Restoration Dublin in the Ireland of its time c. 1660-1700

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), Volume 14

James Butler, 1st duke of Ormond by Peter Lely-Ormond favoured the creation of an appropriately splendid capital city. (National Gallery of Ireland)

James Butler, 1st duke of Ormond by Peter Lely-Ormond favoured the creation of an appropriately splendid capital city. (National Gallery of Ireland)

During the 1650s, Sir William Petty surveyed Ireland on behalf of Oliver Cromwell’s government, in order to facilitate the dispossession and transplantation of the Catholic Irish after the devastating wars of the 1640s. In later years he settled into the twin roles of landlord and scientist in Ireland, and at some point in the 1680s he applied his inquiring mind and prolific pen to what he perceived to be a crucial problem: the fact that an invader might easily capture Dublin. Petty wondered how this could be avoided. He attempted to calculate the resources available to defend the city, and what more might be required to do so successfully. He estimated that Dublin had roughly 40,000 inhabitants, of whom maybe 5,000 were, as he put it, ‘able and fitting to bear defensive arms in case of necessity’. By his reckoning there were 20,000 weapons in public and private hands within the city: prospective defenders would not be left short. But Petty felt that Dublin required bigger and better fortifications. He was not the first person to think so; the idea had been floated during the Anglo-Dutch conflict of the 1670s, and was suggested again in 1681 at a time of considerable fears of either Catholic rebellion or French invasion.

The Huguenot cemetery, St Stephen's Green-testament to the influx of Protestants who fled persecution in France after 1685. (Nick Maxwell)

The Huguenot cemetery, St Stephen’s Green-testament to the influx of Protestants who fled persecution in France after 1685. (Nick Maxwell)

For Petty, fortifying Dublin meant ensuring that the city could withstand a besieging army of 30,000 soldiers for six months. He estimated that refortifying the city to this degree would cost £60,000 and could be completed within two years, and he suggested that landowners within the city could pay one third of the cost (as he guessed that property prices within the walls would go up by 20% as a result, arguably it wasn’t a bad deal). But his pondering begged the question: why go to such trouble? The answer was quite straightforward: Dublin’s fate was inextricably linked to that of Ireland as a whole. If Dublin was fortified in this manner, then ‘not only the said city itself but also his Majesties government in church and state [the whole English Protestant interest in Ireland] would thereby be secured against foreign invasion and domestic rebellion’. And implicit within that statement was the reality that by the 1680s Dublin had become the largest and most important urban centre on the island of Ireland.
This was a consequence of geography. Dublin’s location had facilitated its emergence as Ireland’s administrative and commercial capital. The island of Ireland is, to all intents and purposes, ringed by mountains, with the exception of a gap on the east coast running from Wicklow to Down. At the southern end of this gap was a bay nestling in the shadow of the Wicklow Mountains, and it was here, facing towards Britain and Europe rather than the open expanse of the Atlantic, that Dublin would eventually grow.

The seventeenth-century crisis

After the civil wars of the 1640s and the execution of King Charles I in 1649, both Britain and Ireland eventually came to be ruled by the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. After Cromwell’s death in 1658 his regime slowly began to unravel, and in May 1660 Charles II was restored as king of England, Ireland and Scotland. But the events that led to this began in Dublin, when in December 1659 a group of army officers seized control of Dublin Castle and overthrew the government there within two hours. These men knew that the days of the Cromwellian regime were numbered, and they struck first to preserve themselves should the monarchy be restored, as indeed it would be. Having fought for parliament, they sought to avoid being called to account for their actions, and they especially wanted to maintain the huge gains they and others had made from the massive confiscations of Catholic-owned land during the 1650s. Confiscated for reasons of both security and punishment, this land had been transferred into the hands of a newer, and supposedly loyal, Protestant élite, of whom these officers were a part. But when they seized the castle, what condition was Dublin itself in?

