Monday 22 December 2014

The savage times of a lawless Georgian Dublin

When we think of Georgian Dublin, we conjure up elegant city squares, broad cobbled boulevards, tall stately buildings and periwigged gentlemen out for a stroll with dainty belles in ballgowns.

The reality of life under four King Georges (1714-1830) was jarringly different.

Ireland's earliest police records have just gone online at Two account books (1724-85) and seven registers (1765-80) offer a glimpse into crime and punishment in the Church of Ireland parish of St John's, covering part of today's Temple Bar.

The documents open a window on a time before Dublin's first police force was established in 1786, when daily life for most city dwellers was a dirty, violent free-for-all.

After nightfall, the pitch-dark streets were patrolled by volunteers called watchmen deputised under a 1723 act recruiting "honest men and good Protestants".

They had their work cut out.

Gang feuds were common not just amongst the Catholic peasantry, but among their better-off tradesmen cousins.

Two bitter feuding factions were the textile workers of the Liberties on the Liffey's south bank, and the butchers of the Ormond market on the north-facing quay.

Up to 1,000 men would fight in these turf wars, leaving the city centre strewn with debris and bloodstains. One notorious street fight in 1790 for possession of Ormond Bridge raged for three days.

Donnybrook roads were a magnet for highwaymen on its famous fairdays and the city streets were no safer. Town & Country in 1786 reported that a Mr Hume had been mugged on Merrion St by two 'footpads' whose handsome haul was two guineas and a watch.

As a public service, footpads and other common thieves were dispatched from a gallows just off Stephen's Green.

One hanging of five criminals was disrupted when the gallows collapsed. The cock-up left "three of the unhappy wretches to remain half-strangled on the ground until the other two underwent the sentence of the law, when they in their turn were tied up and executed".

As ever, there was one law for the rich and one for the poor in Georgian Dublin. While the starving faced death or transportation for stealing to put food on the table, the rich treated the law as their personal plaything.

Although illegal, it's estimated that duels of honour were fought amongst the upper classes at the rate of 100 a year. The participants considered duels nobody's business but their own.

When they weren't debauching themselves in The Hellfire Club or some other den of iniquity, Dublin's bucks got their kicks roaming the streets 'chalking' innocent passers-by. This involved pronging victims with the tips of their swords "merely with the wanton and wicked intent to disable and disfigure them".

A famous artwork of the period is William Hogarth's 1751 print Gin Lane, which depicts the scourge of cheap gin as an agent of urban madness, despair and moral collapse.

Gin Lane was set in England, but the so-called "gin-craze" swept Dublin too. One tearaway toff who attempted to re-export the problem back to London was Henry Beresford, The Mad Marquis of Waterford. Beresford squandered the family fortune on pranks.

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