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Dublin: The Story of a City

Stephen Conlin and Peter Harbison
O'Brien Press


From the Introduction by Peter Harbison

If you go up the Dublin Mountains south-west of the city, in the area around Cillakee, and look down over the Liffey 'delta' spreading out before you, you see a sprawling conurbation of over a million people, which is a far cry from what you would have seen a thousand years ago. Where the city now spreads out in suburbs heading for Dun Laoghaire and Howth, back then there was only a small set­tlement in the centre. Its denizens had just engaged in the Battle of Clontarf in IO14, which did not, despite popular belief, rid Ireland of the Vikings. They continued on, and DNA would doubtless show that their blood still flows in Dubliners' veins.

These Norsemen had arrived a century and a half earlier, mainly from Norway, and established a trading post on the banks of the River Liffey. They were ousted by the native Irish, who had what would seem to have been a monastery in the area around Stephen Street, but the Norsemen returned around 917 to found a permanent settle­ment on the spur of land enclosing Dublin Castle and Christ Church Cathedral. That was the real beginning of the city as it now stands, despite claims hailed in a spurious millennium celebration in 1988!

In time, Dublin was conquered by the Vikings' remote cousins, the Normans, in 1170 and given to the men of Bristol two years later. From then until 1922, Dublin Castle — which grew out of an earlier Norse fortification found beneath it — became the centre of Norman and then English power in Ireland.

Probably more than the inhabitants of any other city in Europe, Dubliners have gone through a number of lan­guages in the course of their history: Gaelic, Old Norse, Norman French and English, the last having become the norm during the past two hundred years. With such a linguistic change, one might almost have expected the citizens to have developed a language of their own, with local idioms and vocabulary, yet this has not manifested itself greatly. What Dubliners do have, however, is a gen­erosity of syllables, employing two where one could do, or making two become three. The best example is the name of the city itself, pronounced 'Dubbel-in', divided by the River Liffey into two sides, 'de nort sigh-yed' and 'de sout sigh-yed'. One often hears outsiders speak of the Dublin accent, but the fact of the matter is that there are myriad accents, depending on locality and social status. There is even a moving one, the 'DART accent', as spoken by those who travel on the suburban train service — Dublin Area Rapid Transit — which runs right around Dublin Bay.

But perhaps the change of languages helped to loosen Dubliners' tongues, for they are great talkers. The 'gift of the gab' is said to be best practised in pubs, but it is prob­ably more common nowadays in the cafes that have sprung up like mushrooms all over the city. This linguistic dexter­ity also spawned a literature for which Dublin is famous — Swift in the eighteenth century, Le Fanu, Stoker and Wilde among others in the nineteenth, with Joyce and Beckett dominating the twentieth. Indeed, Joyce's Ulysses, published in 1922, placed the map of Dublin on the world's literary stage by describing in the most evocative colours the work­ings of a city and its people on one particular day in 1904.

Not to be forgotten in this context is the exhilarat­ing theatre life of the city, going back to the Smock Alley Theatre in the seventeenth century, Sheridan in the eigh­teenth, with Wilde, Shaw, O'Casey and others sharing the nineteenth and twentieth centuries between them. Their works and those of Irish and foreign playwrights are often presented on the boards of the Abbey and Gate theatres, but also in smaller and more intimate venues.

The throbbing life of any city is the constant interaction between its citizens and the street-side buildings — and what goes on inside them. It is worth noting that Dublin's two cathedrals, Christ Church and St. Patrick's, and the nearby church of St. Audoen's, are really the only medieval buildings still surviving above ground in the old parts of the city, and that, of course, is because they were built of stone. For some two-thirds of Dublin's existence, its pop­ulation lived in structures of wattle and wood, which have long since vanished and can be reconstructed only on the basis of archaeological excavation. It was not until around 1700 that brick came into its own as the staple building material of Dublin's houses, and it was the chosen medium of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, enhancing the beauty of the squares and streets that adorn the city centre and beyond. Times have now changed considerably, and the concrete block is much more the staple diet, perhaps less attractive as a material but enabling the construction of grander and taller architectural creations which also facilitate more internal light than was ever possible or conceivable before.

Dublin's history is like a yo-yo, going up and down over the centuries, and its buildings often help to reflect the changes that have taken place over time. Not all the city is beautiful; financial upheavals have caused restrictions of building activity and even dereliction, with deplorable gaps occurring, but have left the really great public struc­tures and central squares with their eye-popping doorways largely intact.

Stephen Conlin's beautifully crafted illustrations in this volume overlook those parts of the city described as 'dear dirty Dublin' and concentrate on a remarkable selection of areas and individual buildings which truly give us an insight into the see-saw of architectural development of the city, from Viking cabins to Norman/English half-timbered houses, from cathedrals to grandiose Georgian buildings, nineteenth-century houses and churches, and ending up with some of the best of twentieth-century architecture in the city and its environs. Walking along Dublin's streets, we see the facades of the buildings that flank us — but it takes the brush and pen strokes of a master watercolourist and draughtsman like Stephen Conlin to make us see the larger-patterns, by providing us with an intriguingly detailed and animated bird's-eye view of the city, which none of those new-fangled drones would ever be able to recreate, let alone copy or imitate.