ptolemy wrote about in AD 140 as Eblana Civitas – and the town that grew up at this junction during the 9th century was to give Dublin its Irish name, Baile Átha Cliath (Town of the Hurdle Ford).

The Coming of Christianity

St Patrick founded the See of Dublin sometime in the mid-5th century and went about the business of conversion in present-day Wicklow and Malahide, before laying hands on Leoghaire, the King of Ireland, using water from a well next to St Patrick's Cathedral. Or so the story goes. Irrespective of the details, Patrick and his monk buddies were successful because they managed to fuse the strong tradition of druidism and pagan ritual with the new Christian teaching, which created an exciting hybrid known as Celtic, or Insular, Christianity.

Compared to new hotspots like Clonmacnoise in County Offaly and Glendalough in County Wicklow, Dublin was a rural backwater and didn't really figure in the Golden Age, when Irish Christian scholars excelled in the study of Latin and Greek learning and Christian theology. They studied in the monasteries that were, in essence, Europe's most important universities, producing brilliant students, magnificent illuminated books such as the Book of Kells (now housed in Trinity College), ornate jewellery and the many carved stone crosses that dot the island 'of saints and scholars'.

The nature of Christianity in Ireland was one of marked independence from Rome, especially in the areas of monastic rule and penitential practice, which emphasised private confession to a priest followed by penances levied by the priest in reparation – which is the spirit and letter of the practice of confession that exists to this day.

The Vikings

Raids by marauding Vikings had been a fact of Irish life for quite some time, before a group of them decided to take a break from their hell-raising to build a harbour (longphort, in Irish) on the banks of the Liffey in 837. Although a Celtic army forced them out some 65 years later, they returned in 917 with a massive fleet, established a stronghold by the black pool at Wood Quay, just behind Christ Church Cathedral, and dug their heels in. They went back to plundering the countryside but also laid down guidelines on plot sizes and town boundaries for their town of Dyfflin (derived from the Irish for 'black pool', dubh linn), which became the most prominent trading centre in the Viking world.

But their good times came to an end in 1014 when an alliance of Irish clans led by Brian Ború decisively whipped them (and the Irish clans that didn't side with Brian Ború) at the Battle of Clontarf, forever breaking the Scandinavian grip on the eastern seaboard. However, rather than abandoning the place in defeat, the Vikings enjoyed Dublin so much that they decided to stay and integrate.

Strongbow & the Normans

The next wave of invaders came in 1169, when an army of Cambro-Norman knights led by Richard de Clare (better known as Strongbow) landed in Wexford at the urging of Dermot MacMurrough, ousted King of Leinster, who needed help to regain his throne. As a gesture of thanks, MacMurrough made Strongbow his heir and gave him Aoife, his daughter, as a wife. Strongbow and his knights then took Dublin in 1170 and decided to make it their new capital.

Meanwhile, King Henry II of England, concerned that the Normans might set up a rival power base in Ireland, organised his own invading force, and landed his army in 1171 – with the blessing of Pope Adrian IV, who wanted Henry to make Ireland's renegade monks toe the Roman line.

The Normans declared their fealty to the English throne and set about reconstructing and fortifying their new capital. In 1172 construction began on Christ Church Cathedral, and 20 years later work began on St Patrick's Cathedral, a few hundred metres to the south.

Henry II's son, King John, commissioned the construction of Dublin Castle in 1204 'for the custody of our treasure…and…the defence of the city'. As capital of the English 'colony' in Ireland, Dublin expanded. Trade was organised and craft guilds developed, although membership was limited to those of English name and blood.

As Dublin grew bigger so did its problems, and over the next few centuries misery seemed to pile upon mishap. In 1317 Ireland's worst famine of the Middle Ages killed off thousands and reduced some to cannibalism. In 1348 the country was decimated by the Black Death; the devastating recurrence over the following century was an indication of the terrible squalor of medieval Dublin.

In the 15th century the English extended their influence beyond the Pale by throwing their weight behind the dominant Irish lords. The atmosphere was becoming markedly cosier as the Anglo-Norman occupiers began to follow previous invaders by integrating into Irish culture.

The Tudors & the Protestant Ascendancy

Ireland presented a particular challenge to Henry VIII (r 1509–47), in part due to the Anglo-Norman lords' more or less unfettered power over the country, which didn't sit well with Henry's belief in strong monarchical rule. He decreed absolute royal power over Ireland, but the Irish lords weren't going to take it lying down.

