Portrait of a party town’s puritanical underbelly
Dublin: The Making of a capital city by David Dickson, €36.95
Published 09/06/2014 | 02:30
Visiting Dublin in 1858, Charles Dickens expressed his surprise: “Upon the whole, it is no shabbier than London is,” he mused, “and the people seem to enjoy themselves more.”
Not everyone was quite so enamoured; for James Joyce, it was the “centre of paralysis”, while an English observer saw the city in 1690 as “a seminary of vice, an academy of luxury, or rather a sink of corruption and living emblem of Sodom”.
Dublin is a city of contradictions. It’s a party town with a puritanical underbelly; a stronghold of 20th-Century Catholicism with a Protestant past; and a city where opulence and poverty have long lived side-by-side. David Dickson’s Dublin offers an impressive and authoritative history of the city, from its early years as a Viking settlement to its place at the centre of English power in Ireland, and through years of expansion and revolution.
Like most capital cities, Dublin has often had an awkward relationship with the rest of the country, not least because for centuries it was the centre of foreign rule and the bastion of a religion shared by few outside the metropolis.
Dickson is alive to the tensions between the capital and the country, as well as to those between Dublin and Belfast, which at the beginning of the 20th Century “seemed to be all the things that Dublin was not”.
Looking at the Dublin of much of the 20th Century – largely Catholic, nationalist and almost entirely white – might give the erroneous impression that the city’s past is generally monocultural. Excavations of the Viking town threw up fragments of Asian silks, walrus ivory and coins that may have come from as far as Samarkand.
The influx of French immigrants during the Huguenot migrations of the 17th Century brought new skills, crafts and economic nous. In the late 19th Century, Ashkenazi Jews began to arrive from Tsarist Lithuania. The capital has both welcomed and resisted outsiders since its foundation: Dickson’s account leaves no room for thinking of its culture as monolithic.
A recurring theme is that of charity, poverty and relief. The inequality that exercised social commentators of the 19th Century was nothing new; nor was it a passing problem. The 18th-Century Rotunda Lying-In Hospital was funded in part by the proceeds from the pleasure gardens nearby, and was only one of many philanthropic projects that sought to address the city’s desperate poverty. The early 20th Century brought tenement collapses and high child mortality, and a pervasive inequality that was only exacerbated by the Lockout of 1913. The devastation wreaked by heroin in more recent years, and the effect of national belt-tightening on urban communities, suggest that the story of Dublin as a city built on inequalities is one that remains with us today.
In the face of austerity, corruption and scandal, modern Dublin has often been accused of seeming strangely supine; but the city’s underlying tensions – economic, political, sectarian – ensure that its history is not short of political theatre. The coronation of Lambert Simnel, pretender to the English crown, set off a revolt in 1487; vigilante “priest-catchers” and inflammatory plays both caused riots in the early 18th century; and the rebellions of 1798 and 1803 were stoked by the violent rhetoric of the city’s Jacobin assemblies. Dickson’s dissection of the Easter Rising of 1916 is compelling, fair-minded and challenging of popular orthodoxies — important in a decade such as this, where every year brings more potentially divisive centenaries.
Dickson’s Dublin is an achievement: he synthesises a vast body of literature to create a work that is comprehensive, intriguing and sober in its judgments. In a city whose fascination with history can shade into self-mythologising, his critical approach to what the popular song calls “the rare auld times” is welcome. Indeed, the only big disappointment in a book intimately concerned with the visual and the architectural is the scarcity of images, particularly of John Rocque’s maps and the 18th-century streetscapes by James Malton.
Poet James Stephens wrote 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.” In Dublin, Dickson has woven together the city’s social, economic, cultural, demographic and architectural histories; the story he tells will intrigue, enlighten and stand as a monument to this great city’s place in an ever-changing Ireland.
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