Although the earliest evidence of a settlement beside the Liffey is on Ptolemy’s celebrated world map of 140 AD, which shows a place called Eblana on the site of modern Dublin, it is as a Viking settlement that Dublin’s history really begins. The Norse raiders sailed up the Liffey and, destroying a small Celtic township, set up a trading post on the south bank of the river at the ford where the royal road from the Hill of Tara in the north crossed the Liffey on its way to Wicklow. The Vikings adopted the Irish name, Dubh Linn (“dark pool”), for their settlement, which soon amalgamated with another Celtic settlement, Baile Átha Cliath (still the Irish name for Dublin), on the north bank.
The next wave of invaders were the Anglo-Normans. In the twelfth century the beleaguered King of Leinster Dermot McMurrough requested help from Henry II to regain his throne lost in a power-struggle with the High King Rory O’Connor. In return for an oath of fealty, Henry dispatched the opportunistic Strongbow and a band of Welsh knights, who conquered Dublin, but, fearing they would become too powerful, Henry fixed a court there. The city was thereby established as the center of British influence in Ireland and was the setting for the annual social and political gathering, known as the Seasons, which was to shape Dublin’s role and character for the next seven centuries.
Because most of the early city was built of wood, only the two cathedrals, part of Dublin Castle, and one or two churches have survived from before the seventeenth century. What you see today, in both plan and buildings, dates essentially from the Georgian period. By this time, soldiers in the service of the English monarchs, who had been rewarded with confiscated land, had begun to derive income from their new estates. As they began to replace their original fortified houses with something more fashionable, they wished also to participate in the country’s burgeoning economic and political life, which was centered on Dublin. Their town houses (along with those of the growing business and professional classes), and the grandeur of the public buildings erected during this period, embodied the new confidence of the British ruling class. However, this was a group that was starting to regard itself not as British, but as Irish.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, the wealth of this Anglo-Irish class was reflected in a rich cultural life; Handel’s Messiah, for instance, was first performed in Ireland, while much of the architecture, furniture and silverware associated with the city dates from this period. Growing political freedom was to culminate in the parliament of 1782 in which Henry Grattan made a famous Declaration of Rights, modeled on the recent American example, which came very close to declaring Irish (by which he meant Protestant Anglo-Irish) Independence. A severely limited and precarious enterprise, the Irish bid for self-government was soon to collapse, with the abortive 1798 Rebellion and the Act of Union which followed in 1801.
The Act of Union may have shorn Dublin of its independent political power, but the city remained the center of British administration, in the shape of the vice-regent, and the Seasons continued to revolve around the Viceroy’s Lodge (now the President’s Residence) in Phoenix Park. Along with the rest of Ireland, Dublin entered a long economic decline and became the stage for much of the agitation that eventually led to Independence. The first step towards self-government came in 1829, when the Catholic lawyer (and Kerryman) Daniel O’Connell achieved limited Catholic emancipation, allowing Catholics to play some part in the administration and politics of their capital city and, in a signal victory, was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin. The city was also the center of the Gaelic League, founded by Douglas Hyde in 1893, which encouraged the formation of an Irish national consciousness through efforts to restore the native language and culture. This paved the way for the Celtic literary revival under W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, and the establishment, in 1904, of the Abbey Theatre.
While political violence in nineteenth-century Dublin revolved around the Independence issue, it was social politics, most especially the fight for the establishment of trade unionism that resulted, at the turn of the century, in Dubliners taking to the streets in protest. In 1913, this came to a head in the Great Lock-Out, when unemployed workers and their families died of hunger and cold. Open violence hit the streets during Easter Week of 1916 in the uprising that was the main event in the long struggle for Irish Independence. The prominent battles were fought in and around the center of Dublin, and the insurgents made the General Post Office their headquarters. The city’s streets were once again the scene of violence during the brief civil war that broke out after the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, when supporters and opponents of the partition of Ireland fought it out across the Liffey, and the Four Courts, one of Dublin’s great Georgian buildings, went up in flames after being seized by opponents of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
Since Independence, Dublin has been the capital of an old country yet a young nation, endeavoring to leave behind its colonial past. It’s to this, as well as the appalling condition of many of the old tenements, that the destruction of much of the Georgian city can be attributed. A corollary of the demolition of the city’s Georgian buildings in the 1960s was the decanting of Dubliners to inadequately planned suburban estates, which today are blighted by some of the worst social conditions in Europe. Since the mid-1980s, city planners have aimed to reverse this trend of inner-city depopulation, with new apartment blocks being built in previously run-down areas to cater for the city’s burgeoning and increasingly affluent middle classes.
One of the outstanding architectural successes of recent years has been the redevelopment of the Temple Bar area, which has done much to enhance the image and atmosphere of the city. Indeed, Dublin now has a new feel to it, a sense that the legacy of its colonial relationship with Britain has finally been put to one side, as the capital, along with the rest of the Republic, looks increasingly to Europe and America rather than across the Irish Sea.