I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Irish History

Going Georgian

Patrick Duffy

The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation, by David Dickson, Yale University Press, 352 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0300229462

David Dickson, emeritus professor of modern history in TCD, has made contributions to Irish urban history for many years, most notably in Dublin: The Making of a Capital City (2014) and Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster, 1630-1830 (2005). In The First Irish Cities, he makes the point that almost 150 histories of English towns were published in the eighteenth century, in contrast to virtually none in Ireland, where confiscation and religious divisions destroyed any semblance of social solidarity among urban communities. Only the maps of John Rocque, Bernard Scalé and other mainly Huguenot surveyors provide records of Irish towns and cities for the latter half of the eighteenth century. Towns in post-independence Ireland were frequently seen as “alien” colonial intrusions. For much of the twentieth century, official renditions of a rustic Gaelic idyll obscured the contribution of urban culture and society to our identity. And much of our urban heritage was ignored, its preservation dismissed by minister Kevin Boland in 1970 as the preoccupation of “belted earls” in the Irish Georgian Society.

Since then there has been a popular resurgence of interest in the achievements of eighteenth century Georgian Ireland – its architecture and urban design. Indeed there is growing awareness of the significant legacy of Anglo-Ireland as well as of the British state’s nineteenth century contribution to improvements in Ireland’s urban and rural infrastructure. As shown by David Dickson, the Protestant establishment especially was pre-eminent to a great extent in the political and municipal governance of Irish towns and cities up to the Famine. Towns as centres of wealth and gentility, economic and political power were bailiwicks of a self-conscious colonial community with access to parliamentary representation, the administration in Dublin Castle, the law courts and legal profession, the established church, military commissions, membership of city guilds, town corporations, county grand juries and more.

In this exploration of the historical experience of ten Irish towns and cities, the dead hand of sectarian politics seems ever present, distinguishing Ireland’s urban histories from the European norm. For the majority Catholic population, the advantages and privileges of living and working in urban centres were curtailed, and only gradually and grudgingly removed by parliament and town corporations. But the eighteenth century was also a century of urban growth, innovation and creativity. Then from the post-famine period onwards most Irish towns became fossilised shells, their populations contracting into demographic doldrums and, except for Dublin perhaps, their footprint largely at a standstill until the 1960s.

The essentially colonial roots of town and city take-off and transformation in the eighteenth century are clear as new urban elites became established with the protection of state and the law. Older Catholic elites sought trade and fortune in European cities and ports. The new landowning gentry and merchant class were promoters in what has sometimes been called an “age of improvement” or what Dickson usefully calls “hard” and “soft” improvement – meaning the physical environment of the towns, and their social and cultural amenities. Water supply was a “hard” improvement in more ways than one and piped water supplies in Dublin and Cork were sporadically improved through the century. For most people in eighteenth century large towns, water was a scarce resource, often carried from rivers or canals and sold from water carts; in Dublin some public fountains were provided by 1790. In commentaries on the state of the poor in the escalating overcrowding at the end of the century, “the complete absence of personal hygiene and the pervasive stink of human excrement in the courts and back lanes were recurrent themes”. Disease outbreaks near unsanitary slaughter yards, for instance, were frequent and the gradual abandonment of the public slaughter of animals in many towns was a mark of progress. Gaslighting replaced the six thousand old streetlamps in 1825, possibly one of the promised improvements following the Union.

The establishment of courthouses, market houses, linen halls, assembly rooms, as well as theatres and public spaces for spectacles and marching bands were important markers of civilisation in urban settings. Many of these developments have been detailed in maps in the Irish Historic Towns Atlas project. Dickson’s book reaches beyond the morphological description of the IHTA to provide a broader historical analysis of the evolution of his case studies. In a sense what we have in The First Irish Cities is a history of eighteenth century Ireland reflected in the experience of its large towns: history takes place, in this case in towns as platforms to detail life, culture and economy from the Restoration (1660) through the long eighteenth century.

Dublin, Cork and Belfast feature most prominently, with Dublin remaining significantly at the top of the rank order right up to the present. While Derry was the most successful plantation town, commentators noted the “prodigious growth” of Dublin. Data on apprentices from Ireland and Britain demonstrate the growth of Dublin especially; while there were exclusionary by-laws against Catholics, from the 1720s and ’30s the Catholic population rose steadily in all the towns except Derry and Belfast. Poverty in rural hinterlands led to migration for succour into towns, especially during recurring rural crises, as in the 1720s and 1740s. During the Great Frost of 1740-41 for instance (examined in Dickson’s Arctic Ireland: the Extraordinary Story of the Great Frost and Forgotten Famine of 1740-41) great numbers of people flocked into Dublin and larger towns to beg and to seek shelter.

