The river Liffey divides Dublin into two distinct halves: the south side of the city and the north.
SOUTH OF THE RIVER:
The south side of the city traditionally has been the domain of Dublin’s middle-classes and is – generally speaking – more affluent than its northern counterpart.
Temple Bar Area – In the maze of cobblestone nooks and crooked crannies, between Dame Street and the Liffey, is Dublin’s most upwardly mobile area. In the 1980s, the district was scheduled to be demolished to make way for a vast bus station, but was saved by some last minute planning decisions and became instead the focus of Dublin’s urban regeneration scheme throughout the 1990s. Every turn uncovers more distinctive shops and another trendy arts centre. With music and television recording studios, the excellent Irish Film Centre and other media magnets, this is where Dublin’s cultural heart is to be found. By night visitors (and some Dubliners) gravitate towards Temple Bar and its environs to socialise. Here, above a former Viking settlement, they come to soak up the cafe culture or have a drink in one of the ever-growing number of bars and pubs. The atmosphere in the area has been much improved as a result of the decision to ban stag parties from the area at weekends; you’ll still, however, find the streets and lanes thronged after dark.
Medieval Dublin – The area around Temple Bar flows seamlessly into the historic heart of the city. Dublin Castle is the former seat of British power and home to the Viceroys of Ireland. With its ornate dining hall, crystal chandeliers and ornate State Rooms, the Castle still constitutes a powerful symbol of the British colonial presence … even though today the Castle witnesses the inaugurations of the Presidents of Ireland. Also contained in the large Castle complex are the Crypt Theatre and the marvellous Chester Beatty Library, one of the world’s great treasure-houses of Islamic and Oriental art. On the edge of the Castle lies the recently refurbished City Hall. The great domed atrium of the building – originally founded in the eighteenth century to house the Royal Exchange – is one the city’s most beautiful and impressive spaces. Dublin Castle and the twin medieval cathedrals of St Patrick and Christchurch, are some of the oldest and most significant buildings in Dublin.
Tucked behind St Patrick’s is the exquisite Marsh’s Library, set amid formal gardens and housed in a beautiful Queen Anne mansion. The interior is no less marvellous: the library still features a cage in which scholars were locked whilst consulting the Library’s most treasured possessions. Marsh’s is one of Dublin’s hidden jewels and holds a wide array of manuscripts and first editions, as well as a considerable collection of Turkish, Hebrew and Arabic printings.
Trinity College – Trinity is a famous seat of learning and one of the great universities of Europe. The long list of famous ex-students includes Samuel Beckett, Edmund Burke and Oscar Wilde. Trinity was founded by Elizabeth I in order to save the Irish from ‘popery’ and for centuries remained a bastion of British culture in Ireland. As a result, until the 1970s Catholics could only attend the college with a special dispensation from the Archbishop of Dublin; today, however, they form 70% of the student population. The College unfolds from Front Gate in a series of elegant quadrangles, which in turn give way to College Park, home to cricket matches on langorous summer afternoons. You should make a point of visiting the Berkeley Library in Fellows Square, which is the best example of modernist architecture in the city and the College Chapel in Front Square. Trinity’s greatest treasure, however, is the beautiful illuminated medieval manuscript called the Book of Kells, housed in the great vaulted Long Room – perhaps the finest internal space in Dublin.
Georgian Dublin – The elegant charm of south-east Dublin stands as a testament to Georgian urban design. In amongst the throngs of tourists is the exquisite Merrion Square complete with beautiful central gardens and a wonderfully camp memorial to Oscar Wilde, who lived on the square in his youth. Other alumni of the Square include W.B. Yeats, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and the great Liberator himself, Daniel O’Connell. More recently, the British Embassy occupied the east side of Merrion Square until it was burned to the ground in 1972 in the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry. Nearby Fitzwilliam Square is much smaller and more intimate and is the best preserved of Dublin’s great set-piece Georgian squares.
