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History of Dublin

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The Beginnings of Dublin

The earliest mention of Dublin dates back to around AD 140. The Egyptian-Greek astronomer Ptolemy noted a settlement called Elbana, which some claimed to be the modern day Dublin. However, the official date of the establishment of Dublin is AD 988, when Norse King Glun Iarainn acknowledged Mael II Mor as King of Ireland and agreed to accept the Brehon Laws and pay taxes.

In early 10th century, Viking and Celtic settlements were located close to where Dublin is today. The Viking settlement was named An Dubh Linn (Black Pool), referring to a nearby body of water. The Celtic settlement was called Áth Cliath (Dublin in Irish), a name that remains in used today. The Vikings, also known as Ostmen, ruled Dublin for almost 300 years until Irish King Brian Boru defeated them at the battle of Clontarf in 1014. During the Viking era, the city had a huge slave market where the traders were Norse and Irish chieftains. After the Brehon Laws were enforced, these practices were 'officially' abolished. However, the slave trade continued for another century.

The Brehon ('judge' in Old Irish) Laws governed everyday life and politics until the Norman conquest of Ireland in 1171. These laws were written in the period of Old Irish, between AD 600 and 900, and believed to reflect the traditional laws of pagan Ireland. After the adoption of Christianity, these laws existed for some time in parallel with Christian laws.

The Normans captured the southern part of Ireland in the 12th century, when Dublin came to the forefront of English power in Ireland. So much so, Dublin replaced Tara in Meath, the former seat of Irish kings. Over time, the conquerors were assimilated into Irish culture and adopted the Irish language and customs. Only a 20-mile radius around Dublin, the Pale remained under English rule and was fortified by the English against Gaelic attacks. Outside this area people were considered savages, and it is believed to be the origin of the expression “Beyond the Pale”.

Medieval Dublin

After the Normans captured Dublin in 1171, a large part of the Norse population left the old city on the south of the Liffey river and settled on the north side, which was known as Oxmantown. Dublin, then, was the capital of the Lordship of Ireland, a nominally all-island state founded by the Normans, and populated by English and Welsh settlers. English rule centered on Dublin Castle, which remained the seat of British rule until 1922. Dublin was also the seat of the Irish parliament, comprised of English members. Important buildings dating back to this time include St Audoen's Church and St Patrick's Cathedral. The last part of the city's medieval walls overlook St Audoen's Church in the direction of Cook Street.

In medieval times, Dublin was a tightly-knit community of 5,000 to 10,000 inhabitants, cultivating certain curious rituals. The mayor of the city, for example, escorted all newlyweds to the bullring, where they would kiss the enclosure for good luck. Outside the city walls were the Liberties, suburbs on the lands of the archbishop of Dublin, and Irishtown, supposedly inhabited by Gaelic Irish who had been expelled from the city under a 15th-century law. Although not officially permitted, native Irish did live in the city, and by the 1500s their language had begun to rival English in everyday life.

In 1348, the Black Plague ravaged the city, as it did most of Europe. There were mass burials in Dublin in the Blackpitts area, a name retained to this day. The last major outbreak of the plague in Dublin was in 1649. The disease recurred regularly over the course of 300 years. To make matters worse, neighboring Irish clans raided the city frequently, and a Scottish army even destroyed the suburbs in 1314.

These factors caused the English to lose interest in maintaining the colony in Ireland, and the Fitzgerald Earls of Kildare took the responsibility to defend the city, dominating Irish politics until the 16th Century. In the unofficial capacity of rulers the Fitzgeralds often pursued their own agenda. During the Wars of the Roses in the late 15th Century, fought between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, they occupied the city and proclaimed a Yorkist king of England. In 1536, the Fitzgeralds, angry that the Earl of Kildare had been imprisoned, besieged the Dublin Castle. King Henry VIII sent troops to restore order and replace the Fitzgeralds with English administrators. Thus Dublin and the Crown began to 'enjoy' a closer relationship.

Colonial Dublin

In the 16th Century, under the Tudor dynasty, the whole territory of Ireland was re-conquered, which began under Henry VIII, and by 1603 Ireland was fully under English authority, concentrated in Dublin. The English community of Dublin, and the greater area, was happy with the disarmament of the native Irish but were not pleased with the Protestant Reformation, as they were predominantly Roman Catholic. Several citizens of Dublin were executed for their involvement in the second Desmond Rebellion in the late 16th Century, led by James Fitzgerald against the English government. The Nine Years War of the 1590s added to the discontent of Dubliners. By law, Dubliners had to accommodate English soldiers, who raised the prices of food and spread disease.