Dublin after 1660

At the beginning of the seventeenth century Dublin had a population of approximately 10,000, but the city gradually reaped the benefits of the increasing power of the English state in Ireland. Since at least the late sixteenth century Dublin had exerted a national influence and had begun to outstrip Ireland’s other towns and cities in importance. The viceroy, parliament, judiciary, commerce, finance and trade all came to be centred in Dublin by the early seventeenth century, and by the 1640s the city’s population was predominantly Protestant. The fact that Dublin was never captured during the 1641 rebellion (contrary to what was originally planned) served to maintain this new balance.
The wars of the 1640s saw Dublin’s trade collapse, as the city became a disputed and beleaguered bridgehead, but the second half of the seventeenth century would see it expand at an unprecedented rate. The demographic and physical expansion of the city easily outstripped that of the rest of the country. By the 1660s the population was perhaps 20,000, a figure swollen by the influx of newly returned exiles who had fled Ireland during and after the 1640s.

The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham-first of Dublin's great public buildings erected between 1680 and 1684. (David Davison Associates)

The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham-first of Dublin’s great public buildings erected between 1680 and 1684. (David Davison Associates)

The population would continue to grow, and not purely from within; Dublin received a steady trickle of Protestant refugees from the Continent, encouraged to settle in Ireland. The Huguenot cemetery beside the Shelbourne Hotel in St Stephen’s Green, for example, dating from 1693, is testament to the influx of Protestants who fled persecution in France after 1685, and who brought their skills and trades to Dublin. They were not the only ones to do so.
It was during this period that the physical structure of the city took on the first vestiges of its current form. By 1710 Dublin was the fourth-largest city in Europe, and would continue to grow. But the groundwork for this expansion was laid during the Restoration period, and Dublin boomed in other ways. Its proximity to Britain proved advantageous, especially in the light of trade restrictions imposed upon cattle exports in the 1660s. Dublin in the 1660s accounted for 40% of Ireland’s total customs revenue, and the city developed into a major manufacturing base (especially for textiles) as industrial growth began in the ancient liberties to the south-west of the city, outside the medieval walls.
Pleasure went hand in hand with business: by 1667 Dublin also had the distinction of possessing approximately 1,500 taverns. The city was a hub of finance, education and politics, and on this account after 1660 it became a magnet for the Protestant colonial class who had benefited from the upheavals and warfare of the mid-century. Their descendants would become the gentry of the eighteenth century, but in the seventeenth they were part of a society that culminated in one man: the king’s representative in Ireland, the viceroy. And the holders of that office occasionally had a part to play in the development of the city.

James Butler, first duke of Ormond

Dublin began to change in a physical sense after 1660, as major urban developments began to be undertaken. Instrumental in this was James Butler, twelfth earl and first duke of Ormond, who served as viceroy between 1662 and 1669. He was the most powerful and influential nobleman in Ireland, occupying the most powerful and influential office in the country, and he favoured the creation of an appropriately splendid capital city. Dublin had long outgrown its medieval centre, but now it continued to expand both north and south of the (admittedly filthy) River Liffey. Speculation and development, pioneered by figures such as Sir Humphrey Jervis, began in earnest. Street names bear testament to the public development and private speculation of the Restoration period: Aungier Street, Jervis Street, Capel Street, Ormond Quay, Arran Quay and Temple Bar.

The Irish House of Lords, Chichester House, on the site of Edward Lovett Pearce's later parliament building. (Atlas Historique, Amsterdam, 1708)

The Irish House of Lords, Chichester House, on the site of Edward Lovett Pearce’s later parliament building. (Atlas Historique, Amsterdam, 1708)

