Dublin—the making of a capital city

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October), Volume 22

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‘’Pon my word, taking it all in, that young man didn’t do so badly by my Custom House’, muses a congenial ghost of James Gandon in a Dublin Opinion cartoon from 1953; he is pondering Michael Scott’s boldly modernist Busáras from George’s Quay, to the right of his mostly reconstructed yet eternally graceful masterpiece of Georgian civic architecture. One of the carefully selected illustrations of this magis-terial study of Dublin, the image in effect defines the genre of the book and its prose: clearly contoured, easily deconstructed by non-academic readers, more than occasionally whimsical, yet scholarly and shrewdly argued.

David Dickson needs no introduction as one of our pre-eminent eighteenth-century scholars, nor does he need to prove his credentials; so while this book is rigorously referenced, and contains an extensive bibliographical note, its free-flowing prose and easily shared erudition will appeal to multiple audiences. The first millennium is dealt with succinctly in the form of a prologue to the fashioning of Dublin as a capital city from 1600 to 2000, but though the chapters follow a linear sequence this is anything but a traditional top-down historical narrative of how the course of high politics shaped the visible urban texture. The author seamlessly transposes his sharp observations on the modern period to later phases of Irish history and the development of the metropolis. Interestingly, the chapter covering 1830 to 1880 is the longest, possibly reflecting this new age of British state interventionism but also the rise of a professional (and often prolific and committed) civil service. Key transformational initiatives are described, yet typically there is never even a hint of anger or arrogance, even when (frequently) revisiting instances when powerful decision-makers lacked vision and/or displayed no proactivity. A congenial space is left for readers to weigh up the facts as presented and draw their own conclusions. This snippet, on the Temple Bar project, typifies the subtle restraint: ‘But by 2000, it was plain for all to see that there was a huge gap between the cultural theories adumbrated by Group 91 [the architectural development consortium] and the realities of “nighttown” by the Liffey’.

Apropos of Dublin post-Busáras, Dickson states that the publication of Maurice Craig’s seminal Dublin—a social and architectural history (1952) marked the beginning of a new age of rigorous scholarship on the city’s history. The Wood Quay controversy then rumbled on through the 1970s and created a ‘fascination with the tiny medieval city’ that has been sustained ever since. More has been done for the history of Dublin since 1988 (proudly coined the ‘minellium’ in the local patois) than in the past 1,000 years. This book is an ‘exploration of its documented history after it emerged from its medieval chrysalis’, but also a report of the work in progress of others; Dickson graciously locates himself within a community of researchers and his ‘enormous debt’ to this small army is placed in the foreground throughout. The choice of Dublin as European city of culture in 1991 had been a watershed in consciousness, yet by then Dickson’s innovative course and workshop in Trinity on the social evolution of the city ‘over the long run’ had been firmly established; indeed, its first publication, The gorgeous mask—Dublin 1700–1850 (1987), had been critically acclaimed and pre-empted the subsequent wave of civic pride.

Complementing his longer view and ‘refiguring’ approach to Irish history is the consistently vertical interrogation of daily life and conditions at street level, far from the airy and ordered Maltonian streetscapes. Dickson’s Dublin is animated by élite males but also by the hidden actors of the past, who have left no direct imprint in the annals of history and whose existence or contribution he puts on the record. Thus we meet Gabriel Hayes, a mother of two who had sculpted on site the murals of the Department of Industry and Commerce (Kildare Street) in 1942. This passage is characteristic of how the author obliquely addresses complex debates or controversies: while the figures she designed are described, including a spinner and a cigarette-sorter epitomising the female workforce, the paradox of this talented working mum chiselling away in the shadows of the Constitution is far from overlooked.

The book does not claim to be definitive or comprehensive, remains Irish in its scope, and does not attempt transnational comparisons with other coastal capitals. Yet its multidisciplinary approach, interweaving national history, civic politics, socio-economics, demographics, culture and much more, is firmly located within the best international practices of urban history. How globalisation (and European initiatives and cash) has been beneficial to localism is also demonstrated. The illustrations are not over-abundant but most are evocative; one whimsical choice is that of a priest scrutinising Phil Lynott, insouciant and enjoying a sunny day in St Stephen’s Green. The book is reasonably priced and, though it stretches to 700 pages, handles easily, given the lightness of the paper. Readers, be they aspiring researchers or not, can draw inspiration from the author’s energy and his demonstration that years of compiling evidence and stitching it together have been fulfilling. Commenting on the origins of Molly Malone, documented or otherwise, he winds up his exploration by observing that her past, ‘like all good history, is a bit of a tease’. The latter certainly leaves him undaunted.

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