Dublin’s Georgian charm – visiting Britain’s second city of Empire

At Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green, musicians were packing away their instruments after an afternoon performance on the park’s fine bandstand, but the appreciative crowd wasn’t going anywhere. As the set-down music kicked in, people kept on dancing on the grass in front of the stage.

Elsewhere in this wonderful open space, landscaped from the mid-18th century, with walkways, flower beds and a boating lake, visitors were enjoying the late afternoon sun. Some had even lit barbeques and given the volume of drink they had were preparing to make an evening of it (or at least till the wardens shut the gates).

But while today the park is open to all, it has in the past been much more exclusive (indeed when it was enclosed by railings in 1814, people who wanted to use the green needed to pay the annual fee of one guinea). My Lonely Planet guidebook called this “the centrepiece of Georgian Dublin” and in the 18th century it was surrounded by new avenues built with “iron snuffers, fine wrought iron work, fanlights, grilles, bell pulls and lanterns” (according to one 18th century writer) and lived in by polite society who wanted to escape the squalid conditions of the medieval city.

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St Stephen’s Green

Dublin’s fine Georgian properties have taken a bit of a battering over the years and some were unfortunately demolished, to be replaced with concrete monstrosities which (if they’ve not themselves been happily been pulled down) are a blot on the city’s landscape.

Thankfully in more recent decades society has learned to properly appreciate Georgian architecture and the terraces – now restored – are home to upmarket offices, guest houses and language schools. This area of Dublin, south of the Liffey, is one of city’s most popular tourist spots and that’s largely due to its fine architecture.

Georgian Dublin’s success

Dublin’s success grew on the back of the victories for William III in the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent 1720 Declaratory Act which clarified the supremacy of the British Parliament over Ireland. The Protestant colonial culture in Ireland became more dominant in the following years.
Protestant nobility transformed the city during the Georgian period, with the creation of magnificent new streets, squares, parks and public buildings. From a population of 100,000 in the early 1700s, it grew to 180,000 in the latter part of the century.

“Its progress was excessive – the locality of the parliament – the residence of the nobility and commons – the magnificent of the viceregal court – the active hospitality of the people – and the increasing commerce of the Port, all together gave a brilliant prosperity to that splendid and luxurious capital,” noted one late 18th century account of the city.

Dublin in this period was a fashionable city of high living, with lavish entertainment – such as seeing the newest plays at the Theatre Royal – and oozing with wealth. “You are not invited to dinner to any private gentleman of £1,000 a year or less, that does not give you seven dishes at one course, and Burgundy and Champagne; and these dinners they give once or twice a week,” according to a contemporary visitor.

Dublin’s Viking origins

Modern Dublin was founded by the Vikings in 917 and the settlement quickly became an important trading centre. They left their mark on buildings and institutions that remain to this day, such as the beautiful Christ Church Cathedral – first established as a wooden structure in 1030 and re-built by many others in the last thousand years.

The Viking settlement was developed further by the Anglo Normans following an invitation by one of the Irish kings to come to Dublin in the 12th century. Dublin Castle dates from 1204, but only the round tower survives from then – the landmark was re-developed significantly following a fire in the 17th century and, rather than becoming a defensive structure it was built as a palace which became the venue for all-night balls.

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Dublin Castle today

But the noveau riche Georgians initially headed north of the river, creating fine new squares and elegant mansions – rather than developing the old medieval city. Henrietta Street, laid out in the 1720s and lined with a series of red-brick Palladian mansions, is where the guide books will tell you was Dublin’s first example of Georgian urban design. Theatres, drawing rooms and coffee shops sprang up in the surrounding area for polite society to enjoy.

Soon however Dublin’s slums – it was a city of the haves and the have nots in the 18th century – spread north and so some rich decided to hop foot it over the Liffey and establish new homes in and around St Stephen’s Green, the wonderful park that I sat in, and Merrion Square.

James Fitzgerald (later Duke of Leinster), who began building his townhouse on cheap, boggy land in 1745, was the first to break the convention and head south. Economist and author Arthur Young described it in 1776 as a “very large stone edifice, the front simple but elegant, the pediment light. There are several good rooms, but a circumstance unrivalled is the court, which is spacious and magnificent. The opening behind the house is also beautiful.” Another visitor was “infinitely struck by the grandeur” of the property and was impressed by “the refreshing shrubs that surround it, charmed his fancy, and made him think it a dwelling fit for a sovereign.”

