A History of Dublin

By Tim Lambert

Viking Dublin

Dublin was founded by the Vikings. They founded a new town on the south bank of the Liffey in 841. It was called Dubh Linn, which means black pool. The new town of Dublin was fortified with a ditch and an earth rampart with a wooden palisade on top. In the late 11th stone walls were built around Dublin. The Danes also erected an artificial hill where the men of Dublin met to make laws and discuss policy.

In Viking Dublin living conditions were primitive. The houses were wooden huts with thatched roofs. None of them had chimneys or glass windows. In Dublin, there were craftsmen like blacksmiths and carpenters, jewelers, and leather workers. Other craftsmen made things like combs from bone or deer antlers. There was also a wool-weaving industry. In Dublin, there was also a slave trade.

The Danes were slowly converted to Christianity and the first Bishop of Dublin was appointed in 1028. In his time the first Christchurch Cathedral was built. In the wars between Irishmen and Vikings, the little town of Dublin was sacked several times. Yet each time it recovered. Dublin soon grew to be the largest and most important town in Ireland. It may have had a population of 4,000 in the 11th century. That seems very small to us but it was a large town by the standards of the time when settlements were very small.

By the late 11th century there was a suburb of Dublin north of the Liffey. In those days the people of Dublin traded with the English towns of Chester and Bristol.

Dublin in the Middle Ages

In 1166, MacMurrough, King of Leinster was forced to leave his kingdom and flee abroad, In 1169 he enlisted the help of a Norman, The Earl of Pembroke, known as Strongbow, and they invaded Ireland. When the Norman army approached Dublin the Archbishop was sent out to negotiate. But while the leaders talked some Norman soldiers took matters into their own hands and broke through the defenses into the town. They set about killing the townspeople. The Viking king and his followers fled by sea.

In 1171 Mac Murrough died and Strongbow declared himself King of Leinster. The Viking king returned to Ireland with an army and attempted to recapture Dublin. The Norman army went out to meet them. The Vikings were crushed and their king was captured and executed. The native Irish under their High King O’Connor laid siege to Dublin but the Normans sallied out and routed them.

The English king was afraid that Strongbow would become too powerful and might call himself king of Ireland. To prevent that happening the English king came over to Ireland himself. Most of the Irish rulers submitted to him and he became Lord of Ireland. The English king gave Dublin to the merchants of Bristol. It became their colony.

Afterward, many people from Bristol and Southwest England came to live in Dublin. For centuries afterward, Dublin was ruled by the English or those of English descent. The Viking inhabitants were afraid of the new English rulers and they moved to the north side of the Liffey. This new suburb became known as Ostmantown (Ostman is an old word for Viking). In time this became corrupted to Oxmantown.

In 1152 the Bishop of Dublin was made an Archbishop. Between 1172 and 1191 the Cathedral of Christchurch was rebuilt. In 1213 the parish Church of St Patrick was also made a cathedral.

In 1190 Dublin was devastated by fire (always a hazard when most buildings were made of wood). However, Dublin was soon rebuilt. The Normans built a wooden fortress in Dublin. In the early 13th century it was rebuilt in stone. The English king also rebuilt the walls of Dublin and strengthened them. Furthermore, in 1229, Dublin gained its first mayor. Dublin grew rapidly and may have had a population of 8,000 by the 13th century.

Wine from France was imported into Dublin. Iron was also imported, as was pottery. Exports included hides, grain, and pulses. There were weekly markets in Dublin and after 1204 a fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like a market but they were held only once a year for a few days and people would come from all over the country to buy and sell there.

In 1224 a conduit was built to bring fresh water into Dublin. In the 14th century, the main streets were paved. But like all medieval towns, Dublin was very unsanitary. Every householder was supposed to clean the street in front of their house although it is doubtful if many did! From time to time people were fined for leaving nuisances such as piles of dung outside their houses. In 1305 the town appointed 3 watchmen to patrol the streets at night, although it is doubtful if they were very effective.

