The history of Dublin: from Viking stronghold to international success story
The city on the Liffey river has undergone centuries of invasion, occupation, division and violence – but recovered to become a modern commercial and tourist hub. Gillian O’Brien explores the history of Ireland’s capital
Tellingly, Ireland’s capital has historically had two names. The Irish used Baile Átha Cliath, meaning ‘hurdle fort’, from an early settlement straddling the River Liffey. The name used by the English is also derived from Irish: Dubh Linn, meaning ‘black pool’, relating to a monastic settlement close to a tidal pool where the Liffey met the River Poddle.
The city as we know it was seeded with the arrival of the Vikings. Initially, these Norsemen from Denmark and across Scandinavia raided, then returned home. But they begin to overwinter, and established more formal settlements from around AD 837.
Dublin’s Irish-Viking culture
Dublin became a slave-trading base, and Viking shackles and chains are now on display in the Viking Ireland exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street. But records of domestic life also show that there was considerable intermarriage; as they settled, Vikings looked for local wives.
Quite quickly, a blended town evolved, with houses built around what's now the Christ Church and Wood Quay areas. Curiously, one of the best places to see fragments of old medieval Dublin is in the Lidl supermarket on Aungier Street, where you can glimpse remnants of the old city walls, Viking settlement and later buildings through sections of glass floor.
By the early 11th century, the settlement had a moderately-sized population – perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 people – and a burgeoning Hiberno-Norse culture. Then a dispute arose between the Vikings in Dublin and the prominent chieftain Brian Boru, who was aiming to bolster his claim to be High King of Ireland.
This culminated in the battle of Clontarf, just outside Dublin, on 23 April 1014. Brian Boru won the clash, though it was a Pyrrhic victory: he was beheaded in his tent just afterwards. But the battle is cited today as the last time native Irish forces were victorious over invaders.
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Yet it wasn’t as simple as Vikings versus Irishmen. For example, Brian Boru's daughter Sláine was married to Sigtrygg Silkbeard, the Viking king of Dublin, while the Irish leader had Vikings on his side, too. The tensions were already clear.
Dublin and the Norman invasion
Internal politics again sparked the next major upheaval. In the later 12th century, Diarmait Mac Murchada (or Dermot MacMurrough), king of Leinster – the large province surrounding Dublin – invited Norman soldiers from the court of English King Henry II to come and fight with him as he strove to become High King of Ireland.
In 1170, Anglo-Normans arrived in Ireland, the most famous of whom was Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, known as Strongbow. He married Mac Murchada’s daughter, Aoife, sealing the alliance, but his was effectively an invasion force.
History's Greatest Cities: A HistoryExtra podcast seriesThis companion piece accompanies our podcast miniseries History's Greatest Cities. Listen to the full episode on Dublin with Gillian O'Brien and Paul Bloomfield, then explore the entire series
Mac Murchada died shortly afterwards, and very quickly Strongbow went from being merely a mercenary leader to a man of real power and authority. Dublin became an Anglo-Norman city, with a court established by Henry II.
Christ Church Cathedral, founded in the 11th century under Sigtrygg Silkbeard, was rebuilt in stone under Strongbow. Though heavily reconstructed in the 19th centuries, some medieval elements remain, including the extensive crypt which now houses an impressive historical exhibition.
During this period, from the late 12th century, Dublin’s population and trade grew, though as dwellings were built with wood and thatch, little remains of them.
One survivor is Dublin Castle, founded in the early 13th century. Today it’s more like a grand palace, with the round Medieval Tower the only remaining original element, though its garden is likely the site of that ancient tidal ‘black pool’, Dubh Linn.
Dublin’s Tudor expansion – and domination
Over following centuries, the area within Dublin’s stone city walls remained relatively small, but less-controlled development spread into the Pale – the strip of land under English control that surrounded Dublin, stretching into surrounding counties. From this area we get the phrase: ‘beyond the pale’, meaning outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour.
In 1348, the city was ravaged by the Black Death. Some two centuries later the Reformation and Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries changed the face of Dublin. For example, Trinity College was founded in 1592 on the site of the former Priory of All Hallows.
Another major event that shaped the governance of Dublin and Ireland was a rebellion launched in 1534 by Thomas FitzGerald, the Earl of Kildare, known as ‘Silken Thomas’ for the dandyish outfits worn by him and his followers.