In 1534 the most powerful of Leinster's Anglo-Normans, 'Silken' Thomas Fitzgerald, renounced his allegiance to the king, and Henry came at him ferociously: Fitzgerald was executed and all his lands confiscated. Henry ordered the surrender of all lands to the English Crown and, three years later, after his spat with Rome, he dissolved the monasteries and all Church lands passed to the newly constituted Anglican Church. Dublin was declared an Anglican city and relics such as the Bacall Íosa (staff of Jesus) were destroyed.

Elizabeth I (r 1558–1603) came to the throne with the same uncompromising attitude to Ireland as her father. Ulster was the most hostile to her, with the Irish fighting doggedly under the command of Hugh O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, but they too were finally defeated in 1603.

O'Neill's defeat signalled the end of Gaelic Ireland and the renewed colonisation of the country through plantation. Loyal Protestants from England and Scotland were awarded the confiscated rich agricultural lands of Ulster, sowing the bitter seeds of division that blight the province to this day. Unlike previous arrivals, these new colonists kept very much apart from the native Irish, who were left disenfranchised, landless and reduced to a state of near misery.

All the while, Dublin prospered as the bulwark of English domination and became a bastion of Protestantism. A chasm developed between the 'English' city and the 'Irish' countryside, where there was continuing unrest and growing resentment. After winning the English Civil War (1641–51), Oliver Cromwell came to Ireland to personally reassert English control and, while Protestant Dublin was left untouched (save the use of St Patrick's Cathedral as a stable for English horses), his troops were uncompromising in their dealing with rebellion up and down the eastern coast.

Georgian Dublin & the Golden Age

Following the Restoration of 1660 and the coronation of Charles II (r 1660–85), Dublin embarked upon a century of unparalleled development and essentially waved two fingers at the rest of the country, which was being brought to its knees. In 1690 most of Ireland backed the losing side when it took up arms for the Catholic King of England, James II (r 1685–88), who was ultimately defeated by the Protestant William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, not far from Dublin.

William's victory ushered in the punitive Penal Code, which stripped Catholics of most basic rights in a single, sweeping legislative blow. Again, however, the country's misfortune proved the capital's gain as the city was flooded with landless refugees willing to work for a pittance.

With plenty of cash to go around and an eagerness to live in a city that reflected their new-found wealth, the Protestant nobility overhauled Dublin during the reigns of the four Georges (1714–1830). Speculators bought up swathes of land and commissioned substantial projects of urban renewal, including the creation of new streets, the laying out of city parks and the construction of magnificent new buildings and residences.

It was impossible to build in the heart of the medieval city, so the nouveau riche moved north across the river, creating a new Dublin of stately squares surrounded by fine Georgian mansions. The elegantly made-over Dublin became the second city in the British Empire and the fifth largest in Europe.

Dublin's teeming, mostly Catholic, slums soon spread north in pursuit of the rich, who turned back south to grand new homes around Merrion Sq, St Stephen's Green and Fitzwilliam Sq.

Dublin Declines, Catholicism Rises

Constant migration from the countryside into Dublin meant that, by the end of the 18th century, the capital had a Catholic majority, most of whom lived in terrible conditions in ever-worsening slums. Inspired by the Enlightenment and the principles of the French Revolution of 1789, many leading Irish figures (nearly all of whom were Protestant) began to question the quality and legitimacy of British rule.

Rebellion was in the air by the turn of the century, starting with the abortive French invasion at the urging of Dubliner Wolfe Tone (1763–98) and his United Irishmen in 1798. The 'Year of the French' resulted in defeat for the invaders and the death of Tone, but in 1803 the United Irishmen tried again, this time under the leadership of Robert Emmet (1778–1803), which also resulted in failure and Emmet's execution on Thomas St, near the Guinness brewery.

It was only a matter of time before Dublin's bubble burst, and the pin came in the form of the 1801 Act of Union, which dissolved the Irish Parliament (originally established in 1297) and reintroduced direct rule from Westminster. Many of the upper classes fled to London, the dramatic growth that had characterised Dublin in the previous century came to an almost immediate halt, and the city fell into a steady decline.

While Dublin was licking its wounds, a Kerry lawyer called Daniel O'Connell (1775–1847) launched his campaign to recover basic rights for Catholics, achieving much with the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. The 'Liberator', as he came to be known, became the first Catholic lord mayor of Dublin, in 1841.