In 1317 Dublin was besieged by a Scottish army. Following their victory at Bannockburn in 1314, the Scots invaded Ireland. Desperate efforts were made to repair the walls around Dublin and the bridge over the Liffey was destroyed to prevent the Scots from using it. Finally, the authorities set fire to the suburbs of Dublin (in case they provided cover for an advancing army). Unfortunately, the fire got out of hand and destroyed far more buildings than was intended. Shortly afterward the Scots abandoned the siege.

Dublin in the 16th century

In 1537 a rebellion occurred in Dublin. The Lord Deputy of Ireland (The English king’s deputy) was summoned to London. He appointed his son Vice-Deputy to rule in his absence. This young man was Lord Fitzgerald. He heard that his father had been executed and angrily decided to rebel. He walked into the council chamber during a meeting and renounced his loyalty to the English king. He then left Dublin to gather support.

When he returned the Dubliners submitted and let him into the town but soldiers loyal to the king retreated into the castle and shut out the rebels. The rebels then murdered the Archbishop, which was a fatal mistake as it lost public support. Fitzgerald sent a small number of men to besiege the castle and then left Dublin to fight elsewhere. However, the Dubliners turned against him and drove the men besieging the castle out of the town. Later Fitzgerald and his men returned to Dublin but this time they were shut out. They attempted to burn a gate but the Dubliners went out and drove the attackers off. Reinforcements arrived from England and the rebellion collapsed. Fitzgerald was later executed.

The Reformation happened peacefully in Dublin. When Henry VIII declared himself head of the church Dubliners celebrated. Henry closed the monasteries and nunneries, which caused some resentment but no actual rebellion. Henry also abolished the cult of relics but otherwise made few changes in religion. His son Edward and his daughter Elizabeth introduced more radical reforms but in Dublin and the rest of Ireland, they were mostly ignored. Most people continued to practice the Old Catholic religion.

In the 16th century, Dublin prospered. For the upper and middle classes, there was an impressive rise in living standards. A writer said that they lived in houses ‘so far exceeding their ancestors that they have thought rather be another and new people than descendants of the old’. In the 16th century, chimneys became much more common. So did glass windows. Previously they were a luxury few people could afford.

Although conditions improved for the well off there were many beggars in Dublin. Many of them drifted in from the surrounding countryside. Furthermore, Dublin was still dirty and unsanitary, like all 16th-century towns. And it suffered from outbreaks of plague. One outbreak in 1579 killed thousands. Another tragedy was in 1596 when a gunpowder store in Winetavern Street exploded. More than 120 people were killed.

In 1591 Queen Elizabeth granted a charter for a new university, Trinity College. The first students were admitted in 1594.

Dublin in the 17th century

In 1604 Dublin was again visited by the plague. Nevertheless, Dublin continued to grow and may have had a population of around 20,000 by 1640. In 1616 Dublin gained its first street lighting when it was decreed that a candle or lantern should be hung outside every 5th house on nights. In 1621 a Custom House was built. In 1637 Dublin gained its first theater in Werburgh Street.

Following the English Civil War of 1642-1646, Catholics were expelled from Dublin in large numbers since their loyalty was suspected.

The plague broke out again in 1650. A large part of the population died, possibly as many as half. It was said at the time that Dublin was ‘exceedingly depopulated’. In 1659 the population was less than 9,000. Nevertheless, Dublin recovered and prospered in the late 17th century.

In 1662 Phoenix Park was laid out as a deer park. In the mid-18th century, it became a popular place for walking. Meanwhile, for centuries, Dublin had only one bridge. A second one was built in 1670. The first newspaper in Dublin was produced in 1685.

Dublin continued to grow and many new houses were built. In 1670 a law forbade any new houses to have thatched roofs because of the danger of fire. The new houses were usually of brick with tiled roofs. Meanwhile, in 1665 the Mayor of Dublin became a Lord Mayor and The Blue Coat School opened in 1669. It was rebuilt in 1773. The Tholsel, the town hall, was rebuilt in 1682 and a Royal Hospital for old soldiers was built in 1685. It is now the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

In the late 17th century the wool and linen trade with England grew. The industry was boosted by French Protestants who arrived in Dublin after fleeing from religious persecution.

Dublin in the 18th century

By 1700 Dublin had about 60,000 inhabitants and it continued to grow rapidly. Conditions continued to improve in the 18th century, at least for the middle and upper classes. Dublin became a more refined and genteel city (for the well-to-do) but there was still a great deal of poverty.

