Georgian Dublin: The Forces That Shaped the City: sordid reality of a grand era

This marvellous book puts the focus on the grim lives of ordinary people in Georgian Dublin

Sat, Dec 5, 2015, 00:41


Book Title:
Georgian Dublin: The forces that shaped the city


Diarmuid Ó Gráda

Cork University Press

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Most of the many books about Georgian Dublin concentrate on the elite in 18th-century society. What distinguishes Diarmuid Ó Gráda’s marvellous work is that it moves beyond the Protestant ascendancy to deal with the lives of ordinary people – servants, beggars, boot-boys, chimneysweeps, newsvendors and prostitutes.

Far from the “Augustan capital” painted by others, Ó Gráda notes that overcrowding and filth reached epic proportions in Georgian Dublin, and there were periods when the city was running out of control – mainly due to “the unrest of the anonymous”, with the army called out to suppress regular riots by the lower orders seeking a better life.

Most of the population, which trebled during the 18th century, were not living in grand Georgian houses, but in hovels in the poorer parts of the city, often near one or other of numerous stinking dunghills on the northern or western outskirts of the built-up area. Not one of these hovels or dunghills has survived, for obvious reasons.

In the 1790s, at the height of Grattan’s parliament, 300 MPs and 100 peers of the realm had grand houses in Dublin. But while peers competed with each other to acquire the best pews in St Anne’s on Dawson Street, the city’s poshest parish, two of the poorest civil parishes had no schools to provide even a basic education.

The “extreme contrast between rich and poor” in Georgian Dublin was noted by visitors to the city, and violence was “part of everyday life”. Popular entertainment included men fighting with backswords and cudgels, bull-baiting and cockfighting as well as pillories and public hangings, of which there were 242 between 1780 and 1795.

Georgian Dublin had about 1,000 licensed beggars (badges cost five shillings and were valid for six months), but many more were involved in begging from their betters. “Humanity must shudder at the crowds of petitioning wretches to be met with in every corner of the city,” the Hibernian Journal observed (with a shudder) in 1783.

Overrun by pickpockets


This correctional institution was part of a new bureaucracy that “circumscribed paupers, criminals, the homeless and the insane, along with anybody else who diminished the pleasure and wealth of the elite”, Ó Gráda writes. There were also beadles about to keep beggars from bothering grandees on Beaux Walk in St Stephen’s Green.

The Hibernian Journal, one of several periodicals from which he has mined so many nuggets, complained in 1778 that “the vice of a capital city, with its numberless train of incentives to drunkenness, idleness and debauchery, must always produce a languor in the industry, and a gangrene in the morals, of the lower class of people”.

The Association for Discountenancing Vice raised money to buy bibles for the poor. But drunkenness and debauchery were not confined to the lower classes. One viceroy, the “universally lamented” Duke of Rutland – after whom Rutland (later Parnell) Square was named – led such a dissipated life that he died from syphilis in Dublin in 1787.

One of the book’s 13 chapters is devoted to prostitution, although the vice trade is dealt with more than once in at least two others. One of the appendices contains a list of the names and addresses of convicted brothel-keepers; they were concentrated in what’s now the Temple Bar area, conveniently located close to Dublin Castle.

Chapters are relatively arbitrary, mostly consisting of vignettes culled from the author’s research, which was facilitated by the National Library of Ireland’s digitisation of 18th-century newspapers and periodicals. Many of the illustrations come from a contemporary album of street scenes, The Cries of Dublin, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton.

Ó Gráda describes the Wide Streets Commissioners, which laid out the Georgian city, as a “self-perpertuating body”, with members largely drawn from the ranks of parliamentary power-brokers. “Its attention was directed towards satisfying the ambitions of property barons who had speculated on city expansion,” he observes, rather acidly.

Meanwhile, Blackrock and Clontarf were emerging as seaside resorts, and attracted people seeking respite from rheumatism or tuberculosis. Medical fads were common. “Bleeding is now all the rage, purging was lately the go, sweating yielded its place to both. Vomits are expected to be the next favourite panacea,” an 1813 pamphlet noted.

Typhus prevalent

There were also complaints that hackney cabs were being used by grave-robbers to carry corpses to Trinity College, for dissection, or bring infected persons to fever hospitals. Shebeens were everywhere, prompting the Hibernian Journal to complain that “we are regulated by a police which stands in the highest degree of reprehension”.

Franchise was very limited; in the 1740s, only 3 per cent of Dublin’s population had the right to vote. But the Protestant ascendancy wasn’t entirely heartless. After 10 people died in the collapse of a house where they were attending Mass, the Castle authorities showed more tolerance towards the establishment of Catholic chapels.

In his masterwork, Dublin 1660-1860, Maurice Craig rightly gave credit to the great Duke of Ormonde, as viceroy of King Charles II, for laying out the Liffey quays, enclosing the Phoenix Park and building the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. Indeed, it was Ormonde’s bold initiatives that laid the groundwork for what became Georgian Dublin.

Surprisingly, Diarmuid Ó Gráda doesn’t mention him at all. But this oversight and minor errors, such as prefixing the Dublin Society as “Royal” decades before it became so, pale to insignificance in the broad sweep of a book that gives us so many insights into the lives of people in the Georgian era. In that context, it is magnificent. Frank McDonald was environment editor