Dublin has its origins as a Viking city, however the layout and grain of the city centre as it exists today is mainly the legacy of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The major commercial thoroughfares, terraced buildings, and the parks and squares which populate both sides of the Liffey, in essence comprise a Georgian city incorporating a medieval and 17th-century urban plan. It is this mixture of curving organic routes, contrasting with the ordered classical symmetry of 18th-century quarters, that endows Dublin with its distinctive built identity.
Discover more about how the city evolved...
There was settlement on the banks of the Liffey since at least early Christian times, however it was not until the arrival of the Vikings to Ireland in 841 AD that Dublin developed into a substantial urban centre. It was here, at the mouth of the River Poddle, that the Vikings established their successful town and trading post, with fluctuating periods of power, until the arrival of the Normans from Britain in 1169.
It is from this latter period that Dublin received some of its earliest buildings which still stand today, including Christ Church Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, surviving fragments of medieval Dublin Castle and many sections of the City Walls.
Opposite: Conjectural view of the Viking city sited at the mouth of the river Poddle. The future site of Dublin Castle is the enclosure positioned to the extreme right.
Throughout the medieval period, under Norman and later English influence, the city expanded outside its walled confines. This occured mainly to the south and west in new suburbs or ‘liberties’ in areas such as Thomas Street and the area surrounding St. Patrick's Cathedral, which lay outside the control of Dublin Corporation.
To the north of the Liffey, the lands of St. Mary’s Abbey were the dominant feature for much of the medieval period, as was the Abbey of St. Thomas on Thomas Street, south of the river, until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539. Dublin had a population of approximately 10,000 at this time and remained a relatively small city until the remarkable period of urban expansion later in the 17th century.
Opposite: John Speed's map of Dublin, 1610, provides an invaluable record of the layout of the late medieval city. This extract shows the ancient curving route of Thomas Street, extending from the city walls at the entrance to Francis Street (on the right) to the former Abbey of St. Thomas (centre) and westwards towards St. James's Gate.
The late 1600s saw rapid growth in Dublin’s population, reaching approximately 65,000 by 1700. A shift in settlement and development patterns to new areas began to emerge. The redevelopment of the former Priory of All Hallows as Trinity College, founded in 1592, encouraged new residential housing along Dame Street and further development to the east and south. This included fashionable new areas such as St. Stephen’s Green, developed by Dublin Corporation in the 1660s, and the laying out of Aungier Street by Sir Francis Aungier as a pioneering new street intended for the political and social elite.
At the same time, new suburbs were developing on the north side of the Liffey, instigated by developers and landowners such as Sir Humphrey Jervis and the Earls of Drogheda, resulting in Capel Street, Henry Street, and the early beginnings of O’Connell Street in the form of Drogheda Street. The Duke of Ormond, meanwhile, had a role in developing the Liffey quays, encouraging developers to build facing the river in the continental fashion, while Phoenix Park was laid out as a royal deer park under his term as viceroy.
While most of the domestic buildings of 17th-century Dublin no longer remain, the streets, plots and occasionally substantial fragments of these buildings still survive from this initial boom period, forming the essential backbone of Dublin city centre as it stands today. Enclaves of surviving 17th-century fabric include terraces of early buildings on Aungier Street, Capel Street and Thomas Street, while others remain embedded in the later built fabric of the city.
The 18th century saw the spectacular growth and expansion of Dublin to the extent that it became the second city of the British Empire and one of the largest and most prestigious capitals in Europe. Its population was estimated at 200,000 by 1800, with an economy largely based on trade, the sale agricultural produce and property development and speculation.
The physical legacy of this boom period is not just the instantly recognisable Georgian thoroughfares and squares that flank each side of the river Liffey, but also the many thousands of individual buildings and structures, streets and laneways, bridges and street surfaces created at this time that still form the skeleton of the modern city. Indeed, 'Georgian Dublin' may be understood to include the medieval and 17th-century city which remained extensively in evidence during the long 18th century.
Much of Georgian Dublin was developed as a series of urban estates by wealthy families such as the Gardiners, Fitzwilliams, Dominicks and Eccles, who leased their extensive lands in plots to builders and speculators on which to build, subject to certain restrictions. Some of the earliest developers in the 18th century laid out what still remain the most fashionable streets in Dublin, such as Molesworth Street, Kildare Street and Joshua Dawson’s Dawson Street, originally resided in by the aristocracy, peers and wealthy merchants. Most houses built in the first half of the 1700s conformed to the 'Dutch Billy' gabled house type, before morphing into the flat-topped 'brick barn' house of the classical tradition that still dominates the modern streets of the capital.