Marsh’s library was built in 1701 and in 1703 the Irish Parliament passed an act for building a workhouse where the destitute (of whom there were many) could be housed and fed. Then in 1711, Dublin gained its first fire brigade and St Ann’s Church was built in 1720. Dublin grew rapidly in the 18th century. Streets such as Aungier Street, Cuffe Street, and Dawson Street were built early in the century. Merrion Square was built in 1762.

Several hospitals were founded in the early 18th century. In 1729 a foundling hospital for unwanted children (of which there were many) opened in James Street. Jervis Hospital opened in 1721 Mercers Hospital was founded in 1734 by Mary Mercer. In 1745 St Patricks Hospital for the mentally ill was built and in 1752 Rotunda Maternity Hospital. In 1794 a dispensary was founded that gave free medicines to those too poor to buy them.

College Park was laid out in 1722. In the mid-18th century, Phoenix Park became a fashionable place for the well-to-do to take walks. Ranelagh Gardens opened in 1776. The Botanic Gardens were made in 1795. In the late 18th century St Stephens Green became a park.

Parliament House, a new meeting place for the Irish Parliament was built in 1735. Leinster House, which is the present home of the Irish Parliament was built in 1745 for the Duke of Leinster. A new Custom House was built in 1791. The Royal Exchange was built in 1779 and was later (1852) made the City Hall.

In 1757 the Irish Parliament passed an act, which created a body of men with powers to widen the streets. In 1773 a body of men with the power to pave, clean, and light the streets of Dublin was formed. Their powers were transferred to the city council in 1851.

In the mid-18th century, stagecoaches began running from Dublin to other towns such as Kilkenny, Cork, and Belfast. There was a considerable coach-making industry in the city. There were also many sedan chairs for the well to do and the Grand Canal opened in 1779. O’Connell Bridge was built in 1790.

In 1786 Dublin gained its first police force and Kilmainham prison was built in 1796. Meanwhile, Guinness was first brewed in Dublin in 1759.

Dublin in the 19th century

By 1800 the population of Dublin had risen to around 180,000. In 1803 and 1804 fever hospitals were opened in Dublin. The most common fever was typhus, sometimes called goal fever, because it was so common in jails. Lice spread typhus. Poor people frequently had lousy clothes. There was still a great deal of appalling poverty in the city with many families living in one room. In all European cities at the time, there was terrible poverty but it seems to have been particularly bad in Dublin.

In the early 19th century several new bridges were built across the Liffey. O’Donovan Rossa Bridge was built in 1813. Ha’penny Bridge (also called Liffey Bridge) opened in 1816 and Kingsbridge opened in 1828. (Its name was later changed to Heuston Bridge). Queen Victoria Bridge, now Rory O’More Bridge, was built in 1859. The Royal Canal was opened in 1817. Meanwhile, a column with a statue of Nelson on top was erected in 1808. It was destroyed in the 1960s. In 1825 St Marys Protestant Cathedral was built. However, in 1855 the Dublin fair, which had been held in Dublin each year since the 13th century, was stopped.

Gradually during the 1800s conditions in Dublin improved. In 1824 a gasworks was built in Dublin and gas was used to light the streets from 1825. The first electric lights in Dublin were switched on in 1881 but electric light was a rare novelty until the early 20th century.

In the early 19th century sewers were laid but only in the middle-class districts of Dublin (poor areas could not pay the necessary rates). But the sewers were extended in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. The railway reached Dublin in 1834 when a line to Kingsbridge was built. Horse-drawn buses began running in Dublin in 1840. They were followed by horse-drawn trams in 1872.

From 1838 there were workhouses in Dublin where the destitute were fed and housed. During the potato famine, they were overwhelmed by the numbers fleeing starvation in the countryside. Soup kitchens had to be set up in the streets to try and feed them. Although the population of Ireland fell sharply after the famine the population of Dublin rose because of the number of starving people fleeing to the city.

