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Historic Dublin

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Dublin owes its foundation not to the Gael, but to the Danish raiders, who quickly saw the advantages of its situation and made it the central port from which they set forth on their semi-piratical expeditions. It became the capital of a loosely-knit Norse kingdom which exercised sovereignty over a series of trading posts on both sides of the Irish Channel and - until the battle of Brunan-burgh - over a considerable part of England, and maintained communications with Scandinavia by way of the Orkneys and Shetland. When Brian Boru, after defeating the Danes in County Limerick, made himself the first real king of Ireland, Sigurd, the Danish ruler of Dublin, thought it advisable to make his submission. But after a time the Danes rebelled and the two armies met in battle at Clontarf, between the shore of Dublin bay and the north bank of the Liffey, on Good Friday 1014. In this famous struggle the Danes were driven into the sea, but the heroic Brian and two of his sons, Murrough and furlough, were slain.

After Clontarf the Danes accepted without opposition the overlordship of the Irish, kings, became officially christianised and remained fairly peacefully in the various seaport towns which they had founded. In 1171 Dublin was captured by the Normans under Strongbow, and from then on it was held by the King of England and his heirs, and became the recognized capital of Ireland.

The original Danish settlement, out of which Dublin grew, was probably where Cork Hill begins, by the lower gate into the Castle yard. The first building of any importance in the city was Christ Church cathedral, which was founded by Sigtrygg Silkbeard. The Normans rebuilt and enlarged the Danish church, of which nothing now remains except the crypt, where the work of the Danish masons has been preserved. Not satisfied with the rebuilt cathedral, the Normans proceeded to build a larger and more ambitious church, on a site which at that time was just outside the city walls, which they dedicated to St. Patrick. Long disputes arose as to which of the two churches should rank as the cathedral, and it was finally decided that both of them should be so regarded.

Apart from the two cathedrals, Dublin Castle (which is described elsewhere in this work), and some of the churches, there are very few buildings of any importance in Dublin of an earlier date than the eighteenth century. The only notable building which survives from the seventeenth century is the stately and harmonious Royal Hospital (near the Kingsbridge railway station), which was founded by the first Duke of Ormonde, a Lord Lieutenant of Ireland under Charles II.

With the exceptions mentioned above, Dublin as it exists to-day received its distinctive character during the eighteenth century. After the Cromwellian wars, and still more after the victories of William of Orange, Gaelic and Catholic Ireland suffered the fate of the conquered, and the Anglo-Irish " ascendancy " began to develop an aristocratic life which, though largely founded on the misery of the common people, nevertheless has left behind it enduring national monuments of the greatest dignity and beauty. This "ascendancy" of more or less wealthy Anglo-Irish landlords was, as Mr. Stephen Gwynn has pointed out, "an English colony, like that of America, which, like that of America, developed a local spirit and patriotism of its own."

Throughout the eighteenth century, and particularly in the last quarter of it, during the lifetime of Grattan's Parliament, building activity in Dublin was ceaseless. The wealthy landowners vied with one another in the erection of superb town houses. Italian artists and craftsmen were brought to the city to design marble chimney pieces and stucco ceilings. Magnificent private art collections were formed. Money was spent lavishly in social splendours and in the encouragement of the arts, and Dublin gradually became one of the great capitals of Europe.

During the brief existence of the Irish Parliament public buildings were erected on the same scale of magnificence as the private palaces of the aristocracy. The Houses of Parliament, which since the Act of Union have been used by the Bank of Ireland, the Custom House and the Four Courts, buildings which would do credit to any capital in Europe, all date from this period. Unfortunately, both the Four Courts and the Custom House were wrecked in the struggles which attended the birth of the Irish Free State. The plans of the architect, James Gandon, are, however, luckily in existence, and both buildings are now being carefully 'restored in accordance with the original designs.

