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Was 19th-century Dublin really the 'decaying Calcutta of the north'?

The standard narrative represents the pre-independence city as economically stagnant and socially polarised.

David Dickson

PART OF THE pleasure of writing about Dublin history is the chance to throw light on the vast amount of fine micro-research hidden away in obscure journals and unpublished dissertations. But the opportunity to torpedo some of the easy conventional wisdoms can be just as enjoyable.

One such assumption is that Dublin declined as a result of the Act of Union in 1801. The standard narrative represents the 19th-century city as a decaying Calcutta of the north, economically stagnant, socially polarised and waiting for Home Rule to restore its fortunes.

Technical innovation

But this dystopic view of Dublin is something of a fiction. Certainly the old city contained appalling slum housing, but the new Dublin of the Victorian suburbs contained some of the best urban environments in the then United Kingdom.

And by 1900 technical innovations had taken place in the city – in brewing, electric tramways and in the provision of social housing – that were setting international best-practice.

How can one square such an upbeat view of things with the Lockout and the Easter Rising? Both conflicts reflected the city’s deep social and political divisions. But poverty as such was not the catalyst in either case, and despite what Connolly may have hoped for there was little risk of social revolution, Petrograd-style, in Dublin.

Mixed blessing of independence

And when Irish independence followed political revolution, it was a mixed blessing for the Free State capital.  The new governing elite was not interested in urban regeneration or in public architectural display. Indeed Dublin’s cultural institutions, all of which had been created under the Union, atrophied for half a century or more after independence.

Tectonic changes did however begin in the 1930s, what with the new industrial policy associated with Seán Lemass and the accelerated migration from the countryside. Crumlin and Marino were only the first of many new public housing schemes that eventually broke the inner city slums – but also the inner city sense of community.

And that Greater Dublin, the poorly planned low-density megalopolis, took shape during Archbishop McQuaid’s regime (and he took a remarkably close interest in the process). Fortunes were made in the titanic wave of office-building in central Dublin and in the lightly planned new suburbs, but it took a disaster – the Stardust tragedy – to force officialdom to take the safety of the citizenry seriously.

The 1990s were very different: the costs of blinkered and sometimes corrupt planning began to be exposed. And when it was almost too late official Dublin discovered its history and saw the value of urban heritage. One of the legacies of that decade – and, dare we say, of Charlie Haughey – was a remarkable strengthening of the cultural infrastructure of the city.

Writing a new history

Even in these hard times for the bookshops, wherever there’s a section devoted to Irish history, there’s likely to be an armful of coffee-table books on Dublin and a variety of little pocket books on some aspect of the city’s history, all waiting for their buyer. So why did I write another book on the history of Dublin?

The idea was hatched by Peter Carson, one of the heroes of London publishing a generation ago. He had in mind a series of ‘biographies’ of great European cities – authoritative, accessible and visually striking – and being of Dublin extraction himself he wanted a Dublin book to lead the way. No single-author survey of Dublin had been attempted for decades. So I took up the challenge, not realising that it would take more than a decade to complete.

I took as my next starting point James Stephens’ remarkable insight, written in 1923, that “no city exists in the present tense… it is the only surviving mass-statement of our ancestors, and it changes inversely to its inhabitants. It is old when they are young, and when they grow old it has become amazingly and shiningly young again.”

Melting pot

Close to Ulysses in length if in no other respect, the book traces the unfolding, not of one day in the imagined life of the city, but the lives of some 50 generations of Dubliners, running from the ninth century up to the millenium.

A recurring theme is how much Dublin has always been a hybrid place, a melting pot and sometimes a collision point for Viking, Gaelic and Anglo-Norman settlers, for New English and Ulster Scots, Huguenot and Jewish immigrants. And it argues that much of the city’s cultural singularity, both within Ireland and globally, was the result of this hybridity.

Yet Dublin remains one of the largest cities in Europe without a city museum to capture and reflect its history. The Little Museum of Dublin, a private initiative, has brilliantly shown the way, and An Post is doing its bit in reconstructing the innards of the GPO. If UNESCO designation for the city comes in sight, perhaps a really big museum plan might actually get the go-ahead.

At least two other general surveys of the city are now being promised. Between us, our histories will perhaps help to locate what in Dublin’s past should dominate that hypothetical space, and isolate what is really distinctive about the city’s long history, its pathos and its triumphs: Phil Lynnot and Handel, the old triangle and the pint of plain.

David Dickson is a professor of modern history in Trinity College Dublin, with a particular interest in Irish social history. His latest book, Dublin: The making of a capital city, which was published last year by Profile Books, will be available from €19.99 in paperback from 6 August.

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David Dickson

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