Catholic rural migrants to Cork, Limerick, and Kilkenny congregated in sprawling thatched cabin suburbs outside the walls or where walls had formerly demarcated the city boundaries – regularly burning down in accidental fires. Rocque’s 1756 map of Dublin showed hundreds of small houses on roads and lanes on northern and western approaches to the city. By the late eighteenth century, however, the centres were overcrowding with poor: in Dublin’s St Michan’s parish in 1723 there were families in every room “oftentimes on each floor and in the cellars”. As the central streets filled up with poor by the late eighteenth century, there was a simultaneous movement of the business and professional classes to the suburbs, a movement pattern less evident in the smaller towns. Later, during the post-war depression in the 1820s, there was a surge of in-migrants to the back lanes of the cities – and the older city centre streets of Dublin and Cork for instance gradually deteriorated as tenancies multiplied and their former grand residences were abandoned by the upper classes.

Trading was at the core of urban economies. As a consequence of career openings in law, army and church being denied to Catholics, a mercantile diaspora evolved with international links to France, Spain and the Atlantic provisions trade to the Caribbean. Galway was the hub of an international trading network involving the Catholic sons of western gentry, with significant Catholic merchant families also emerging in Limerick and Waterford. Kinship links with continental cities were impressive – David Rochford was a Cork trader whose six daughters married Irishmen resident in Spain and in Nantes, as well as Catholic merchants in Waterford. Inland towns and cities like Kilkenny were to some extent prisoners of geography, shielded from external price competition by the costs of overland transport. Kilkenny also benefited from being a transport hub on the Dublin-Cork route. From the early eighteenth century coal and wheat were carted from north and south Kilkenny to Dublin. Its dominant business families were Anglican descendants of Cromwellian settlers, though in 1741, most unusually, the Corporation allowed Catholic residents the same privileges as freemen so that they dominated the retail businesses by the late eighteenth century.

Belfast was an international trading hub from early on, dominated by Presbyterians in the Caribbean trade, with linen becoming a key export to the colonies from the early 1700s with return imports of flaxseed, rum, sugar and tobacco. The highway from Drogheda to Dublin was the busiest route in eighteenth century Ireland, where bleached linen was transported south from east Ulster to Dublin’s Linenhall until Belfast took over as the premier linen market in the 1780s. The landscape on the northern suburbs of Dublin was dotted with mansions and villas owned by Northerners, many involved in the linen trade, who played an important role in the development of eighteenth-century Dublin – such as Humphrey Jervis, William Conolly, Archbishop William King, the earl of Charlemont, John Beresford and Francis Johnston.

Dublin’s business community was mainly Anglican. Restrictive membership of guilds and corporation reflected the mid-seventeenth-century Protestant ‘capture’ of the city with rules and practices designed to marginalise or exclude Catholics and sometimes Dissenters from the privileges of civic freedom. Dickson notes that the guilds facilitated the rapid development of manufacturing in Dublin following the Cromwellian settlement by attracting skilled craftsmen from England and France. By the 1760s the exclusivist nature of the guild system was fading and following the Catholic relief act of 1793 a small number of Catholics were eventually admitted as members of the Guild of Merchants but excluded from freedom of the city. Catholic merchants and traders were also unable to invest in urban property developments on the long leases availed of by the likes of Luke Gardiner, Humphrey Jervis, Joseph Leeson or Quaker merchants. Catholic investors moved their capital to projects abroad, though most simply continued with moveable assets in trade.

Dickson points to the role of upper class elites and the government administration in Dublin in promoting the city’s social and political dominance – bolstered by the viceregal presence at Dublin Castle, meetings of parliament and expansion in the courts of law. “Many seasons in Restoration Dublin were marked by a ‘great concourse’ to the city”, with surging demands on milliners and coachmakers, goldsmiths and saddlers, silks, glassware and tapestry. The importation of manufactured silks into Ireland reached a peak in the 1760s. Through the eighteenth century the influence of the parliamentary season was important ‑ for six months every two years and every year from 1785. Debates around the dissolution of the parliament in 1799 estimated that each of the around four hundred MPs and their families spent more than £1,400 a year in the city. Their departure would “ruin coach makers, cabinet makers, woollen drapers and haberdashers not to mention the thousands in domestic service as well as physicians, accouchers, perfumers and jewellers, tutors and courtesans”.