A few minutes walk west brings one to the lovely open space that is St Stephen’s Green, which undoubtedly forms the centrepiece of eighteenth-century Dublin’s impressive town planning. Many notable buildings surround the Green, including the Royal College of Surgeons, still pockmarked with bullets from the 1916 Easter Rising, and the Shelbourne, Dublin’s original posh hotel and still the best spot for afternoon tea in the city. Newman House, two Georgian townhouses on the south side of the Green which were the original home of University College Dublin, have recently been superbly restored, and today their fantastic internal decorations can be seen in all their splendour. The central gardens of the Green feature a lake and many statues, including tributes to Yeats and Countess Marcievicz. The statue of Wolfe Tone in the south-west corner of the Green was blown up by loyalist terrorist in 1979. Once his head was (luckily) discovered by the Shelbourne hotel, the statue was reconstructed. Grafton Street runs into the north-eastern corner of the Green and is a shopper’s paradise, but in your purchasing frenzy don’t forget the National Gallery, National Museum or Leinster House, home of the Irish parliament (Dail Eireann), which are all of enormous cultural interest.
Liberties – Inherited its name from its days as a toll-free district. Brick Lane and Francis Street boast a glittering array of antique shops and the colourful Mother Redcap’s market.
Kilmainham – The greatest attraction of this western district is undoubtedly Kilmainham Gaol. The leaders of the 1916 Rising were executed here, radicalizing the Irish public and marking the beginning of the end of the British administration in Dublin. The old jail was built according to the Enlightenment principles of panopticism or continual surveillance. It has recently found stardom in its own right, featuring in such films as In the Name of the Father, and includes an excellent museum documenting colonial history and political martyrdom in Ireland. Also in the Kilmainham area is the Irish Museum of Modern Art which was opened in 1991. In only ten years it has become a key Irish cultural institution. IMMA is housed in the former Royal Hospital, constructed in 1684 as a home for retired soldiers and well worth seeing in its own right. The museum also features the beautifully restored chapel and a fine baroque formal garden. Nearby also lies the Guinness Hop Store which pays homage to Ireland’s biggest – and most enjoyed – export.
NORTH OF THE RIVER:
The northern districts of Dublin never really recovered after being abandoned by the professional middle classes, who migrated south of the river or left for London after the Act of Union in 1801. Once home to Europe’s worst city slum, times are changing, but gentrification is still a relatively slow process in comparison to the rate of development in areas south of the Liffey.
O’Connell Street – The main artery of Dublin’s city centre has been sadly neglected in recent years, but now seems due for revival. The grand, broad and tree-lined boulevard has suffered from intrusions from fast-food outlets and more recently a sex-shop, but ambitious plans are now afoot to return to the area its former reputation as Main Street, Ireland. This should not, perhaps, prove too difficult: all of O’Connell Street’s main institutions remain in place: the Gresham Hotel, Clery’s department store, Eason’s bookshop and the Gate Theatre. O’Connell Street is also home to Dublin’s most potent symbol – the General Post Office (GPO). In 1916, the GPO served as headquarters of the Easter Rising, and the proclamation of the Irish Republic was read from its steps. The building still bears the scars of the violence of those few days and retains its radical credentials to this day, remaining the favourite choice of location for any demonstration. Georgian Parnell Square, the Dublin Writers Museum and the fine Hugh Lane Municipal Museum of Art are the other major points of interest in this area. Close at hand, the elegant James Joyce Centre is housed in a fine Georgian townhouse.
North of O’Connell Street, in the Drumcondra area of the city, lies the Botanic Gardens, complete with impressive glasshouses and a riverside walk. Glasnevin Cemetery lies nearby and while a stroll through a graveyard might not seem like everyone’s idea of a jolly afternoon out, this particular cemetery lies close to the heart of Ireland’s national psyche and houses the remains of a multitude of historical and cultural figures: de Valera, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Daniel O’Connell and Michael Collins are just some of the names on the cemetery’s gravestones.
East of O’Connell Street lies Custom House Quay, set on fire by Sinn Fein supporters in the turmoil of 1921. Custom House is the eighteenth-century masterpiece of architect James Gandon and was long considered a powerful symbol of British colonialism. The restoration of the impressive, colonnade-lined structure we now see on the waterfront was finally completed in 1991. While the building now houses government offices, sections of the elegant interior are open to the public. While the Custom House is particularly imposing when illuminated at night, by day it is worth studying for the great statue of Commerce which adorns the tip of the copper dome, and for the representations of the gods of Ireland’s fourteen great rivers. (Worth noting: the only river deemed to be female is the Liffey herself.) Beyond the Custom House, the quays stretch for miles to the Pigeonhouse Fort, now an electricity generating station with candy-striped towers which have become something of a city landmark. The thin and low South Wall breakwater stretches a mile into Dublin Bay, culminating in the Poolbeg Lighthouse: it is probably the best place in Dublin for a bracing, seaside walk.
