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Dublin, Old and New

Published
March 17, 2023
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AFTER Cork and Blarney Castle, I headed for Dublin, the capital of the Irish Republic and, before independence and partition a hundred years ago, the traditional capital of all Ireland.

Like all of Ireland’s major cities, Dublin is on the coast. It sits at the mouth of a river called the Liffey.

The Liffey

A selfie over the Liffey

Nobody knows for sure what the name Liffey means. It’s thought that the name may date all the way back to the stone age, to the days when people were erecting great monuments all over the British Isles, Ireland included.

I got to Dublin from Cork via Go Bus for only 14 Euros, and managed to stay for two nights for 50 Euros a night at the Garden Lane Backpacker Hostel.

Go Bus

The Garden Lane Hostel was just fifteen minutes walk from Christ Church Cathedral, in the oldest part of town. The bridge in this photo crosses Winetavern Street, a name that sounds very mediaeval!

Christ Church Cathedral

On my first day, I wandered around the Temple Bar area, where all the signs of the funky and youthful city that Dublin has become are fully on display.

The Oliver St John Gogarty pub, in the Temple Bar area, named after a literary star in the Dublin of a hundred years ago

A street in the Temple Bar area

I strolled along the Icon Walk, where images of famous Irish people are painted.

There was a really good one of Luke Kelly of the Dubliners.

Here’s a clip of Luke Kelly singing an old favourite called The Black Velvet Band, about someone from Belfast who falls into the wrong company and is transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

Dublin has a good public transport system, which includes the two lines of the Luas tramway, local trains of the DART or Dublin Area Rapid Transit System, longer-distance regional trains, and a downtown bus station called the Busáras, meaning ‘bus building’, which has several floors of offices above it.

The Luas tram

Busáras: public domain image by Jnestorius, 28 January 2008 via Wikimedia Commons

Though it is the capital of an independent Irish Republic these days, Dublin was founded by Ireland’s colonisers and dominated by them either directly or via local elites of mixed descent, generally known as the Anglo-Irish or the Protestant Ascendancy, until the 1920s.

Dublin was founded as a rough-and-ready Viking settlement where people crossed the Liffey on wicker mats laid down at low tide, called hurdles.

After that, Dublin passed thereafter into the hands of the Normans who built a castle, and the English, who erected more stone buildings, before becoming the capital of the 1922–1937 Irish Free State, a state still under the British Crown but otherwise independent, like New Zealand. In 1937, the Free State became the Republic, of which Dublin remains the capital.

Next to Christ Church Cathedral in the medieval part of town, I saw an exhibition about the earliest times called Dublinia.

The name Dublin comes from dubh linn, Irish Gaelic for black pool, a pool of the Liffey which used to exist in front of Dublin Castle. The official Gaelic name today is Baile Áth Cliath, meaning ‘ford of hurdles’.

I also explored the later, Georgian part of town, named after the dignified architectural styles practiced during the reigns of the British kings George I to George IV, 1714 to 1830. Here’s a typical Georgian building, the Dublin City Hall of 1779.

Here are a couple of photos of the old Irish Parliament House, completed in 1729 and remodelled in 1796.

The Parliament House was probably the first custom-built parliamentary building in the world.

Abolished as a Parliament in 1801 and used as the headquarters of the Bank of Ireland, it is now open to the public for such purposes as concert recitals.

The Liffey has a stately riverfront in the Georgian area. This view shows the Four Courts, the judicial buildings which once housed four separate courts. The Four Courts was heavily damaged in the 1916 Easter Rising (of which more below) and again the Irish Civil War which followed independence in 1922.

The Four Courts

Another impressive Georgian building along the Liffey is the Customs House (1791).

‘The Customs House in Dublin seen early in the morning’. Photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, 11 October 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Customs House was completed in 1791, during the period I mentioned in my Cork and Blarney post, during which Ireland was, briefly, almost independent of Great Britain. It does not bear the arms of Britain but of the Kingdom of Ireland.

Unfortunately, Ireland’s independence was withdrawn after the Rebellion of 1798, an episode accompanied by a French invasion of Ireland: The Year of the French, as the Irish say.

The British blamed the Year of the French on the misrule of the Dublin Parliament, overwhelmingly dominated by wealthy Protestant landowners in a country where most people were Catholic and poor.

The British felt that if they did not take complete control of the island, it might fall to the forces of the French Revolution. Which would then confront Great Britain from both east and west.

Among their other grievances, the rebels of 1798 had claimed that the Dublin Parliament was hopelessly corrupt. The British must have agreed because they employed “inducements” to persuade the members of the Dublin Parliament to vote for their collective retirement and direct rule from London.

And so, Ireland was fused into the United Kingdom on the 1st of January, 1801. As far as the Brits were concerned, an independent Irish kingdom had been tried and didn’t work.

(They may not have tried very hard. The same was said of most additions to the British Empire. Repeatedly, the British would claim that the locals in some other country couldn’t rule themselves properly, and that — reluctantly, you understand — Britain had to take over.)

A red diagonal cross, supposedly the cross of St Patrick, was added to a Union Jack that had combined the flags of England and Scotland up to that time.

The Union Jack before and after Irish union in 1801. From public domain images by Hoshie and Zscout370 on Wikimedia Commons.

The new red diagonal cross was a more elegant solution than sticking a harp in front of the old Union Jack; a design briefly tried during the Interregnum of the 1650s when England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland were all united as a republic.

Having said that, many Irish people claimed to have never heard of this red diagonal cross and that it was a new one on them.

British rule was, however, fatally called into question by the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, when a blight killed much of Ireland’s potato crop, leading to the deaths of about a million Irish out of a total population of eight million at the time.

And with the famine and subsequent failures of economic development causing such massive emigration that Ireland’s population has never recovered to the pre-famine level.

