- Urban Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Ireland ed. by Georgina Laragy, Olwen Purdue and Jonathan Jeffrey Wright
There have been notable works of Irish urban history in recent years, not least the impressive individual components of the Irish Historic Towns Atlas, but there is still scope for more theoretically informed studies, following in the wake of the so-called spatial turn. In Urban Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, composed of contributions written mostly by early-career scholars based in Irish history departments, the editors emphasize that they are less interested in people and activities that happened in urban spaces than [End Page 680] in “the spaces themselves,” their production and utilization, and how they shape activities and behavior (4). Latching onto another recent methodological turn, they insist on the materiality of urban space in addressing the tricky issue of what differentiates space from place: space is material, they argue, whereas place is in the mind, associated with the realms of symbolism and a sense of place.
The essays range chronologically from the 1780s to 1914 and occasionally beyond, in a long nineteenth century in which high Victorianism is surprisingly elusive. There are no department stores, theaters, railway stations, or hotels among these spaces, but instead a bevy of disciplinary institutions. Most contributors pay due attention to the urban-ness of their spaces, but there is less about their Irishness. One exception is Matthew Potter’s essay about social housing in pre-World War I Ireland; he notes that nationalists favored municipal housing whereas unionists did not, resulting in few council houses in Ulster but relatively large numbers elsewhere. Notwithstanding the central government’s oft-cited policy of “killing Home Rule with kindness,” rents were unaffordable for most of the laboring poor (47). Social housing was occupied by an aspirant class whose members espoused values of domesticity and pride in their homes. In some respects, Potter’s chapter is out of step with other contributions. His “spaces” are different Irish municipalities. We learn that Belfast provided the least social housing relative to population, and Kingstown and Blackrock (among the wealthiest municipalities by ratable value) the most council-owned dwellings. But we do not get much sense of the materiality either of the dwellings or of the different towns in which they were located.
Kingstown also features in Laura Johnstone’s essay, which traces the transformation of a fishing village on the periphery of Dublin, first to seaside resort and then to fashionable suburb. This is a classic lords-and-landlords study, reminiscent of work on English cities by Donald Olsen, David Cannadine, David Reeder, and others. It provides a useful addition to the literature on estate planning and suburban expansion, but could do more to question whether the development process worked any differently because of the absenteeism of the ground landlords or the particular Irish setting. Johnstone includes copies of estate maps plotting developments such as the Royal Paragon, a Bath-style crescent too grand ever to get beyond the drawing board, but also a reminder that, even if a locality appears on the map, it may never have existed outside the planner’s imagination. Mary Jane Boland’s essay, “Images of Ireland’s Urban World,” also deals with an imagined world, as local artists viewed their towns through the eyes of British and continental artists, mindful of art by painters such as William Hogarth or Aelbert Cuyp that their Irish gentry patrons aspired to own. But where Hogarth offered moral lessons warning against the evils of urbanization, Nathaniel Grogan’s and William Turner de Lond’s paintings of Cork and Ennis were uncomplicated paeans to progress and civic harmony, in which the diversity of urban types was picturesque but unthreatening. They depicted an idealization of material urban spaces rather than actuality.
Like Boland, Jonathan Jeffrey Wright starts in the 1780s, invoking Peter Borsay’s ideas about an “urban renaissance” that spanned the 1660s to 1770s (qtd. in Laragy, Purdue, and Wright 62). The implication is that Irish urban...