Mistakenly believing that his father had been executed at the Tower of London, Silken Thomas led an uprising that attacked Dublin Castle but was eventually quelled by English forces. He was executed in 1537.
The real significance of this episode was that the English monarchy clamped down on attempts by local lords to claim power. In 1542, the Kingdom of Ireland was declared, with Henry VIII as its monarch, administered from Dublin Castle by an English-appointed viceroy.
Dublin during the Civil War
In 1641, a rebellion broke out in Ireland, fuelled by the resentment of Irish Catholics dispossessed of land that had been given to Protestants. Most of the action was in Ulster, but the impact on Dublin – which remained Protestant – was significant.
The Civil War fought between parliamentarians and royalists in the 1640s also had major consequences for Dublin. Following the execution of Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell led parliamentarian forces in an invasion of Ireland, which had remained loyal to the crown. But the aim was also to take land that could be given to the followers of the parliamentary cause.
What followed was a very brutal suppression of Catholics, epitomised in the siege of Drogheda, about 25 miles north of Dublin, in 1649. Though the exact details and numbers of fatalities are debated, Cromwellian forces massacred the garrison at Drogheda and, reportedly, a number of civilians.
Following the Restoration of the monarchy, the key figure in Dublin was James Butler, the Earl of Ormond, who became the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His tenure marked a period of aggrandisement and development of the city. Quays were built – including one bearing Ormond's name – and streets facing the Liffey. Dublin’s population swelled to perhaps 50,000.
Unsurprisingly, the 1688 invasion of Britain by William and Mary – often referred to as the Glorious Revolution – is not described as glorious by many in Ireland. Having deposed James in Britain, the new joint monarchs turned to Ireland. In July 1690, William’s forces defeated James at the River Boyne, just west of Drogheda.
Following the battle of the Boyne, James’s Catholic supporters abandoned Dublin and indeed Ireland, where penal laws made Catholics second-class and, later, third-class citizens. They were barred from voting, sitting in parliament, or joining the army. They were not allowed to inherit land, and priests and bishops were largely banned. Political power was now wielded by Protestants.
Dublin as Britain’s second city
During the 18th century, Dublin became essentially the second city of the British empire, with its own parliament – albeit not one representative of Ireland as a whole. This attracted wealthy, well-connected people who built magnificent houses – many of which still stand today around Mountjoy Square, Merrion Square and St Stephen’s Green.
Parliament House was built in 1729; it’s now a bank and exhibition space, but you can still see the old House of Lords, hung with tapestries from that period. The Four Courts came a few decades later, along with many other beautiful civic buildings. In 1745, a pioneering ‘lying-in’ (maternity) hospital was founded, today known as the Rotunda Hospital.
During this period, the city had a lively social life. Theatres were built, hot-air balloons soared, and fireworks sparked frequently, while well-to-do people promenaded around St Stephen’s Green and along Sackville Street, now called O’Connell Street. Handel’s Messiah even received its premiere in Dublin in 1742.
But poverty was also rife. Some employers cared fairly well for their workers, including the Guinness family, who established their famous brewery in 1759. But many people suffered terrible deprivation.
In 1798 came a rebellion by the United Irishmen, co-founded by Wolfe Tone, who is regarded by many as the father of Irish Republicanism. It was rapidly suppressed, though one result of the failed uprising was that the 1800 Act of Union moved direct rule of Ireland back to London, and many of the city’s wealthier citizens moved away.
The large houses that had once homed Dublin’s high society became subdivided into cramped tenements. By the end of the 19th century, more than 100 people might be crammed into one Georgian house with no running water or bathroom. You can explore the history of such a house at 14 Henrietta Street, now a fascinating museum.
Dublin and the great famine
The terrible famine that devastated Ireland from 1845 was largely the result of a disease of potatoes, on which Ireland’s poor was so dependent, causing the failure of successive harvests.
Over a five-year period, an estimated one million people in Ireland died of starvation or associated diseases, with more than a million more emigrating. The situation was exacerbated by a lack of interventions by the British government or individual landlords.
Dublin’s population wasn’t as reliant on potatoes. But enormous numbers of people flocked into the city, refugees from the countryside – all looking for housing, food and jobs that were in short supply even in a prosperous city.