Leinster House – set behind a grassy patch and shut away from the public – today serves as the seat of both houses of the Irish Parliament, but it’s 18th century grandeur, with black and white square tiles in the two-storey entrance hall with a sweeping staircase, has been retained.

When Fitzgerald decided to cross the river, some of his peers were appalled, but he wasn’t deterred. “Where I go,” he predicted, “society will follow.” He was right and the area quickly developed. Today, it is the city’s most impressive neighbourhood for Georgian properties and is extremely popular with tourists given its imposing architecture.

Dublin City Modern Gallery at the top Parnell Square is housed in Lord Charlemont’s townhouse, which even in the 18th century “the apartments large, handsome, and well disposed, containing some good pictures, particularly one by Rembrandt.”

But describing these buildings is just scratching the surface – this blog would turn into a big book if I was to list all the new buildings from the Georgian period. I don’t have space here to chart all the new structures, such as the splendid Custom House and the Four Courts. Or the existing institutions, such as Trinity College which was founded by Queen Elizabeth I and expanded in the 18th century.

Entering Georgian Dublin

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Number 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street

Crossing Merrion Square – enclosed gardens not as big as St Stephen’s Green but just as pleasant and once home to Oscar Wilde – you soon reach Lower Fitzwilliam Street which was approved by the Wide Street Commissioners 1791 when it was considered on the outskirts of town.
Sadly some 14 of the Georgian terraced houses on this stretch were destroyed in 1963 so the Electricity Supply Board could build its bland modern concrete headquarters. But happily they restored one property.

Completed in 1794, number 29 was one of the first properties to be built on Lower Fitzwilliam Street and was originally home to a Mrs Olivia Beatty, a recent widow of a wine merchant. Today visitors can explore her five-storey home, largely as it was, complete with the table laid for dinner and bed made in the master bedroom. Georgian furniture, ceramics and paintings, as well as treasures brought back from the Grand Tour and toys in the attic nursery are displayed through the property.
In the basement, there’s a video charting not only the property’s history, but also the bigger story of Georgian London. Visitors hear about the fine food and the lavish parties that the wealthy enjoyed at the time.

Explaining Dublin’s prosperity

Just why Dublin boomed in the 18th century is discussed in a fascinating chapter of Tristram Hunt’s most recent book, Ten Cities That Made An Empire. He puts the city’s development in the context of the fall-out of the end of the First Empire of the Thirteen Colonies (defeat in America) and the “important transition in the history of British colonialism” that followed. A new constitution introduced in 1782 gave Ireland a large amount of legislative independence, but still under overall control of the British Crown.

“It was a readjustment that would force Ireland to change from a uncomfortable colony into a component part of the British Isles – and one which had both to be defended against external invasion and fully integrated within the colonial economy,” writes Hunt. “How Ireland was transformed from a problem to a partner in imperialism can be chronicled through the beautiful and ostentatious fabric of Georgian Dublin.”

Dublin entered into a period of great prosperity and became the true second city of Empire, with army surgeon John Gamble writing how he was “forcibly struck with the strong likeness it bears to London – more beautiful, in truth, in miniature than the gigantic original.”

Georgian Dublin’s steady decline

Unfortunately Dublin’s prosperity wasn’t to last. In the aftermath of a rebellion by United Irishmen in 1798, Ireland’s parliament was dissolved and direct rule from Westminster was re-introduced. Many of the upper classes fled to London and the city fell into a steady decline.

“We are an almost ruined people – we are doing worse than nothing,” said the Dublin Magazine in 1812. “At the time of the Union… we then had trade, flourishing in all its various directions…. Now what with the removal of our parliament, the absence of our nobility and gentry, the inundation of British articles, and the strange concept for our home-manufacturers, numbers wander meal-less in our streets, and the fatigued eye of charity meets beggars in every direction.”

Fashionable Henrietta Street – mentioned earlier as Dublin’s first Georgian street to be laid out – fell into considerable disrepair following the 1801 Act of Union (which united Ireland with Britain politically) and later became a tenement street with each property housing up to 70 residents. And even the Duke of Lennister’s townhouse started to fall into disrepair.

Thankfully that structure and the houses on Henrietta Street still standing here (some were sadly demolished) have been restored and, like many other places in the Irish capital are pleasant once again. Many new buildings have sprung up in the last two hundred years, but as I looked around and pondered in St Stephen’s Green I think it is the architecture dating back to Georgian Dublin that is the most memorable.

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St Stephen’s Green

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Georgian homes pulled down for this

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