West of O’Connell Street, the city quays continue to the Four Courts, seat of the Irish justice system. Also designed by James Gandon, it survived damage in both the 1916 Rising before being extensively damaged in the Civil War of 1922. The building houses the High Court and Supreme Court of Ireland and, unfortunately, only the central atrium is open to the public. Behind the Four Courts lies Smithfield Village, once a working-class area of small cottages and a weekly horse market and now the site of Dublin’s most ambitious urban regeneration scheme to date. Many small cafes and restaurants have sprung up here in recent years, alongside Ceol, the museum of Irish music through the ages. The centrepiece of the area, however, is the impressive National Museum at Collins Barracks, opened in 1997 and – in contrast to the original site at Kildare Street – emphasizing Ireland’s recent history. There is also a strong focus on fashion and decorative art.
Phoenix Park is the lungs of the city. Covering 1752 acres, this is the largest city park in Europe and is the location of the recently revamped Dublin Zoo and of Aras an Uachtarain, the official residence of the President of Ireland. The Visitor Centre will help you to get your bearings, and also worth visiting is the Papal Cross, raised as a memorial to the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. Over a million people gathered in the park to hear the Pope utter his immortal line: ‘Young people of Ireland, I love you’.
Dublin’s proximity to the sea has always been one of its greatest assets, and there is much to see along the shoreline of Dublin Bay. The DART public metro, which hugs the coastline for miles, is a good way of orienting yourself.
North of the Liffey estuary, Bull Island is a breezy bird sanctuary and home of one of the city’s most exclusive golf courses, the Royal Dublin. North again, the peninsula of Howth forms the northern arm of Dublin Bay and is fine destination for a day out. Howth village is built around its pretty harbour, and apart from fine restaurants and fish and chip shops, is also the start of magnificent cliff walks to Howth Head and the Bailey Lighthouse. Howth Head and Howth summit afford sweeping views of Dublin and its bay.
South of the Liffey, prosperous suburbs follow the railway to Dun Laoghaire and beyond. The wide sands at Sandymount stretch for miles and the great harbor walls at Dun Laoghaire, one of engineering miracles of the nineteenth century, are a favorite walk for many Dubliners (twenty minutes out and twenty minutes back). A little further out, the pretty village of Dalkey is a classified heritage area and haunt of the rich and famous (U2, Enya, Lisa Stansfield and the rest all hang out in the area) and the sweep of Killiney Bay is compared (frequently and tediously, but truly) with the Bay of Naples.
History of Dublin
“Dubh linn” means “dark pool”, and “Baile Átha Cliath” (still the Gaelic name for the city) translates as the “town of the Hurdle Ford”. The official date for the foundation of the city is 988AD but these two settlements had existed in one form or another for centuries before this date. Eventually, the two fused into one town along the river Liffey, a town which eventually became known as Dublin.
Long before the official foundation of the city, the golden age of Christianity had witnessed the creation of some of the treasures of modern Ireland. The Book of Kells, Book of Durrow and Ardagh Chalice all date from the period after 432 AD, when St Patrick baptized the pagan Irish and Irish monks spread the Word throughout Europe.
Dublin began its long evolution into a city, however, under the Vikings. They found it to be a useful base from which to plunder the surrounding country at will – the Round Towers which are such a characteristic feature of Irish monasteries were built as defensive structures to help defend the inhabitants from bands of godless Vikings – but trade, nevetheless, began to develop with the surrounding country. The Scandinavian settlement was far from politically or militarily secure, however, and they were driven from Dublin more than once before the final Viking defeat. This occurred at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, when the forces of Brian Boru defeated the Scandinavians once and for all. A period of local rule then followed – a period which saw the foundation of Christchurch Cathedral – before the arrival of the English.
Dublin and the English
In 1169, the Normans arrived on the south-east coast of Ireland. They had been invited over by an Irish chieftain, Diarmait Mac Murchada, who wanted some extra muscle in his struggle for power. The Normans were led by one ‘Strongbow’ – otherwise known as Richard de Clare – who owed allegiance to the English King Henry II. Strongbow quickly took Dublin and the Norman occupation began. Against a backdrop of plagues and fires, Dublin continued to grow throughout the middle ages. Catholicism was its spiritual rock, upon which stood two cathedrals: St Patrick’s and Christchurch. The area controlled by the English, however, was very small, consisting of only a few hundred miles around Dublin. This region was known as ‘The Pale’ (hence the term ‘beyond the pale’ of one who is uncivilized or disorderly) and even it was subject to continual attack from without.
