Set beside the shores of curving Dublin Bay, Ireland’s capital city, Dublin, is a thrusting, dynamic place, which despite its size remains utterly beguiling and an essential part of any visit to the country. Much of Dublin’s centre has been redeveloped over the last few decades, leaving a wag to comment that “the city’s only sights are building sites”. So, alongside the city’s historic buildings – its cathedrals and churches, Georgian squares and townhouses, castles, monuments and pubs – you’ll discover grand new hotels and shopping centres, stunning new street architecture and a state-of-the-art tramway system.
More than a third of the Republic of Ireland’s population of almost four and a half million lives within the Greater Dublin area. Intensely proud of their city, Dubliners seem to possess an innate sense of its heritage and powerful literary culture, and can at times exhibit a certain snobbishness towards those living in Ireland’s rural backwaters (people often termed “culchies”). Locals are noted for their often caustic, but engaging, brand of humour, as shown in the numerous and sometimes bawdy nicknames given to many of the city’s landmarks (the Millennium Spire, for instance, has all manner of sobriquets including “the eyeful tower” and “the stiffy by the Liffey”), but there is also a warmth in their welcome – it’s easy to find yourself drawn into conversation or debates in bars and cafés (or, if you smoke, outside them). Dubliners are also increasingly style-conscious; where once the city looked inwards for inspiration, today it glances both east and west, to Europe and America, catching new trends and bringing a decidedly Irish slant to bear upon them.
Most of Dublin’s attractions are contained within a relatively compact area, spreading either side of the many-bridged River Liffey, which divides the city between its Northside and Southside. These have very distinct characters, defined over the city’s historical development: stereotypically, the south is viewed in terms of its gentility while the north is seen as brash and working class, home of the true Dub accent. Pre-eminent among the city’s historic sights is Trinity College, whose main draw for visitors is the glorious Book of Kells. From here, the city’s main commercial street, Grafton Street, marches off towards St Stephen’s Green, home to the rococo splendours of Newman House. Among the stylish Georgian streets to the east of Grafton Street, meanwhile, you’ll find the compelling displays of the National Gallery and the National Museum. On the west side of Trinity begins Temple Bar, which somehow manages to remain the city’s hub for both carousing and art, overlooked sternly by Dublin Castle, British headquarters in Ireland until 1921 and now home to the glorious collections of the Chester Beatty Library. Dublin’s two historic cathedrals, Christ Church and St Patrick’s, stand to the west of here.
North of the river runs the wide boulevard of O’Connell Street, where the GPO, resonant site of the 1916 Easter Rising, is now complemented by the soaring modern beauty of the Spike. At the top of the street, Parnell Square is home to the Dublin Writers Museum and the Hugh Lane Municipal Art Gallery, while to the west lie the Old Jameson Distillery, in the historic Smithfield area, and Collins Barracks, home to the National Museum’s collection of decorative arts.
West of the centre is the green expanse of Phoenix Park, while across the river to the south lie the grim memorial of Kilmainham Gaol and, to the east, the more obviously appealing Guinness Brewery and Storehouse. In the city’s suburbs, the attractions of the Northside have a definite edge over those to the south of the river: most compelling are the national cemetery at Glasnevin; the splendid stadium home of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Croke Park, containing a fine museum; and the architectural wonders of the Casino at Marino. For a scenic breather from the city, take the southerly branch of the DART to panoramic Dalkey and Killiney Hills.
Dublin’s origins date back to ninth-century Viking times when the Norsemen saw the strategic potential of Dublin Bay and established a trading post on the Liffey’s southern bank at the point where the ancient royal road from Tara to Wicklow forded the river. They adopted the location’s Irish name, Dubh Linn (“dark pool”), for their new home, soon amalgamating with an Irish settlement on the northern bank called Baile Atha Cliath (“place of the hurdle ford”), which remains the Irish name for the city.
The twelfth century saw Dublin conquered by the Anglo-Normans when Dermot McMurrough, the deposed King of Leinster, sought help from Henry II to regain his crown. In return for Dermot’s fealty, Henry sent Strongbow and a contingent of Welsh knights to restore MacMurrough’s power. Strongbow conquered Dublin in the process and, concerned at this threat to his authority, Henry came over to Ireland to assert control, establishing Dublin as the focus for British sway over Ireland. This became the centre of the “English Pale” (from the Latin palum, meaning originally a “stake”, though later a “defined territory”), ruling over the areas of Anglo-Norman settlement in Ireland; since Irish resistance to conquest was so strong in other parts of the country, the pejorative phrase “beyond the pale” evolved as a means of signifying (at least in English terms) a lack of civilized behaviour.
Only a few buildings have survived from before the seventeenth century, mainly in the area encompassing Dublin Castle and the two cathedrals, and much of the city’s layout is essentially Georgian. During this period, Dublin’s Anglo-Irish nobility and its increasingly wealthy mercantile class used their money (often, in the aristocracy’s case derived from confiscated land granted as a reward for services to the Crown) to showcase their wealth in the form of grandiose houses, public buildings and wide new thoroughfares. Wealthy members of the elite revelled in their new-found opulence, filling their houses with works by the latest artists and craftsmen, and seeking to enhance their own cachet by patronizing the arts; Handel conducted the first performance of his Messiah in the city, for example. Increasing political freedom resulted in demands for self-government, inspired by the American and French revolutions. The legislative independence achieved during “Grattan’s Parliament” in 1782 was to be short-lived, however, and the failure of the 1798 Rebellion, led largely by members of the Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, inevitably led to the 1801 Act of Union and the removal of Dublin’s independent powers.
With Ireland now governed by a British vice-regent, Dublin sank into a period of economic decline, brought about by its inability to compete with Britain’s flourishing industries. The city remained the focus of agitation for self-rule, and by the end of the nineteenth century had also become the centre for efforts to form a sense of Irish national consciousness via the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893. This sought to revive both the Irish language and traditional culture, and set the scene for the Celtic literary revival, led by W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, who established the Abbey Theatre in 1904. The political struggle for independence remained a live issue and events came to a head with the Easter Rising of 1916. The city’s streets saw violence again during the civil war, which followed the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921.
Austerity and much emigration followed Independence and it was not until the 1950s that Dublin began to emerge from its colonial past. The city’s infrastructure was ravaged by ill-conceived redevelopment in the 1960s which saw the demolition of many Georgian edifices, as well as the creation of poorly-planned “sink” estates to replace dilapidated tenements. A couple of decades later city planners began to address the issue of inner-city depopulation, constructing apartment blocks to house Dublin’s wealthy middle classes, and the numerous cranes on the city’s skyline demonstrate the continuing activity of the regeneration process, not least in the former docklands. The most obvious evidence of reinvigoration in the city centre is the Temple Bar area, though the original intention to develop a Parisian-style quarter of ateliers and arts centres soon fell foul of the moneygrubbers, while east of the centre, reconstruction continues in the city’s docklands, though much has been stalled by the severity of Ireland’s ongoing economic crisis. Today, the arrival of migrants, particularly from Africa and Eastern Europe, together with the city’s longer-standing Chinese community, has seen Dublin gradually inch towards multiculturalism. The effects of these changes are most visible in the city’s restaurants, shops and street markets, broadening native Dublin tastes and introducing locals to all manner of culinary and fashion delights.