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  • Dublin: The Making of a Capital City by David Dickson
  • Newton Key
Dublin: The Making of a Capital City, by David Dickson. Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. xviii, 718 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

Pity the historian of a metropolis like Dublin, pondering whether or not to include its commuting hinterlands as well as how to distinguish the city’s from the nation’s story. Dublin includes landmarks of Irish nationalism. But Dublin was also the centre of Anglicization. Dublin’s story can be told as one of glittering success or framed by immense poverty. David Dickson tackles these contradictions, acknowledging the boom and bust of our most recent decade influenced his own decisions on what to emphasize. And he successfully makes compelling Dublin’s changing portrait, providing telling detail from recent research. Rarely does prosopographical detail of aldermen or architects threaten to obscure the narrative arc of its ‘‘making.’’

Dickson, a doyen of early modern Irish studies, is strongest on the two centuries before the Act of Union. The lively prologue covers over half a millennium up to the half-hearted Reformation. Two chapters trace the narrative through the seventeenth century, three the eighteenth, two and a half for the nineteenth, and four more for the twentieth century. Numerous well-chosen colour and black-and-white plates enhance the narrative. The maps are fewer but illuminating, especially those of aristocratic estates in eighteenth-century Dublin. This encyclopaedic work includes ninety pages of notes and a thoughtful ‘‘Bibliographical Note.’’

Settlement along the River Liffey dates from several centuries before the tenth century when it became a continuously developing community. Early Dublin was Norse. The settlement enriched itself through the overseas slave trade of prisoners. From Norse to Anglo-Norman: Dublin’s first ‘‘charter’’ dates from 1171–72 and Henry II of England. By the fourteenth century Dublin can be termed a city, ethnically and legally closer to Chester or Bristol than to the rest of the Irish isle. Dublin embraced Protestantism hesitantly, although one monument to the reforming impetus was Trinity College incorporated in 1592.

Customs revenue grew rapidly in the early seventeenth century, but the horrors of civil war and refugees descended upon the city by 1642. Ironically, abject surrender to the Puritans ensured Dublin’s future as the centre of the Protestant Ascendancy. By 1662, however, royalists were back in charge of a city dominated by aristocratic culture. Dublin’s politics and tastes remained interwoven with those of Westminster and London. After a brief period of Jacobite rule, Dublin’s ‘‘ancient Protestant government’’ (108) was restored by 1692 and it became outwardly more Williamite than any English city. Dublin’s Huguenot population grew, as did the number [End Page 416] of vagrants or ‘‘strangers.’’ The city’s many partisan printers and booksellers propagated further the struggles that marked the Anglophone eighteenth-century world — landed versus monied, and Tory versus Whig.

By 1750, Dickson notes, Dublin was the only one of Europe’s largest cities that was not the capital of a sovereign state. The townhouses of Ireland’s rentier aristocrats accounted for much of this anomalous importance, but so too did the law courts, Parliament, and the university. Fashionable society further shaped the city, from public gardens to philanthropic institutions. Dickson exhaustively covers the interaction between the aristocrats, surveyors, and architects who developed the great urban estates. The narrative reasserts itself documenting occasional riots and crises. The 1760s, the height of Dublin’s craft manufacturing according to Dickson, also saw Wilkite ideas spread. Volunteer Dublin during the War of American Independence turned to protecting Ireland from ‘‘enemy privateers’’ (197) — probably Dublin smugglers. Patriot Volunteers wore only ‘‘Irish’’ cloth. Henry Grattan and other Dublin politicians made common cause with ‘‘the people,’’ and this meant Catholic relief. Before the end of the century, John Beresford worked to move and rebuild the Custom House, and the Wide Streets Commissioners also planned an urban geography on a capital scale. Both Protestant and Catholic Dublin revolutionaries embraced Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (London, 1791), although fewer supported the more radical Declaration of the Catholic Society of Dublin (Dublin, 1791). Radicals — the Society of United Irishmen and...


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