Wide Streets Commissioners
The Wide Streets Commissioners, Dublin's planning body, was instrumental in reshaping the city during the long Georgian period (c.1714-1830). Founded in 1757, the powerful Commissioners compulsorily purchased and cleared property, and laid out new streets in a unified manner, including Parliament Street, Westmoreland Street, D’Olier Street and Lower Sackville (O’Connell) Street. These were amongst the first planned retail streets anywhere in Europe, lined with shop units to the ground floor and living and service accommodation overhead.
Unlike Dublin's road-widening schemes undertaken during the 20th century, the Commissioners devised architectural plans for the new buildings that would enclose the remoulded streets, with a pioneering vision for strictly unified facades, shopfronts and decorative features. One of the best surviving examples of their work is the former The Irish Times terrace on D’Olier Street, while a sole surviving shopfront remains on Dame Street facing the Central Bank.
The Commission's powers were extended by 1790 to control all new streets laid out within the Circular Roads. They also widened existing streets like Dame Street, Thomas Street and modern-day Christchurch Place. The Commission was formally disbanded in 1849 and its role absorbed into Dublin Corporation.
The expansion of Dublin in the 19th century occurred mainly outside the former canal boundaries of the city centre in extensive Victorian township suburbs of middle class housing. Initially, this was fuelled by the development of the railways in the 1830s-40s, followed by the expansion of the omnibus and tram networks which facilitated mass commuting for the first time. Lower local taxes in the townships was an added attraction, leaving the Dublin Corporation area burdened by the pressures of an expanding urban and rural poor.
It was not until the 1850s and 1860s, following the Great Famine, that the city centre began to take on a different appearance to the classical Georgian city, when many elaborate banks, commercial and retail premises, railway stations and public buildings were erected. These buildings employed new materials in their construction such as terracotta, machine-made brick and plate glass windows which must have appeared radically different to contemporary eyes.
Previously sedate, residential Georgian thoroughfares such as Grafton Street, Dawson Street, Henry Street and Upper O’Connell Street took on new lives as commercial streets, with many of their townhouses converted into shops or entire terraces swept away to make way for grander premises, hotels and department stores. Some of the most famous retail institutions in Dublin emerged at this time, including Delaney’s New Mart ‘monster store’ (later to become Clerys) Arnotts, Brown Thomas and the South City Markets, while well-known hotels such as The Gresham, The Shelbourne and The Hibernian also emerged.
Many older buildings underwent substantial remodelling to accommodate retailing, resulting in the distinctive Dublin building type of a Georgian house with a Victorian shop at street level.
The opening years of the 20th century saw chaos and destruction in Dublin with the decimation of large quarters of the north inner city as a result of the 1916 Rising and the Civil War of 1922. Three-quarters of O’Connell Street was completely levelled, while large tracts of Henry Street, Abbey Street and Eden Quay were also destroyed.
In the aftermath, the opportunity was taken to rebuild these streets to better accommodate retailing and modern services while exuding a dignified civic design statement. The result is a network of streets of a more regular character on the north side of the Liffey than is evident in the south retail core, with sturdy terraces of stone and brick-faced buildings built in the neoclassical fashion of the 1910s and 1920s – the former Clerys department store being one of the finest. The opportunity to rebuild O'Connell Street in the unified manner of a heroic Euroopean boulevard was, however, overtaken by private commercial interests.
It was also at this time that the major public buildings of the city were ambitiously reconstructed by the Office of Public Works following their bombardment, including the Custom House, Four Courts and the General Post Office. Dublin Castle was one of the few major complexes to remain unscathed.
Opposite: Reconstruction of the Four Courts, architect James Gandon's masterpiece, in the early 1920s.
Like many western world cities, mass suburban expansion dominated Dublin's development throughout the mid-20th century - much of it prompted by the need to provide additional and improved housing in the post-war years. It was not until the 1970s, 80s and 90s that development took off again on a large scale in the city centre, with the construction of speculative office blocks and shopping centres. Many of these schemes resulted in the destruction of large swathes of historic buildings in favour of monolithic and often insensitively designed structures. In more recent years, these have begun to be replaced or refaced in a manner more sympathetic to their surroundings, though in others, some fine examples of mid 20th-century modernism have already been swept away.
Urban renewal schemes were a hallmark of the 1980s and 1990s, the most prominent of which was the Temple Bar initiative which leveraged existing cultural assets, institutions and buildings in the creation of a new cultural and residential quarter. Since that time, Dublin has seen a renaissance in city centre living, working and leisure, including the redevelopment of the Docklands, making it one of the most dynamic and energetic capital cities in Europe.