Smithfield Market was laid out in 1665, and with the levelling of the old Viking thingmote on Hoggen Green in 1681 the basis was laid for what would eventually become College Green. The 1660s had also seen the mapping out of St Stephen’s Green on the south-east boundary of the city, partly in an effort by the cash-strapped corporation to raise money through opening up common land to private enterprise. The Phoenix Park to the north-west was laid out as a royal demesne and deerpark, though it narrowly avoided being pawned off on one of the king’s mistresses in the early 1670s.
Across from the park, on the south side of the river, was an area far removed from the fumes and industry of the city. It was here, partly for the sake of the clean air, that the first of Dublin’s great public buildings was erected between 1680 and 1684: the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, built as a rest home for elderly soldiers, inspired by Les Invalides in Paris. One of Dublin’s first real visitor attractions, it was (and remains) impressive enough for there to have been at least one contemporary suggestion that Trinity College swap places with it, but it remained a military hospital: after July 1691 it would struggle to deal with the aftermath of the battle of Aughrim.
The actual administration of the city, however, remained in the hands of the ancient corporation, meeting in the now-vanished Tholsel beside Christ Church Cathedral, fragments of which are preserved in the cathedral’s crypt. The formal post of lord mayor had been adopted in 1665, and the mayor, aldermen, sheriffs and guilds would seek to avoid numerous attempts to clip their wings and restrict their power throughout the Restoration period.
While the fortifications envisaged by Petty were never built, the corporation concerned itself with more mundane realities. For example, thatch was banned as a building material within the city walls in 1661 owing to the risk of fire. The proof of this danger could be seen in the regular blazes that afflicted Dublin Castle, one of which, in 1681, managed to kill an elephant that had somehow found a home within the complex. Described in 1684 as ‘the worst built castle in Christendom’, another fire in the same year saw sections of the castle being blown up to prevent flames reaching the newly filled powder magazines, in a stark choice between destroying part of the castle or risking the destruction of a large part of the city.
Admittedly this was an unusually extreme circumstance; normally, the corporation might be more concerned with issues such as the traffic problems caused by the excessive number of hackneys in the city. There was another parallel with the present: throughout the later seventeenth century, Dublin was reckoned by many to be more expensive than London. But given that the wealth and grandeur of the city had increased enormously by the 1680s, this may not have been too surprising.

Dublin and national politics

Dublin was of course intimately tied to the rest of the country, and it was inevitable that the politics of the time would filter into the life of the city. The 1670s were marked by running battles between the corporation and the government, as the latter sought to exert control over the former. The contentious and inevitable question of religion was another factor in such disputes, as Catholics were slowly excluded from civic politics and were eventually barred from being freemen of the city. Ormond, serving as viceroy again between 1677 and 1684, became the subject of dark rumours at the height of the Popish Plot in England. It was claimed that he indulged in late-night card games in the castle with members of the remaining Catholic gentry, rumours that were readily interpreted as being the prelude to a Catholic uprising. Such concerns reflected the ongoing question of what place Catholics were to have in Ireland, and Dublin, under the new order, a question that remained unanswered until the aftermath of the Williamite victory in 1691.
In 1689 Dublin became the capital of a technically Catholic kingdom. The Catholic James, duke of York, had succeeded his elder brother Charles as king in 1685. Having lost power in England after 1688, James was still legally king of Ireland and travelled there via France in 1689, being welcomed in Dublin in March 1689 with the freedom of the city. Prior to this, his government in Ireland had sought to reinstate Catholics in positions of power and influence, with an eye towards undoing the Restoration settlement that had so favoured the new Protestant interest. The subsequent war between James’s Catholic Irish followers and his Dutch Protestant son-in-law, William III of Orange-Nassau, was merely one expression of a wider European conflict that happened to be fought out on Irish soil, but it inevitably had local implications. In the Bank of Ireland on College Green, formerly the old Irish parliament, there are two massive tapestries dating from the 1730s, depicting the Siege of Derry on the one hand, and the Battle of the Boyne on the other. The symbolism was obvious; William’s victory—a Protestant victory—would secure the position of the embryonic Protestant Ascendancy class who would dominate both Dublin and Ireland in the eighteenth century.
Arriving in Dublin on 5 July 1690, days after the Battle of the Boyne, William was greeted rapturously by Dublin’s Protestants, who viewed him as their saviour from destruction at Catholic hands: fear, as much as self-interest, dictated the sectarian politics of the age.

Pamphlet outlining the damage done to Dublin Castle on the morning of 7 April 1784.

Pamphlet outlining the damage done to Dublin Castle on the morning of 7 April 1784.