A Nation's Soup Kitchen

Rural Ireland had become overwhelmingly dependent on the easily grown potato. Blight – a disease that rots tubers – had always been an occasional hazard, but when three successive crops failed between 1845 and 1847, it spelled disaster. The human cost was cataclysmic: up to one million people died from disease and starvation, while more again fled the country for Britain and the United States. The damage was compounded by the British government's adoption of a laissez-faire economic policy, which opposed food aid for famine occurring within the Empire. In Ireland, landowners refused to countenance any forbearance on rents, all the while exporting crops to foreign markets. Defaulters – starving or not – were penalised with incarceration in workhouses or prison.

The British government's uncompromising stance hardened the steel of opposition. The deaths and mass exodus caused by the Great Famine had a profound social and cultural effect on Ireland and left a scar on the Irish psyche that cannot be overestimated. Urban Dublin escaped the worst ravages, but desperate migrants flooded into the city looking for relief – soup kitchens were set up all over the city, including in the bucolic Merrion Sq, where presumably its affluent residents bore direct witness to the tragedy.

The horrors of the Famine and its impact on Dublin’s centre saw the wealthy abandon the city for a new set of salubrious suburbs south of Dublin along the coast, now accessible via Ireland's first railway line, built in 1834 to connect the city to Kingstown (present-day Dun Laoghaire). The flight from the city continued for the next 70 years and many of the fine Georgian residences became slum dwellings. With such squalor came a host of social ills, including alcohol, which had always been a source of solace but now became a chronic problem.

The Blossoming of National Pride

In the second half of the 19th century, Dublin was staunchly divided along sectarian lines and, although Catholics were still partly second-class citizens, a burgeoning Catholic middle class provided the impetus for Ireland's march towards independence.

It was the dashing figure of Protestant landlord Charles Stewart Parnell (1846–91), from County Wicklow, who first harnessed the broad public support for Home Rule. Elected to Westminster in 1875, the 'Uncrowned King of Ireland' campaigned tirelessly for land reform and a Dublin parliament.

He appeared to have an ally in the British prime minister, William Gladstone, who lightened the burden on tenants by passing Land Acts enabling them to buy property. Gladstone was also converted to the cause of Home Rule, for both principled reasons and practical ones: the granting of some form of self-government would at least have the effect of reconciling Irish nationalism to the British state.

In the twilight of the 19th century there was a move to preserve all things Irish. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was set up in 1884 to promote Irish sports, while Douglas Hyde and Eoin McNeill formed the Gaelic League in 1893 to encourage Irish arts and language. The success of the Gaelic League paved the way for the Celtic Revival Movement, spearheaded by WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, who founded the Abbey Theatre in 1904.

The Struggle for Independence

Although Irish culture was thriving at the start of the 20th century, the country's peaceful efforts to free itself from British rule were thwarted at every juncture. Dublin's slums were the worst in Europe, and the emergence of militant trade unionism introduced a socialist agenda to the struggle for self-determination.

In 1905 Arthur Griffith (1871–1922) founded a new political movement called Sinn Féin ('Ourselves Alone'), which sought to achieve Home Rule through passive resistance rather than political lobbying. It urged the Irish to withhold taxes and its MPs to form an Irish government in Dublin.

Meanwhile, trade union leaders Jim Larkin and James Connolly agitated against low wages and corporate greed, culminating in the Dublin Lockout of 1913, where 300 employers 'locked out' 20,000 workers for five months. During this time Connolly established the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) to defend striking workers from the police. Things were heating up.

Home Rule was finally passed by Westminster in 1914, but its provisions were suspended for the duration of WWI. Bowing to pressure from Protestant-dominated Ulster, where 140,000 members of the newly formed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) swore to resist any attempts to weaken British rule in Ireland, the bill also made provisions for the 'temporary' exclusion of the North from the workings of the future Act. How temporary was 'temporary' was anybody's guess – and it was in such political fudging that the seeds of trouble were sown. To counter the potential threat from the UVF, Irish nationalists formed the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF), but a stand-off was avoided when the vast majority of them enlisted in the British Army: if Britain was going to war in defence of small nations, then loyalty to the Allied cause would help Ireland's long-term aspirations.