Dublin and the Irish independence movement
In part as a response to government inaction during the famine, various groups tried to break Irish links to Britain. Many such independence groups had rural bases, and were funded by the expat community, particularly in the US.
The Young Ireland movement launched a failed insurrection in 1848, and a successor movement, the Irish Republican Brotherhood founded in 1858, staged a number of attacks, some in Dublin. During the later 19th century, when constitutional efforts to achieve independence or home rule failed, such organisations turned to violence.
Political tumult reached a climax in the early decades of the 20th century. In 1913, workers in the city staged nearly five months of protests, known as the Dublin lock-out, aiming to secure the right to unionise for better conditions. Further deprivation ensued, as well as the deaths of several strikers at the hands of police, fuelling unrest in the city.
Without wider support, the workers were defeated, but many working-class people became politically energised. When the First World War broke out, some 250,000 Irishmen joined the British Army, about 25,000 of those in Dublin. Some Irish Republicans saw this as an opportunity to strike while Britain was fighting a war elsewhere.
On 24 April 1916, the so-called Easter Rising began. The General Post Office was seized, and used as the headquarters of the rebellion’s leaders, who declared a republic and took a number of other significant sites in Dublin.
Troops were sent in and, after six bloody days during which Dublin was heavily damaged, the rebels were forced to surrender. Their leaders were taken to Kilmainham Gaol and executed; thousands of other people were rounded up and imprisoned.
This heavy-handed British response transformed Irish public opinion, radicalising almost an entire generation. The result was a war of independence between 1919 and 1921, with Irish nationalists fighting British forces across the country in a guerrilla-style war that ultimately ended in a truce and treaty negotiations.
Dublin during the Irish Civil War
In December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London by the British government and Irish republican leaders – causing enormous divisions across Ireland. It promised the creation of a self-governing Irish Free State – not the full 32-county republic envisioned by nationalists but instead a partitioned island with a separate Northern Ireland.
A bloody civil war ensued. Those who had fought for independence alongside one another were now fighting each other.
The first action of the Irish Civil War took place in Dublin in 1922, after anti-treaty Republican militants seized the Four Courts. After several weeks of occupation, the new Irish government attacked their former allies, using weapons borrowed from the British government that destroyed swathes of the Four Courts, including the public records office.
Nearly a year later, with Republican forces severely weakened, a ceasefire was called. In the aftermath, a huge amount of reconstruction was required in Dublin – both physical and in terms of relationships.
The city did, ultimately, rebuild itself during the 20th century. Interestingly, the Dáil – the parliament of the Irish Republic – now sits in Leinster House near St Stephen’s Green, originally built for the Duke of Leinster in 1745 and later an inspiration for the design of the US White House in the 1790s.
Dublin and the Troubles
The effects of the Troubles – nearly three decades of conflict in Ireland from the late 1960s to 1998 – in Dublin are often overlooked, in part because other places such as Derry and Belfast were more severely affected. But Dublin did suffer attacks, including one before the Troubles started.
Nelson’s Pillar had stood on O’Connell Street, the main thoroughfare in the city – formerly Sackville Street – since 1809. In March 1966, the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the pillar was blown up by dissident Irish Republicans.
Once the Troubles started in earnest, in 1969, sporadic violence broke out in Dublin. On 2 February 1972, during protest marches three days after Bloody Sunday – when British soldiers opened fire on unarmed people in Derry, resulting in 14 deaths – the British Embassy in Merrion Square was set on fire.
On 17 May 1974, three car bombs planted by the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force in Dublin and another in Monaghan, not far from the border with Northern Ireland, exploded during rush hour – killing 33 people (plus one unborn baby) and injuring more than 200 others.
This attack was a reaction to the Sunningdale Agreement, proposing a cross-party power-sharing initiative in Northern Ireland, where the government of the Irish Republic would have a limited say in affairs. Today a memorial stands on Talbot Street, site of one of the explosions.
In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement – not dissimilar to the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement that had provoked such a bloody backlash – was approved by the populations both north and south of the border, bringing the Troubles to an end.
Today, Dublin is famed for its pubs and music, but also hosts the European offices of some of the biggest global businesses – Google, Facebook, Twitter – in part because of an attractive tax regime.