After the passing of the Act of Union at the beginning of the nineteenth century Dublin's social glories declined immediately, and with the closing of the Irish Parliament the social centre for the aristocracy and landlord classes became shifted from Dublin to London. The newly-built town houses were deserted by their wealthy occupants, and whole sections of Dublin, which had once been as fashionable as Mayfair, sank very rapidly into a depressing squalor from which they have never since emerged. The River Liffey bisects Dublin almost exactly; and the two halves, north and south, are equal not only in size but in architectural and historic interest. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the north side has sunk in the social scale and is now inhabited chiefly by those who cannot afford to live on the other side of the river. Of the public buildings on the north side, among which are the Custom House, the King's Inn, the Four Courts and the General Post Office (now only a shell), the most important is undoubtedly the Custom House, which was, and will be again, one of the most beautiful buildings of its kind in the British Isles.

It was erected between 1781 and 1791 from the designs of James Gandon, an English architect who was brought over to Dublin by John Beresford, the banker. Gandon did all his best work in Dublin, and it is largely to his genius that the Irish capital owes that air of metropolitan distinction which it still possesses. If John Beresford deserves praise for his judgment in employing Gandon, some of his other activities illustrate the less pleasant side of the old "ascendancy." His name is commemorated by Beresford Place, just behind the Custom House, where his bank was situated. During the Rebellion of 1798 John Beresford caused numbers of suspected persons to be flogged "to make them discover what in all probability they never knew," in a riding-house built for his yeomanry troop. Some Irish wags (who never fail, even upon the most melancholy occasions, to exercise their native humour) one night painted the words "Mangling done here by J. Beresford & Co." upon a sign-board and fixed it above the entrance.

Beresford's Bank no longer adorns Beresford Place, whose most noticeable feature for many years has been the curious ramshackle building called Liberty Hall, the former headquarters of the famous Labour leader James Connolly, who was one of the moving spirits of the Easter Week Rebellion of 1916. In days to come, if it continues to exist, few Dublin buildings will possess more historic interest than this undistinguished block of offices.

Not far from Beresford Place, near the northern bank of the Liffey, is a gloomy little building, formerly a morgue, which is also, in its way, destined to be considered historic. It is the Abbey Theatre, in which the plays of Synge, of W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Sean O'Casey and many other Irish playwrights were first produced.

The fine street which leads up from the O'Connell Bridge to Parnell Square, though largely reduced to ruins in the Easter Week Rebellion, has now been almost entirely rebuilt.

Parnell Square (formerly Rutland Square), together with the streets and squares on either side of it, was in the eighteenth century a centre of fashionable life. At the top end of Parnell Square, in what used to be known as Palace Row, stands Charlemont House, which was designed by Sir William Chambers for James Caulfield, first Earl of Charlemont, and begun in 1773. "The virtuous and accomplished Charlemont" was a leading figure in the brilliant Dublin society of his day, and his house is said to have become "a centre, like Holland House in London, of politics, society, art and letters." His art collections were remarkable even in an age of great collections. Before his Dublin house was built he travelled, and lived for some years in London, where he became an intimate of Johnson, Goldsmith, Boswell and others of their circle.

Leading out of Parnell Square towards Mount joy Square is a street called at successive stages Gardiner's Place, Great Denmark Street and Gardiner's Row, which contains a number of fine houses, the most famous of which is Belvedere House, now a Jesuit College. It was built in 1775 for George Rochfort, second Earl of Belvedere, and most elaborately ornamented by Venetian artists. Its beautiful ceilings and mural reliefs, its marble chimney pieces by Bossi, and its three decorated chambers dedicated to Apollo, Venus and Diana, have been preserved by the fathers, and form, in Mr. Cosgrave's words, "the best surviving example of eighteenth century splendour in Dublin.house decoration."

In Henrietta Street, a short thoroughfare of splendid mansions, five Irish Peers at one time had their town houses. It leads upwards to the King's Inn, one of the handsomest of Dublin's public buildings, which luckily passed unscathed through the "disturbances." The houses have now for the most part sunk to the condition of squalid tenements, with broken windows and swarming doorsteps. But it was at one of these - No. 16 - a little more than a century ago, that the fair and frail Lady Blessington was first introduced by her husband to his friends. At No. n, Henry Boyle, Earl of Shannon, "the King of the Irish Commons," died in 1764.