The Easter Rising

The more radical factions within Sinn Féin, the IVF and the ICA saw Britain's difficulty as Ireland's opportunity, and planned to rise up against the Crown on Easter Sunday, 1916. In typical fashion, the rhetoric of the rebellion outweighed the quality of the planning. When the head of the IVF, Eoin McNeill, got wind of the plans, he published an advertisement in the newspaper cancelling the planned 'manoeuvres'. The leaders rescheduled the revolution for the following day but word never spread beyond the capital, where a motley band of about a thousand rebels assembled and seized strategic buildings. The main garrison was the General Post Office, outside which the poet and school teacher Pádraig Pearse read out the 'Proclamation of the Republic'.

The British Army didn't take the insurgence seriously at first, but after a few soldiers were killed they sent a gunboat down the Liffey to rain shells on the rebels. After six days of fighting the city centre was ravaged and the death toll stood at 300 civilians, 130 British troops (many of whom were Irish) and 60 rebels.

The rebels, prompted by Pearse's fear of further civilian casualties, surrendered and were arrested. Crowds gathered to mock and jeer at them as they were led away. Initially, Dubliners resented them for the damage they had caused with their futile rising, but their attitudes began to change following the executions of the leaders in Kilmainham Gaol. The hostility shown to the rebels turned to outright sympathy and support.

The War of Independence

In the 1918 general election, the more radical Sinn Féin party won three-quarters of the Irish seats. In May 1919 they declared independence and established the first Dáil Éireann (Irish Assembly) in Dublin's Mansion House, led by Éamon de Valera. This was effectively a declaration of war.

Mindful that they could never match the British on the battlefield, Sinn Féin's military wing – made up of Irish Volunteers now renamed the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – began attacking arms dumps and barracks in guerrilla strikes. The British countered by strengthening the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and introducing a tough auxiliary force made up of returning WWI servicemen known as the Black and Tans (after the colour of their uniforms).

They met their match in Michael Collins, the IRA's commander and a master of guerrilla warfare. Although the British knew his name, Collins masterfully concealed his identity and throughout the war was able to freewheel around the city on his bicycle like he didn't have a care in the world.

On 10 November 1920, Collins learned that 14 undercover British intelligence operatives known as the 'Cairo Gang' had just arrived in Dublin. The following morning he had his own crack squad ('the Apostles') assassinate each one of them as they lay in their beds. That afternoon, British troops retaliated by opening fire on the crowd at a hurling match in Croke Park, resulting in the deaths of 10 spectators and one player, Michael Hogan, whose death was later commemorated when the main stand at the stadium was named after him. The events of 'Bloody Sunday' galvanised both sides in the conflict and served to quash any moral doubts over what was becoming an increasingly brutal struggle.

Brutalities notwithstanding, the war resulted in relatively few casualties – 2014 in total – and by mid-1921 had ground to a kind of stalemate. Both sides were under pressure to end it: the international community was urging Britain to resolve the issue one way or another, while, unbeknown to the British, the IRA was on the verge of collapse. A truce was signed on 11 July 1921.

Civil War

The terms of – and the circumstances surrounding – the Treaty that ended the War of Independence make up the single most divisive episode in Irish politics, one that still breeds prejudice, inflames passions and shapes the political landscape in parts of the country.

After months of argument and facing the threat of, in the words of British Prime Minister Lloyd George, an 'immediate and terrible war', the Irish negotiating team, led by Michael Collins, signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921. Instead of establishing the Irish Republic for which the IRA had fought, it created an Irish Free State, effectively a British dominion, in which members of the newly constituted parliament would have to swear allegiance to the British Crown before they could participate in government. The six counties comprising Northern Ireland were given the choice of becoming part of the Free State or remaining in the United Kingdom; they chose the latter, sowing the seeds of discontent that would lead to further rounds of the Troubles in the North. Although Collins was dissatisfied with the deal, he hoped it would be the 'first step' in the journey towards an Irish republic. Nevertheless, he also foresaw trouble and remarked prophetically, 'I've just signed my own death warrant'.

Éamon de Valera vehemently opposed the Treaty and the two erstwhile comrades were pitted against one another into pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty camps. Although the Dáil narrowly ratified the Treaty and the electorate accepted it by a large majority, Ireland slid into civil conflict in June 1922.