While the distinction between workshops involved in manufacturing and those simply trading products was ambiguous in most towns, in Dublin shops engaged in retailing had emerged in the sixteenth century and by the mid-eighteenth there were clusters of them throughout the central city streets. Public markets catered for everyday needs. The city had ten wholesale and ten retail markets, all recorded in Hugh Douglas Hamilton’s drawings in 1760 and mapped in John Rocque’s survey of the city in 1756. New specialised “capital shops” appeared in Parliament street, Dame street and Essex street with glass windows and browsing spaces where “officers of state and parliament were invited to sample the exotic furs in Dennis Callaghan’s establishment in Eustace St ‑ ermine from Siberia, squirrel fur from Hudson Bay, musquash skins from Acadia”. Malton’s images of Dublin in 1791 show numbers of commercial premises with bow-fronted shop windows. In centres outside Dublin the absence of a substantial gentry clientele led to a more modest development of shops and retailing. Cork’s capital shops were concentrated in the mainly Protestant streets in the centre – more down-market traders were located mainly in the north and south suburbs.

Much of Dickson’s historical exploration is dominated by the religious sectarianism which marked life and landscape in the towns and cities. The post-Williamite oppression of the Catholic population – the “relegation of the majority population to a permanent status as non-citizens” as Kevin Whelan has put it – shaped the economy and geography of urban development. The Catholic presence in towns kept a low profile – with no steeples or bells, chapels and mass houses were sited outside the old walls or in back streets: Rocque’s map of Dublin shows many of these buildings discreetly tucked away, though from the 1720s they became increasingly visible, especially in Galway, Kilkenny and Drogheda. Even after the 1793 Relief Act, the Catholic archbishop of Dublin, fearing official opposition to his pro-cathedral on Sackville street (now O’Connell Street), chose a less conspicuous location in Marlborough street.

By contrast the Church of Ireland dominated town and city streetscapes and community – “the scale of episcopal palaces reflected the very sizable rental incomes from diocesan estates”. In Dublin the demographic significance of Anglicanism and the “teeming Protestant population of the Liberties” were reflected in a church like St Michan’s, which could accommodate a congregation of 4,100. In Galway, Kilkenny and Limerick, where Anglicans were comparatively small in numbers, “patched-up” medieval churches sufficed. The 1791 parliamentary enquiry into education advocated the co-education of Catholic and Protestant children in the (Church of Ireland) parish schools, with religious instruction by the clergy of each denomination – an enlightened suggestion which never bore fruit. Catholic education thereafter was undertaken through the nineteenth century by religious orders who came to dominate many town and cityscapes.

In the physical planning and development of towns by institutional and private developers, invariably Dublin as capital features prominently in the discussion – from the late seventeenth century assembly of Phoenix Park and Kilmainham hospital by the Duke of Ormond, and St Stephens Green by the city corporation. The corporation also constructed some of the first quays and the sea walls to protect the Liffey channel. Numbers of landmark buildings were erected from the 1730s – Edward Lovett Pearce’s parliament building, Gandon’s Customs House, the Royal Exchange. Other iconic additions to the city’s architecture were Thomas Burgh’s Trinity College Library (which when completed in 1732 denied access to undergraduates), and the Royal Barracks (1704-’08), which by the 1760s housed around four thousand men. It remained for much of the century the largest barracks for “an ostensibly Protestant army, its officer corps with strong gentry links”. The military garrisons dispersed in Irish towns and cities were unique in Europe, and a reflection of a colonial desire to protect the Protestant inhabitants.

Most of the physical expansion was undertaken by private entrepreneurs who obtained long leases on urban properties. Aungier, Gardiner, Jervis, Fitzwilliam and others built estates which still bear their names, with local variations in design and texture reflecting the impact of subcontractors and small-scale builders. Notable parliamentary intervention in the 1758 Wide Streets Commission in Dublin (and later in Waterford and Cork) laid down a planning framework which marks the Georgian streetscape today: “buildings were to be terraced, tall and narrow, two bays wide and four storeys over street-level shops, with the frontages in brick and in perfect alignment.” In other centres merchants were important players, both as private entrepreneurs and in their roles in municipal government. Quakers were influential in Waterford and Cork. In Kilkenny, which had no dominant merchant interest, the older medieval street pattern endured.

The early decades of the nineteenth century witnessed a revival of sectarian divisions in Irish towns, as escalating political demands for Catholic emancipation unnerved the conservative Protestant constituency. A rise in evangelical Protestantism, and a “second reformation” movement in the Church of Ireland led to a significant divergence of Catholic and Protestant communities. Suspicion of Catholicism was rife among some Anglican commentators. Dickson notes a contemporary in Cork in 1830 observing the impact of sabbatarianism among the Protestant community, where on Sundays “the public walks … are not frequented by Protestants, but are filled with crowds of Catholics”. In the end, he suggests, Irish cities led the roll-back of the Reformation and the rise of a triumphalist Catholicism in the nineteenth century.

The First Irish Cities is copiously illustrated with more than thirty colour plates, reproductions of contemporary views and perspectives of streets and parks, as well as town maps, and plans and drawings of buildings, bridges and monuments.


Patrick Duffy is emeritus professor of geography at Maynooth University.



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