There is a memorial to the famine victims on Customs House Quay, near the 1791 Customs House. It is one of about a hundred such memorials across Ireland.

The Dublin Famine Memorial. Public Domain image believed to be by ‘Sebb’, 8 September 2006, via Wikimedia Commons.

Such reflections on England’s oldest colony, as Ireland is often known, lead naturally to Dublin Castle, the nerve centre of direct and indirect British rule in Ireland from the time of the Normans until 1922 or even 1937. In fact, the Castle is still where the President of Ireland is sworn in and where many official functions are held, even today.

Although the oldest parts are Norman, the Castle has been constantly added to, and thus counts as part of Georgian Dublin.

The building marked ‘10’ in the diagram is called Bedford Hall. Here’s a photo of Bedford Hall, and one of the two gates with which it is flanked, from inside the castle.

Here’s a photo of the same gate from the way in, over a humpy bridge. I think it has a lot of character.

There are many fabulous rooms and corridors inside Dublin Castle, described by Queen Victoria as “quite like a palace.”

The state ballroom known as St Patrick’s Hall has fantastic paintings on the ceiling. People lie on the floor to stare up at the ceiling and take photos with their smartphones: behaviour that Queen Victoria would probably have found most undignified.

Here’s a video I made, that shows scenes from Temple Bar and St Patrick’s Hall:

There’s also a room where one of the leaders of the famous 1916 Easter Rising against British rule, James Connolly, was briefly imprisoned. It’s called the Connolly Room today.

The gate on the other side of Bedford Hall is called the Corke Hill Gate. This was where the first shots of the Easter Rising were fired.

Here is a proclamation that announces the rising and offered its justification. You can see an original copy in the Connolly Room.

Proclamation of the 1916 Easter Rising. Retouched public domain image by Jtdirl, 25 February 2003, via Wikimedia Commons

Still, it was not as if Ireland was subject to an autocratic form of colonial rule. In fact, since the union, Ireland had sent members of Parliament to Westminster on the same basis as the rest of the United Kingdom.

And so, the Easter Rising came as a surprise to the authorities: a fact that accounted for its early success, though it was ultimately stamped out.

In the end, 485 people lost their lives due to the rebellion, and a couple of thousand more were wounded. Many of the victims were civilians caught in the crossfire. Much of downtown Dublin was damaged or destroyed as well.

The Ruins of the Metropole Hotel, Dublin, after the Easter Rising. National Library of Ireland on the Commons, via Wikimedia Commons. No known copyright restrictions.

There was also some fighting in other parts of the country, but Dublin was where most of the action took place.

Those who instigated the violence justified it by the observation that something similar was happening every few hours on the battlefields of World War One, a war into which Britain had dragged Ireland, a country that might otherwise have remained neutral.

Interestingly enough, several of the leaders of the Easter Rising, including Éamon de Valera, Patrick Pearce, and James Connolly, weren’t even born in Ireland but in Irish communities in America and Great Britain. Which admittedly perhaps made them twice as determined to liberate the Old Country.

De Valera, who survived to become Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and then President of the Irish Republic, holding one office or the other for most of the thirty-five years between 1937 and 1972 and increasingly known across those years simply as Dev, would have been shot by the British after the rising was put down had it not been for his American citizenship.

But Pearce and Connolly had the misfortune of being born in Great Britain. The only mercy that they and fourteen other leaders would be offered was one last cigarette.

At the time of the rising, most of the Irish also viewed the rebels as deluded, laying down their lives and those of hundreds of others for a romantic and old-fashioned cause.

Sure, there had been plenty of Irish rebellions in the past. But that was then, and this was now.

All the same, the executions drew attention to the cause of renewed Irish independence and helped to swing public support behind it: an ‘own goal’, as the Brits say.

After independence, the main street of Dublin, Sackville Street, was renamed O’Connell Street after a nineteenth-century nationalist politician known, like Simon Bolivar, as ‘The Liberator’.

A memorial to the Liberator, itself somewhat Bolivarian in style, has dominated the former Sackville Street since 1883.

The O’Connell Memorial, in O’Connell Street

A closer view of the O’Connell Memorial

(In New Zealand, where settlers recycled many names from the Old Country, there is a Sackville Street in Auckland and a Daniel O’Connell Bridge in Otago.)

On a different note, Georgian Dublin includes the magnificent campus of Trinity College Dublin or TCD, with its distinctive campanile and a quadrangle surrounded by massive buildings.

A selfie in front of the campanile at Trinity

Trinity is the sole college of the University of Dublin. There were meant to be more of them, just like the several colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, but only one was ever built.

Anyhow, nobody talks about the University of Dublin, as a rule. They all say Trinity.

The Front Gate of Trinity College (Regent House) as viewed from College Green. Public domain photograph by Stephen Bergin, 28 February 2017, via Unsplash and Wikimedia Commons.

I wanted to see the legendary Book of Kells in the library at Trinity College, but there was a three-hour wait, and I had seen it twice before. So, I decided to save the admission fee, which was US $27, and wander on a bit further south to St Stephen’s Green.

During the Easter Rising, the rebels also tried to capture Trinity College, which they could have turned into a fortress. New Zealand soldiers played a significant part in stopping the rebels from getting in, which according to a New Zealand historian, a graduate of Trinity, who has written a book about the matter, was just as well:

“I argue very strongly,” Dr Sweetman says, “that had the rebels occupied Trinity, as they tried very hard to do on the first night of the rebellion, then the British would have shelled it to smithereens.

“The two generals involved, Lowe and Maxwell, would have seen only ‘the nest of the rebels’. They wouldn’t have taken into account the treasures of the library, the beauty of the museum …

“And the rebels wouldn’t have surrendered. They would have fought to the death.”

To be continued next week …

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