Amenities in Dublin greatly improved in the 19th Century. In 1853 an industrial exhibition was held in Dublin on Leinster Lawn. Zoological Gardens opened in Phoenix Park in 1830. Portobello Gardens opened as a park in 1839. A Natural History Museum opened in 1857. The National Gallery of Ireland opened in 1864. In 1882 a memorial to O’Connell was erected in O’Connell Street. The Gaiety Theatre opened in 1871. The National Museum of Ireland opened in 1890.

The Catholic University in Dublin was founded in 1845. Catholics were allowed to attend Trinity College after 1873 but the Catholic Church disapproved of Catholics going there. Glasnevin Catholic Cemetery opened in 1832. In 1892 a new fruit and vegetable market opened and in 1897 a new fish market opened.

Dublin in the 20th century

On 24 April 1916, the Easter Rising took place in Dublin. The insurgents occupied the Post Office in O’Connell Street where their leader Patrick Pearse announced the Irish Republic. However, the British crushed the rebellion, and the insurgents surrendered on 29 April. The British then tried the insurgents and 15 of them were executed. Public opinion in Ireland was appalled and alienated by the executions.

However, conditions in Dublin continued to improve during the 20th century. A new network of sewers was built in Dublin in 1892-1906. Butt Bridge was built in 1932. Talbot Memorial Bridge was built in 1978 and Frank Sherwin Memorial Bridge in 1982. East Link toll bridge was built in 1985. In the early 1990s, a ring road was built around Dublin.

Meanwhile in 1904 Abbey Theatre was built. Gate Theatre followed in 1930. In 1907 the Irish International Exhibition was held in Herbert Park. It was an exhibition of industrial and commercial goods.

However, in the early 20th century there was still appalling poverty in Dublin with perhaps a quarter of families living in one room. In 1912 slum demolition began when houses north of the Liffey were demolished and replaced with proper houses. Slum clearance on a large scale began in the 1930s and continued through the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1934 the Old Dublin Society was formed. In May 1941 the Germans bombed Dublin killing 28 people. Dublin Civic Museum opened in 1953. In 1962 the James Joyce Museum opened. In 1966 a Remembrance Garden was opened for all those who died in the fight for independence and the Friends of Medieval Dublin was founded in 1976.

In the 1960s and 1970s redevelopment of the city center took place, some of it controversial as it involved the demolition of fine old buildings. In the late 20th century the population of the city center fell as areas of slum housing were demolished and replaced by new estates on the outskirts of the city but in the 1990s new apartments were built in the city center.

In the late 20th century traditional industries such as textiles, brewing, and distilling declined but the city council built new industrial estates on the outskirts of the city and new industries like electronics, chemicals, and engineering appeared.

In 1975 the Dublin Institute of Higher Education was formed. In 1990 it was made Dublin City University. The Catholic Church reversed its ban on Catholics attending Trinity College in 1970.

In 1988 Dublin celebrated its millennium. (Dublin was actually founded in 841 but in the year 988, an Irish king forced the townspeople to pay taxes to him. That year marks the beginning of Dublin as an Irish town). Also in 1988, Anna Livia Fountain was built in O’Connell Street. A statue of James Joyce was erected in Earl Street North in 1990. In 1985 a Jewish Museum opened in Dublin.

In 1991 the Dublin Writers Museum opened. Also in 1991, the Irish Museum of Modern Art opened.

After 1991 Temple Bar was renovated. The streets were pedestrianized and it now contains bars, shops, restaurants, and art galleries.

Furthermore, George Bernard Shaw’s birthplace in Dublin was opened to the public in 1993. Also in 1993 Dublinia, a Museum of Medieval Ireland opened. A Visitor Centre in the Custom House opened in 1997. Meanwhile, Powerscourt Shopping Centre opened in 1981 in a house built in 1774. St Stephens Green Shopping Centre was built in the late 1980s and Jervis Street Shopping Centre opened in 1996.

Dublin in the 21st century

In the 21st century, Dublin continued to thrive. In 2000 a new pedestrian bridge, the Millennium Bridge was opened across the Liffey and in 2003 The Spire was erected. Trams returned to Dublin in 2004. The Convention Centre Dublin opened in 2010. Bord Gais Energy Theatre opened in the same year, 2010.

Ha’penny Bridge

In 2022 the population of Dublin was 592,000.