independent

Sunday 20 April 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 www.ireland.anglican.org. 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.

That same disregard for the law was taken to its extreme by the well-heeled 'bucks' and 'bloods' of the ruling class. Many were the disinherited younger sons of aristocracy who had money but not the responsibility of maintaining the good family name.

Historian Seamus Breathanach reports that one of these young bucks who killed a friend was jokingly nicknamed "Killkelly", while another who murdered his coachman was called "Killcoachy".

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.

On one London visit he mischievously dispensed some charity to the city's poor, giving a half-pint of gin to everyone he deemed deserving enough. The upshot was a major riot. Exploiting his station, he got away with a slap on the wrist.

Another serial offender protected by her class was Mary Monckton, Countess of Cork. Born in 1746, she was famed for throwing lavish dinners which attracted Dr Johnson, Walter Scott, Lord Byron and other leading wits of the day.

Trouble was, she was a hopeless kleptomaniac, and whenever she visited other people's homes she would steal anything of value that wasn't nailed down.

Being a Lady, she was spared having her collar felt by the law. Whenever she returned from a visit, it was her maid's duty to sift through the booty and return it to its rightful owners with a nod and a wink.

It was all very different for women of the lower classes. As late as 1856 a Sligo magistrate had to remind an all-male jury that "the abduction with intent to marry" of young women from their homes should be treated seriously as a form of assault.

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