The Tudor period
The reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I saw a consolidation of English rule in Ireland: the tentacles of power spread from Dublin across the island and Elizabeth I used the city as a base from which to further her policy of plantation: the settlement of Protestant families on confiscated papist land. Dublin became a centre of Protestant rule; by 1540 all of the monasteries had been dissolved and the churches taken over. In 1592, the grounds of a former monastery became the site of the newly established Trinity College Dublin, founded by Elizabeth as a mean of educating the new ruling class and of curing Ireland of popery. Meanwhile, the fabric of the medieval city decayed: both Dublin Castle and Christchurch were falling into ruin and plague and poverty continued to claim lives. By the end of the sixteenth century, the situation was as woeful as it had ever been in Dublin – the defeat of Irish rebellion leader Hugh O’Neill in 1601 opened the door to the influx of English and Scottish Protestants, and Dublin became little more than a garrison town.
The Seventeenth Century
This was a turbulent period in Ireland: Cromwell landed in the country from England and proceeded to massacre the people of Drogheda and Wexford in 1649 as a means of preventing further uprisings; and the Williamite wars saw the struggle for control of the English throne played out across Ireland, from Derry to Limerick. Eventually, however, Catholic James II was defeated by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. In the subsequent settlement, Catholics were denied the political rights they had been promised. While Dublin itself was little effected by the upheavals across the rest of the country, the process of the anglicization of the city continued, and at the close of the seventeenth century, the city entered its heyday.
The Eighteenth Century
The great terraces and squares of Georgian Dublin date from the city’s eighteenth century golden age of architecture. The period saw the erection or renovation of some of Dublin’s greatest buildings. Dublin Castle was fully restored and the great green bowl of the Phoenix Park was established in the west of the city. Also built at this time were the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, the Long Library of Trinity College, the Royal Exchange (now City Hall), the elegant Marsh’s Library and the Mansion House. Later in the century, the Four Courts and the Custom House were raised on the city quays, and St Stephen’s Green was laid out as a formal park. Sackville Street, now called O’Connell Street, a grand formal boulevard, became the city centrepiece.
It was also a golden age for politics and culture. The Irish parliament (“Grattan’s Parliament”) won increasing measures of self-government and the confidence of Dublin increased, as it became the focus of an extraordinary cultural boom, with theatre and music flourishing across the city.
The Nineteenth Century
This period of power and influence came to an end with the 1798 Rising, when a rebellion in the south, west and north-west and a botched French invasion convinced Westminster that Ireland had been allowed too much independence. The result was the Act of Union of 1801: the Irish parliament voted itself out of existence and England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales were formally politically unified for the first time. Many of Dublin’s movers and shakers left the city for England and Dublin declined into a mere provincial city. In 1841, on the eve of the Great Famine, Daniel O’Connell won Catholic Emancipation, another indication of the decline of the punitive laws against Catholicism.
In the Famine of 1845-1849, Dublin suffered rather less than the rest of Ireland, as it was generally more wealthy (disease-ridden slums notwithstanding). In these years, indeed, the social life of the Anglo-Irish went on as normal and the establishment of the National Museum and National Library was planned on the city’s south side.
Home Rule and the Rising
Under the surface, however, pressures were growing. The city was to become the focal point for the struggle for and against Home Rule. Throughout the nineteenth century, this pressure continued to mount remorselessly until eventually, at the beginning of the First World War, Home Rule was promised, as soon as the war itself should end. This modest promise was swept away by the Easter Rising of 1916, when a small band of rebels paralyzed the city and the Irish Republic was proclaimed from the steps of the GPO. They had little public support – many Irish volunteers had joined the war effort in Belgium and the rebels were perceived to be traitors to the greater cause. The people of Dublin were especially angry, for in the course of quelling the uprising, much of the centre of Dublin was bombarded by British Naval vessels standing out to sea. The execution of the rebels at Kilmainham Gaol, however, swung the tide of public opinion and a process was set in motion which would culminate in the Treaty in 1921. The greater part of Ireland achieved a limited independence as the Irish Free State, but the island was partitioned: six north-eastern counties remained a part of the United Kingdom. The vicious Civil War which followed saw further damage to the fabric of the city, but once civil unrest had ended the city began the long process of restoration.
