The Heart of Dublin: resurgence of a historic city, Peter Pearson. (O’Brien Press, £30) ISBN 0862786681 Dublin: a celebration from the 1st to the 21st century, Pat Liddy. (Dublin Corporation, £25) ISBN 0946841519

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

Peter Pearson’s book is perhaps the best architectural history of Dublin since Maurice Craig’s Dublin 1660-1860. It presents an area by area account of the growth and development of the core of the city from its Viking origins through to the present day. The meticulously detailed account of the city’s built environment provides the reader with a comprehensive reference book on the fine, and not so fine, elements of the city’s architecture and streetscape.
The author introduces us to the city through the River Liffey, its bridges and quays. An outline of the history of the development of the quay frontages and the proliferation of bridge building in an eastwards direction along the Liffey to keep pace with the city’s growth, provides the reader with a sense of how the metropolis developed over the centuries. It then explores the southern environs of the city centre. Pearson’s assessment of the Temple Bar area is interesting in that he emphasises that the current renaissance is merely a reinstatement of its former eighteenth-century commercial glory. The recent revival in the fortunes of the area is outlined, as is the more contemporary architecture and urban intervention. Pearson suggests that some of the new buildings succeed admirably while others incorporate ‘too much German geometry’. Trinity College and the Bank of Ireland are not dealt with in detail since, according to the author, ‘many bookshelves could be filled with the excellent publications that exist about [them]’.
His treatment of the lesser-trodden areas of Dublin, such as the streets behind Dublin Castle is of particular merit. Chancery Lane, Whitefriars Street and Golden Lane contain a wealth of architectural and historical treasures which are documented with the same detail and enthusiasm as Dublin’s better known landmarks. Thomas Street, the Liberties and Christchurch provide a wealth of social, economic, cultural and architectural history which is still inherent in the area, despite the zealous road-widening schemes pursued by Dublin Corporation. The area has had a long association with manufacturing and industry, most notably brewing, tanning and textiles. Of particular interest is 2 Palace Street, The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers Society (beside the pedestrian gate to Dublin Castle), saved from one of Dublin Corporation’s road widening schemes and now the author’s residence.
The middle chapters trace the origins of the St Stephen’s Green area and the Georgian streets and squares to the south-east of the city centre before the author turns his attention to the northside of the Liffey. Here again Pearson provides a comprehensive history of the development of the north inner city and all its streets between Smithfield and the Dublin Port area.
Pearson’s approach is refreshing: he not only possesses an in-depth knowledge of the built environment but has an innate love of the city and its buildings. As a member of An Taisce, the Dublin Civic Trust, and a former member of the Heritage Council, he has fought many personal battles with the city’s authorities, over systematic destruction of much of Dublin’s architectural and historic heritage. Despite this, the book does not degenerate into a bitter and demoralising catalogue of all the treasures lost to ‘progress’. Instead, he gives an incisive account of the surviving architectural fabric and augments this with a vivid description of the commercial vitality which many of the streets formally possessed. While Dublin has lost much of its architectural and historic heritage, particularly in the last twenty-five years, Pearson is at pains to point out that the city still has a valuable and vibrant core saturated in history.
Pearson makes great use of historical trade and street directories as well as contemporary maps, most notably Speed’s (1610), Brookings’ (1728) and Roques’ (1756). It is evident that he has pored over individual streets in these maps for many hours in order to illicit some hitherto unnoticed facet of their layout or buildings. The text, notwithstanding the liberal use of architectural jargon in describing the interiors and elevations of some of Dublin’s finest buildings, is very accessible for those of us who have more than a passing interest in the heritage of the city. Numerous illustrations, photographs, old prints and engravings accompany the text. The Heart of Dublin is both an enjoyable read and an invaluable reference book for archaeologists, historians, planners and architects or for those of us who just love the city of Dublin.
Pat Liddy has written many books on Dublin, past and present. His most recent, Dublin: a celebration from the 1st to the 21st century is not dissimilar in style to his earlier publications in that it successfully marries incisive and well researched snippets of Dublin’s history with wonderful illustrations and photographs. The book is set out in three parts. Part one, ‘Eblana Arises’, outlines the chronological development of Dublin from the first settlers on this island to the arrival of the Vikings, Normans and later the English. The author uses key buildings and landmarks to explain elements of the social and political history that shaped the development of the city.
Parts two, ‘Eblana In Complexity’ outlines the development of administration and civil governance in the city from Anglo-Norman times through to the present. As publisher Dublin Corporation’s role in providing various infrastructure and services in the day to day running of the city is naturally highlighted. Part three, ‘Eblana Transmogrified’ takes a contemporary view of the city and highlights in a positive way the fundamental changes that have occurred in Ireland’s capital city in the last decade. The employment of public-private partnerships as a key instrument in urban renewal in the inner city is rightly portrayed in a positive light.
In a book of less than 300 pages, incorporating copious illustrations, it is obvious that the text can only provide the reader with a superficial understanding of the various aspects of the city covered in the book. I am sure that the author intended to do nothing other than this. Pat Liddy provides his usual incisive and informative text to accompany the proliferation of pictures and illustrations on each page. This approach however becomes an impediment to the progression of the author’s main narrative and the book’s overall coherence. The main body of text throughout the book becomes somewhat subsumed and lost in the many illustrations and their associated captions. While the illustrations (many produced by the author), photographs and maps are expertly presented and provide a beautiful illustrative history of the city, the overall approach is less than successful at providing the reader with a coherent progression of the various themes presented in the book. Nevertheless Liddy’s book provides an invaluable tourist guide or general introduction to the city, while Pearson’s will be of more value to the scholar.

Paul Caprani

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