The chair that William supposedly sat in while attending a thanksgiving ceremony in St Patrick’s Cathedral is still there. On 4 November 1690 his birthday was celebrated enthusiastically in Dublin, with a procession of troops and horse, pageants, fireworks, bonfires and bells, and with copious quantities of wine being distributed to the citizens. William would, in time, give the name of his house to both the Orange Order and Dublin’s Nassau Street. More prosaically, he also replaced the lord mayor’s chain, which had been stolen by the Catholic mayor, Terence MacDermot, when he fled to France after the Jacobite defeat. The chain presented by William was only replaced in 1988. But after MacDermot fled, no Catholic would hold the office again, let alone the chain, until Daniel O’Connell in 1841.

After the war

Dublin’s future was sealed at Limerick, with the end to the war negotiated there in October 1691. The aftermath saw the population of Dublin swell again, albeit briefly, as refugees who had fled Ireland returned in the wake of a Protestant victory. By 1695 the population of the city, according to one estimate, was approximately 48,000, of whom perhaps 70% were Protestant.

In 1701 construction began on the new Royal (now Collins) Barracks. (National Museum of Ireland)

In 1701 construction began on the new Royal (now Collins) Barracks. (National Museum of Ireland)

But the 1690s also saw the return of the Irish parliament, from which Catholics were now excluded (it had only met once after 1660, between 1661 and 1666). Within the walls of Chichester House on College Green, on the site of Edward Lovett Pearce’s later parliament house, a new set of beliefs began to be articulated by a Protestant élite whose disgruntlement with British influence on Irish affairs remains one of the great ironies and paradoxes of Irish history: the ‘colonial nationalism’, or ‘patriotism’, so often associated with later figures such as Henry Grattan, and which was perhaps foreshadowed by the struggles of Dublin Corporation against the government in the 1670s. But as they embarked on creating a state that would systematically exclude Catholics from its affairs for the bulk of the eighteenth century, the nascent Protestant Ascendancy also, from the 1690s, promoted the development of the city once again. Since 1541 Ireland had been, in theory if not in fact, a separate and distinct kingdom from England (though sharing a common monarch). The Protestant Ascendancy of the eighteenth century would seek to live up to the implications of this, by trying to carve out a measure of de facto autonomy from England.
And if Ireland was a separate kingdom, it was assumed that it should have a capital city worthy of the name. In 1701 a number of new developments began. The formal preparations for the construction of the massive new Royal Barracks (later Collins Barracks, now part of the National Museum) beside the Phoenix Park were initiated; in time, it would become the largest of its kind in Europe. The construction of Marshes Library as the first public library in Ireland also began. And perhaps most significant of all was the unveiling, on 1 July 1701 amidst much fanfare, of the statue of William of Orange that would remain on College Green until its destruction by the IRA in the 1920s.
It was undeniably symbolic. The unveiling of William’s statue gave a physical expression to the emerging Protestant Ascendancy of the eighteenth century. And while William himself would be dead within a year, his legacy in Ireland would live on. By 1700 the political and religious framework of Ireland was being set in the form it would take for the remainder of the eighteenth century. The taste, style, society and architecture of eighteenth-century Dublin were also foreshadowed.
Dublin in the latter half of the seventeenth century was a mirror of sorts upon the Ireland of the time. Louis MacNiece wrote of the lingering ghosts behind Dublin’s Georgian façades. But behind the surviving grandeur of eighteenth-century Georgian Dublin there also remains the legacy of the twisted and tortured history of Ireland in the seventeenth century.

John Gibney is a postgraduate student in the Department of Modern History, Trinity College, Dublin.

Further reading:
T. Barnard, Making the grand figure: lives and possessions in Ireland, 1641–1770 (New Haven, 2004).
J. Brady and A. Simms (eds), Dublin: through space and time (c. 900–1900) (Dublin, 2001).
P. Clark and R. Gillespie (eds), Two capitals: London and Dublin, 1500–1840 (Oxford, 2002).
M. Craig, Dublin 1660–1860 (Dublin, 1992).
An earlier version of this article was broadcast as a radio lecture on Anna Livia FM, on 5 April 2005.


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