The Free State
The 1920s saw the gradual rebuilding of a city centre ravaged by the Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Government policy in these years was much more concerned with the theory and practice of nationalism than with building a modern society and areas such as social welfare were severely neglected. The country, under the leadership of Eamon de Valera (the only survivor of the leaders of the Easter Rising) became increasingly isolated and introspective, and upon the outbreak of the Second World War, Ireland declared itself neutral, to the anger of both Britain and the United States. In practice, however, the country was far from neutral, granting (for example) over-fly rights to Allied planes. The morality of this policy of neutrality, however, continues to be questioned to this day: the banning of Jewish refugees from the country is certainly a source of national shame. One consequence of neutrality, however, was that Dublin (unlike Belfast and Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland) escaped the ravages of German bombing. In 1947, the Free State became the Republic of Ireland, and the country left the Commonwealth.
The post-war years saw economic and cultural stagnation; thousands upon thousands of young people abandoned the countryside for Dublin, which began a period of population growth which has never stopped. Even larger numbers left Ireland altogether, with incalculable consequences for the cultural health of the country. The 1960s saw Ireland begin to look towards the outside world, and the changes which swept across western society in these years began to make their presence felt in Ireland also. The widespread civil disorder which began in Northern Ireland in 1968 left its mark on Dublin also: the capital was the target of occasional violent attacks in the 1970s and 1980s: the worst of these, in 1974, saw over thirty shoppers killed in a bomb attack. The perpetrators have never been caught.
In 1973, the Republic joined the Common Market. The effect of this decision can be seen in the fabric of Dublin today: enormous amounts of money have been poured into Ireland in the last thirty years and have resulted in the kick-starting of the Irish economy. Today Ireland is Europe’s fastest-growing economy and Dublin is at the centre of this economic revolution.
In recent years, the political, cultural and social climate of the country has also changed radically. The long-standing corruption of the Irish body politic has been exposed remorselessly by a succession of judicial tribunals throughout the 1990s. At the time of writing, the consequences of these investigation remain to be seen, although it is certain that they will impact significantly upon the established Irish political parties. The election of Mary Robinson to the Presidency of Ireland in 1990 also ushered in a series of social changes to the country – divorce, for example, in now legal in Ireland for the first time; and a raft of liberal legislation has challenged the conservative ethos of the country, already damaged by a series of sex scandals involving the Catholic Church. These social changes have left their mark on Dublin most of all, and there is no doubt that the city has changed radically in the last ten years.
Dublin is one of the world’s great literary cities. Three Nobel laureates – George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett – were born in the city, and James Joyce, the most famous Irishman never to have won the Nobel, was also a Dubliner.
Modern Irish writing, however, begins in Dublin’s eighteenth century heyday. Trinity College produced three of the most prominent writers of the century: dramatist Oliver Goldsmith, philosopher Edmund Burke and satirist Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. Only Swift, however, remained in Dublin: Goldsmith and Burke moved to London as quickly as they could get away, setting a precedent for writers to come!
In the nineteenth century, James Clarence Mangan drank and brawled his way through Dublin, managing to produce some of Ireland’s most distinctive poetry in his spare time; Bram Stoker wrote Dracula and Oscar Wilde spent his youth in the city and studied at Trinity before he joined the flight to England. Shaw was born in the city in 1856 – he left for England too, where he produced Pygmalion, and Joyce (also writing in exile) set Ulysses on a single summer’s day in Dublin – June 16, 1904, a date now celebrated in the city as Bloomsday. Beckett went into exile in Paris but some of Ireland’s leading lights managed to stay: Yeats, for example, remained in the new Irish Republic until his death in 1939, and the post-war years saw the emergence of such writers as Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh.
Today, Irish writing is more popular and vigorous than ever. Such novelists as Colm Toibin (The Heather Blazing), Anne Enright (The Portable Vigin), Roddy Doyle (The Committments), Jennifer Johnston (How Many Miles to Babylon?), Dermot Healy (A Goat’s Song) and Robert McLiam Wilson (Eureka Street) have established international reputations; and they are joined by such important poets as Medbh McGuckian, Eavan Boland, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and Ireland’s fourth Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. Not all of these writers have made their home in Dublin itself, of course, but they figure prominently in the city’s energetic literary scene and their achievements have added to the rich texture of Dublin’s literary life.