In 1592, Elizabeth I opened Dublin Trinity College, which was initially a Protestant university for the Irish gentry but wealthy Dublin families snubbed it and sent their children to Catholic universities across Europe. These factors contributed to the English authorities' changing perception of Dubliners, as they came to see them as unreliable and chose to settle Protestants from England in the city. This new class formed the basis of English administration in Ireland and remained so until the 1800s.

By 1640, Protestants had become the majority in Dublin. Thousands of them fled there to escape the bloody Irish Rebellion of 1641. This revolt began as a coup d'etat by Irish Catholics but ended in bloody attacks between Catholics and Protestants. Eventually, the English garrison in Dublin expelled the Catholics from the city. Sadly, Dublin was laid under siege in 1646 and 1649 in the Eleven Years War, but in both cases the attackers were driven off.

Later, after Oliver Cromwell took control of Ireland, during the Cromwellian settlement period, Catholics were officially banned from living within city limits, which, however, was not strictly enforced. In fact, the Catholic English community was perceived as part of the native Irish community. Toward the end of the 17th Century, Dublin became the capital of the Kingdom of Ireland, which was under the authority of the Protestant English minority; Dublin was actually among the few parts of Ireland, where Protestants were a majority. During the next century, the city expanded, becoming more prosperous and peaceful.

Dublin's Georgian Era

In 1695, the harsh Penal Laws were introduced in Ireland and came in full effect by the early 18th Century, which had a disenfranchising influence on the Catholic and Presbyterian Irish populations. Ireland was experiencing the Protestant Ascendancy, which began in the 17th Century and ended in the 19th Century. Landowners from the Church of England, as well as clergy from the Church of Ireland and the professional class, were dominating the country during this time, with the city expanding greatly. In 1700, Dublin was the second largest city in the British Empire, with over 60,000 inhabitants and houses modernised along the Liffey riverfront.

In the beginning of the 18th Century, Dublin was still in the Middle Ages, in terms of layout. However, it underwent major renovations, with narrow streets replaced by wide Georgian-style streets. Today's O'Connell Street, formerly Sackville Street, was changed in this manner. Five important Georgian squares were designed, as well as many monumental Georgian buildings erected. Initially, the north side of the Liffey was the domain of aristocrats, but they gradually came to favor the south side and the huge mansions on the north side became tenements occupied by the poor. The only areas that retained the medieval layout were Temple Bar and around Grafton Street. The influence of the 8th-century 'Enlightenment' was not without problems. It was rife with gang wars and other forms of violence. Citizens organised demonstrations outside the parliament, when it passed unpopular laws. The revolutionary United Irishmen movement planned an unsuccessful uprising in Dublin in 1798 as well.

In 1801, Great Britain and Ireland merged to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, under the Irish Act of Union. In turn, Ireland lost its Parliament and most of its political influence. Dublin continued to expand but suffered tremendous financial loss. Many of the finest mansions, such as Aldborough House, were put up for sale within a few years and the elegant Georgian neighborhoods were turned into slums. Eventually in 1829, after mass rallies, Irish Catholics regained citizenship of the UK. 

Dublin in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

In the late 19th Century, Irish nationalists, mostly Catholics, took control of Dublin municipality. Protestant inhabitants moved out of the city to new suburbs, such as Rathgar, in order to avoid the nationalists. Incidentally, a defining characteristic of these newly developed outskirts was an elegant Victorian architecture which has partially survived to this day.

Unemployment had always been a problem in Dublin because the city was never fully influenced by the Industrial Revolution. The most stable employment was ensured by the Guinness brewery and Jameson Distillery. Working-class suburbs spread into the Inchicore and Kilmainham districts. At the turn of the century, Dublin's population exceeded 400,000, but the level of poverty rose parallel to the number of people, adding to the already large number of tenements, which were mentioned in literature by James Joyce and other prominent writers. The infamous Monto of Dublin was the largest 'red light district' of the British Empire, which closed in the 1920s.

In 1913, Dublin experienced the most severe and significant industrial dispute in Ireland's history, known as the 'Dublin Lockout', where some 25,000 workers and 300 employers took to the streets of Dublin protesting the workers' right to unionise. Militant trade unionist James Larkin had established the Irish Transport and General Worker's Union which began to vie for wage increases. The owner of the Dublin Tram Company, another major employer in the city, reacted by firing members of the union. In turn, the said workers were either 'locked out' or on strike within a month, eventually being pressed to return to work.