In the 20th century, it was a very conflicted city. In the late 1950s and 1960s, city authorities demolished huge swathes of beautiful Georgian buildings that were seen as being associated with Britain.
The identity of the city is heavily bound up with its Viking and Georgian past, and it is embraced and celebrated – even though many did, over many years, try to destroy it.
What to see: Dublin in five places
From its origins as a Viking settlement, Dublin’s history has been rich and turbulent. Gillian O’Brien highlights five spots to explore in the Irish capital
1. Kilmainham Gaol
A virtual who’s who of famous names were incarcerated at this prison, which opened in 1796 and closed in 1924. Almost all political prisoners were held here, from those involved in the 1798 rebellion – when the United Irishmen rose up against British rule – right up to men captured during the Irish Civil War (1922–23). For example, future president Éamon de Valera was held here after the 1916 Easter Rising (an armed insurrection against the British) and at the end of the Civil War.
But a visit to what’s now a fascinating museum also provides insights into the history of the area’s poor people, about whose lives there’s little recorded evidence – except when they fell foul of the law. The prison’s population swelled in the 1840s, during the Great Famine, because many people were jailed for vagrancy and other minor crimes.
In the records you’ll see a 10-year-old sentenced to 40 days’ hard labour for stealing a parsnip, while a nine-year-old girl did a week’s hard labour for begging. This is also the site of the executions of 14 men involved in the 1916 Easter Rising. It’s an architecturally striking, and moving, place to visit.
2. Croke Park
As the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), Croke Park has long been the venue for hurling and Gaelic football matches, notably the finals. But it also played a significant role in Ireland’s political heritage. Many of those who joined the GAA in the years after it was founded in 1884 ultimately became active in the Irish nationalist republican movement.
And on 21 November 1920 – known as Bloody Sunday – following assassinations of British intelligence officers by IRA operatives, British troops opened fire at a game, killing 13 spectators and one player. There’s now a fascinating museum at Croke Park – but for a real Ireland experience, visit on the day of a hurling match.
3. 14 Henrietta Street
During the 18th century, Dublin became essentially the second city of the British empire, attracting large numbers of wealthy people who built suitably grand homes. The kind of Georgian architecture that graces important cities in Britain sprang up in Dublin, around such hotspots as Mountjoy Square, Merrion Square and St Stephen’s Green. But after the 1800 Act of Union moved direct rule of Ireland back to London, many of the city’s wealthier citizens moved away.
Over the 19th century, many of these large houses, abandoned by those rich owners, were divided and subdivided into cramped, unhygienic tenements. Today you can experience such a building at 14 Henrietta Street: it was built in the late 1740s for a single family, but by 1911 more than 100 people were crammed into this one house, living in squalid conditions. It’s now an excellent museum.
4. Any Victorian pub
Every visitor to Dublin should sup a pint of the ‘black stuff’ – Guinness – in one of the many wonderful and historic Victorian pubs. You might wish to visit The Long Hall, dating from the 1860s, or The Stag’s Head, or Neary’s, or the even older Oval Bar, which opened circa 1822.
Take a book by one of the great Dublin authors: James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, perhaps Maeve Binchy, Sally Rooney or Anne Enright, or even an early Sean O’Casey play. Open on the first page, sip your drink, and ponder the many people who’ve preceded you
– writers, revolutionaries and thousands of ordinary thirsty Dubliners.
5. St Michan’s Church
Built on the site of a Hiberno-Norse chapel founded in 1095, this church is quite central – just behind the Four Courts, north of the River Liffey – yet it’s rather off the beaten tourist trail. Reputedly, Handel practised on the organ here before the premiere of his Messiah in 1742, and there are some amazing stained-glass windows. But the big draw are the burial vaults beneath, containing the remains of many Dublin luminaries.
Many have been effectively mummified by the dry air within the limestone walls, while some skeletons are visible, along with amazing velvet-covered coffins. Key figures include John and Harry Sheares, brothers executed outside nearby Newgate Prison following the 1798 rebellion. There’s also the death mask of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the most famous United Irishman leader of that same uprising, who died in the Provost’s Prison before he could be executed.
Gillian O’Brien, reader in modern Irish history at Liverpool John Moores University. Her books include The Darkness Echoing: Exploring Ireland’s Places of Famine, Death and Rebellion (Penguin, 2020
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