The principal place of amusement in North Dublin in the second half of the eighteenth century was the "Rotunda" in Parnell Square. This handsome circular concert hall, which in recent years has been used as a cinema, was built in 1755 from the designs of Richard Johnson and elaborately decorated inside and out. Flaxman designed the frieze of draped ox-skulls which adorns the exterior. In 1782 it was one of the meeting places of the Irish volunteers, of whom the Earl of Charlemont was general in command. Adjoining it is the Rotunda Hospital, said to be the oldest maternity hospital in the three kingdoms, which has a beautiful chapel attributed to Gandon.

Nearly all the social, political, intellectual and commercial life of modern Dublin is to-day concentrated on the south side of the Liffey. On that side are to be found the two ancient Cathedrals, the Castle, the picture galleries, the National Library, the two Universities (Trinity College and the National University), the Bank of Ireland, which housed Grattan's Parliament, Leinster House, which has been adapted to the uses of the present Free State Parliament, Dublin's two most famous squares, Merrion Square and Stephen's Green, and nearly all the principal shops. Westmorland Street, which runs from the O'Connell Bridge to College Green, terminates with the irregular classic pile of the Bank of Ireland on the one side and Trinity College on the other. The long facade of Trinity, facing College Green, with the Provost's house standing detached at the far end of it, is dignified and unpretentious, but has fewer claims to distinction architecturally than the group of buildings now constituting the Bank of Ireland.

The buildings of Trinity date for the most part from different periods of the eighteenth century. They are nearly all of granite and are severe and dignified in character rather than ornate. The great library, which was erected in 1732, contains, among other treasures, the famous "Book of Kells," an illuminated copy of the Four Gospels, of extraordinary beauty, which dates from the seventh century.

The setting of the tide of fashion from North to South Dublin was to a large extent brought about by the first Duke of Leinster, who elected to build his great mansion, Leinster House, between the present Kildare Street and Merrion Square. When his friends objected that the site he had chosen was "out of the way" - Parnell Square, in North Dublin, being then the fashionable centre - he made the reply "Wherever I go, they will follow me." They did. The sides of Stephen's Green were rapidly built up with splendid houses, while Merrion Square and Fitz-william Square were laid out, and Upper Merrion Street, Ely Place and Harcourt Street became filled with houses no less fine than those on the north side of the city. When the Act of Union came and the great families departed, the decline of South Dublin was not nearly so rapid and pronounced as that of the north side. The houses in Fitzwilliam and Merrion Squares passed largely into the hands of professional men, mostly doctors, and these squares are still the headquarters of the medical profession. Cmbs and other institutions have taken over some of the finer mansions in St. Stephen's Green and have successfully preserved their dignity and beauty.

During the nineteenth century Merrion Square had a number of famous residents. Daniel O'Connell, the "Liberator," lived for a time at No. 58, and Sheridan Lefanu at No. 70. At No. i, formerly the home of Sir William Wilde, the youthful Oscar Wilde graced his parents' parties in the eighteen-seventies. In recent times one of the most interesting houses in the square has been No. 84 - the Plunkett House - which was bought by subscription and presented to the late Sir Horace Plunkett as a centre for the various organizations to which he devoted his life.

Now that the Parliament of the Irish Free State has taken over Leinster House from the Royal Dublin Society, which occupied it for nearly a century, it is probable that Merrion Square will recover all its former importance. Leinster House stands in the midst of a group of public buildings, which include the National Gallery, the National Museum of Irish Antiquities, the National Library, the offices of the Department of Agriculture and Industries, and the Royal College of Science. Some of these buildings are now used by the Free State Government for parliamentary and administrative purposes.

In Upper Merrion Street, which leads from Merrion Square into Ely Place, there are numbers of fine houses, some of which have long been used as government offices. Mornington House, No. 24, one of the largest of them, was the birthplace of the Duke of Wellington. In Ely Place, the delightful little cul-de-sac in which Mr. George Moore spent the ten years of his life which he has described in the trilogy "Ave," "Salve," "Vale," are a number of Georgian houses, the finest of which is Ely House, recently the home of the Earl and Countess of Aberdeen. At No. 4 Ely Place lived the famous advocate, John Philpot Curran, who was the father of Sarah Curran, the fiancee of the ill-fated Robert Emmett.

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