Dublin between World Wars

In 1914, Ireland was on the verge of self-government, but Dublin saw almost a decade of political violence, instead of a peaceful self-rule transition. The outbreak of World War I postponed the Home Rule Bill. It was in 1916 that armed Irish Republicans staged an uprising (Easter Rising) in pursuit of independence and to proclaim an Irish Republic. The rebels took control of strategic points in the city, including the Post Office building on O'Connell Street, and held it for a full week until they were forced to surrender by British forces, leaving some 500 people dead and a large part of the city destroyed. Initially, the Irish population was put off by the rebels, but it gradually began to back them. In 1918, the revolutionary Sinn Fein party won the parliamentary elections and proclaimed a republic, as well as declared its own parliament. 

The Irish War of Independence raged from 1919 to 1921, a conflict between the IRA (then known as the Irish Volunteers) and British troops, where the killing of British policemen and detectives were taken place in Dublin arranged by IRA men under Michael Collins. This agitation peaked with the death of 18 British agents at the hands of the IRA and the British response with the killing of 14 innocent bystanders in Croke Park. In 1921, the IRA destroyed the Custom House, one of Dublin's finest buildings which housed the headquarters of the local government. Five IRA members were killed and over 80 detained.

Britain and Ireland eventually reached a truce and signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which provided Ireland's self-rule but actually disestablished the Irish Republic, which angered the IRA and triggered the outbreak of the Irish Civil War in 1922. The militant republicans attacked those who had accepted a compromise with the British. In turn, Winston Churchill ordered British troops to attack the rebels. In the end, the newly appointed Free State government suppressed the rebellion. Ireland remained neutral in World War II, with little damage to Dublin, with exception to the Germans accidentally dropping a bomb in the city's North Wall district. At that time, Dublin was an important destination for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

Modern Dublin

In the 1930s, Dublin’s city government began implementing various schemes to tackle its extensive inner-city slum problems, but to no avail. Greater progress was achieved some three decades later. In the 1960s, thousands of working-class inhabitants were moved to housing estates on the outskirts of the city. The old tenements were largely destroyed, however little planning went into construction of new housing. In turn, new suburbs acquired a vast population without any provision for public transport, shops, or even employment. For decades, crime and drug abuse became rampant in these suburbs. Later, the ‘Celtic Tiger’, a term designating the economic boom of Ireland in the 1990s, brought some solutions to many of these problems. However, housing shortage was still an issue in Dublin, as the population increased dramatically and real estate prices have sharply increased. Lower- and middle-class families had trouble surviving in the city.

During the 1960s, city authorities began demolishing 18th-century Georgian buildings. Property developers were eager to profit from the lucrative real estate market, so they replaced historical buildings with utilitarian office blocks. Also, Irish nationalists, who dominated local government at the time, wanted to destroy all reminders of Ireland's history as a British colony. The most extreme example of this ideology was when the century-old Nelson's Pillar (built in honour of British Admiral Lord Nelson) was blown up in 1966. The pillar was replaced in 2003 with the 120-m high Dublin Spire, a needle-like metal monument, which was assembled with seven different pieces using the largest crane in the country. Another example was the destruction of the Wood Quay, an historical site of a Viking settlement known as Viking Dublin, which was replaced by Dublin City Council's civic offices.

Fortunately, Dublin remained almost unaffected during the civil conflicts of Northern Ireland between 1969 and the late 1990s,with exception to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974, when 33 people were killed, 26 of whom were in Dublin.

Since the 1980s, property developers have become more aware of the need to preserve Dublin’s architectural heritage. The Temple Bar has been established as the cultural heartland, which boasts an original medieval street and today attracts most of the tourists visiting Dublin.

In the wake of the aforementioned Celtic Tiger phenomenon, Dublin experienced a building boom, especially with construction of new office buildings, including the International Financial Services Centre, situated in a business district which extends for almost a kilometre along the North Quays of the city.

Dublin’s inner city has had major problems with heroin use and addiction, from the 1970s to the 90s, which exacerbated the social problems of poverty, poor housing and unemployment. The problem gained so much media attention that even a film was produced, which narrated the life story of the journalist Veronica Guerin, who was murdered for delving into the underworld of Dublin's narcotics bosses. Guerin’s work raised awareness of this issue, persuading the government to implemented support programs for drug addicts.  

Dublin’s history has seen many of its inhabitants migrate to Britain and the U.S., fleeing from unemployment and hunger. However, this trend has reversed in recent years, with Dublin’s economic boom attracting large Nigerian, Romanian, Chinese and Russian populations, as well as those from other parts of East Europe, since Ireland’s 2004 EU membership. Over 100,000 Poles have arrived in Ireland since 2004, of whom the majority live and work in Dublin.

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