Ironically, the Civil War was more brutal than the struggle that preceded it. In 11 months roughly 3000 Irish died – including 77 executed by the state – but the vindictive nature of the fighting left indelible scars that have yet to be fully healed. The assassination of Michael Collins in his home county of Cork on 22 August 1922 rocked the country; 500,000 people (almost one-fifth of the population) attended his funeral. The last few months of fighting were especially ugly, with both sides engaging in tit-for-tat atrocities. On 24 May 1923, de Valera ordered the anti-Treaty forces to drop their arms.

The Irish Republic

Ireland finally entered a phase of peace. Without an armed struggle to pursue – at least not one pursued by the majority – the IRA became a marginalised force in independent Ireland and Sinn Féin fell apart. In 1926 de Valera created a new party, Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny), which has been the dominant force in Irish politics ever since. Over the following decades Fianna Fáil gradually eliminated most of the clauses of the Treaty with which it had disagreed (including the oath of allegiance).

In 1932 a freshly painted Dublin hosted the 31st Eucharistic Congress, which drew visitors from around the world. The Catholic Church began to wield disproportionate control over the affairs of the state; contraception was made illegal in the 1930s and the age of consent was raised from 16 to 17.

In 1936, when the IRA refused to disarm, de Valera had it banned. The following year the Civil War–tainted moniker 'Free State' was dropped in favour of Eire as the country's official name in a rewrite of the constitution.

Despite having done much of the groundwork, Fianna Fáil lost out to its rivals Fine Gael, descendants of the original pro-Treaty Free State government, on declaring the 26 counties a republic in 1949.

The Stroll to Modernisation

Sean Lemass succeeded de Valera as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in 1959 and set about fixing the Irish economy, which he did so effectively that the rate of emigration soon halved. While neighbouring London was swinging in the '60s, Dublin was definitely swaying. Youngsters from rural communities poured into the expanding city and it seemed like the good times were never going to end. But, almost inevitably, the economy slid back into recession.

On the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Nelson's Pillar on O'Connell St was partially blown up by the IRA and crowds cheered as the remainder was removed the following week. Republicanism was still prevalent and a new round of the Troubles were about to flair up in the North.

In 1973 Ireland joined the European Economic Community (EEC), a forerunner to the European Union (EU), and got a significant leg-up from the organisation's coffers over the following decades. But the tides of change were coming once again. Political instability and an international recession did little to help hopes of economic recovery, and by the early '80s emigration was once again a major issue. But Ireland – and Dublin in particular – was growing increasingly liberal, and was straining at the shackles imposed on its social and moral mores by a largely conservative Catholic Church. Politicians too were seen in a new light as stories of corruption and cronyism became increasingly commonplace.

Dublin was hardly touched by the sectarian tensions that would pull Northern Ireland asunder, although 25 people died after three Loyalist car bombs exploded in the city in 1974.

From Celtic Tiger…

In the early 1990s European funds helped kick-start economic growth. Huge sums of money were invested in education and physical infrastructure, while the policy of low corporate tax rates coupled with attractive incentives made Ireland very appealing to high-tech businesses looking for a door into EU markets. In less than a decade Ireland went from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the wealthiest: unemployment fell from 18% to 3.5%, the average industrial wage leapt to the top of the European league, and the dramatic rise in GDP meant that the country laid claim to an economic model of success that was the envy of the entire world. Ireland became synonymous with the term 'Celtic Tiger'.

In Dublin, an impressive programme of construction began with the Irish Financial Services and then expanded down both sides of the Liffey towards Dublin port; the city's population grew dramatically and suburbs were expanded to accommodate the new arrivals from other parts of Ireland and beyond.

…To Rescue Cat

From 2002 the Irish economy was kept buoyant by a gigantic construction boom that was completely out of step with any measure of responsible growth forecasting. The out-of-control international derivatives market flooded Irish banks with cheap money, and they lent it freely.

Then Lehman Bros and the credit crunch happened. The Irish banks nearly went to the wall, but were bailed out at the last minute and, before Ireland could draw breath, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the EU held the chits of the country's mid-term economic future. Ireland found itself yet again confronting the familiar demons of high unemployment and emigration, but a deep-cutting programme of austerity saw the corner turned by the end of 2014.

In Dublin the signs of recovery were evidenced by a renewed spate of construction, including the addition of a city-centre spur line linking two Luas lines and the ongoing construction of the city's tallest building, rising up from Point Sq near the 3 Arena.