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We built this city - the buildings which define the skyline of Dublin


The GPO, scene of the 1916 rising

The GPO, scene of the 1916 rising

The GPO, scene of the 1916 rising

If historical precedent is anything to go by, then - based on the amount of controversy it generated before opening - the new Lexicon library and Cultural Centre in Dun Laoghaire is likely to become a greatly loved public building, especially as a new generation grows up for whom it was the free space where they discovered the imaginative freedom of reading.

At times recently it has felt like there hasn't been such a fuss over the waste of public money on an unnecessarily grandiose project since the first Free State government went daft entirely and built the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power station, which contemporary critics felt would be a white elephant generating more electricity than we could possibly use.

As a rule we don't take kindly to new buildings. Echoing the general public perception that Busaras would also be a white elephant and monumental folly, Ireland's first interparty government actually halted work midway through the construction of this building, feeling that such a structure was too grand to be a mere bus station.

Among the alternative proposed uses was turning the ground floor into an unemployment exchange, while the top floor might include a nice office for the Tanaiste.

Thankfully sense - or, to be precise, a new government - prevailed and after Busaras was finished, to international acclaim, it simply became part of the backdrop of Dubliner's lives.

In truth, once the initial controversies die down, we don't pay much attention the landmark buildings: our primary use for them is as a navigational tool. The inner satnav within any Dubliner means that we direct tourists by reference to cathedrals, museums and colleges and we direct locals purely by intoning the litany of pubs they need to pass.

But one person who has paid particular attention to many historically important Dublin buildings is Lisa Marie Griffith. She now coordinates the Cultural and Historic Studies Programme at the National Print Museum, but for two years funded her PhD by being a guide on historic walking tours of Dublin.

It can be hard to connect visitors to the history of a city when walking around it, but gradually Griffith realised that she could impart a deep sense of Dublin's story by focusing on the individual stories of the major buildings she passed.


This allowed her to conjure up for tourists contrasting vistas of Dublin at different times but also allowed her to see these everyday buildings in a new light, with each one opening a door into the events which shaped Dublin as we know it.

Griffith has now turned those two years of worn shoe leather into a fascinating new book, Stones of Dublin: A History of Dublin in Ten Buildings.

Her chosen buildings range from Dublin Castle - seat of English power for centuries - to Kilmainham Jail, where leaders from the 1978, 1803, 1848, 1967 rebellions, as well as The War of Independence, were detained.

It includes the GPO (the last great Georgian public building), the old Irish Parliament Buildings, where an Irish government sat until 1801, and Trinity College which has been slowly expanding since 1959.

Being Dublin, drink plays a part in the story and Griffith interweaves alcohol in an obvious sense into the history of one building and in a much more unexpected way into another.

By locating his St James's Gate Brewery in the heart of the Liberties in 1959, Arthur Guinness cunningly provided himself with a workforce by day and thirsty local consumers for his product at night. By 1810 it was the city's largest brewery; by 1833 it was the biggest in the country and, by the start of World War One, the biggest in the World.

The Guinness family and their wealth are intricately interwoven into the story of Dublin, but alcohol played its part too in the 19th century fate of Dublin's old church, Christ Church Cathedral.

This started off as a Viking chapel and through various incarnations, with the Anglo-Normans seizing it and medieval lord lieutenants being sworn into office there. It had fallen into disrepair in the 19th century however, when its fate was saved - and its structure considerably altered - by a costly restoration paid for by Henry Roe, then Dublin's largest distiller of whiskey.

Other buildings chosen by Griffith include City Hall, the Abbey Theatre (originally located in the old city morgue) and - to bring us right up to date - the modern edifice of Croke Park which has become one of the Europe's most modern stadiums.

The joy of any book that studies such buildings is not the arguments it solves but the arguments it creates, as those who know (or think they know) their Dublin debate which buildings they would include. Amateur historians and professional Dubliners may come to blows over this book at Christmas, drink spilt and empty whiskey bottles may even be brandished.

The only thing certain is that they won't have Henry Roe labels on them. Sadly his philanthropy outlived his brand of whiskey, which vanished from our pubs in the 1940s.

Stones of Dublin: A History of Dublin in Ten Buildings, published by The Collins Press (€17.99)