Sunday, 19 May 2013


During the 18th century Britain became a world power. Possessing a powerful navy, it conquered territory from its rivals France, Spain, Portugal and Holland, extended its control in the Indian subcontinent, developed colonies in North America and began its settlement of Australia.

Strict laws prevented Ireland trading directly with the colonies but English vessels brought into Irish ports: tea from the Far East; sugar from the West Indies; tobacco from Virginia; fine muslin from India; and other exotic luxuries. To pay for these overseas goods and also for English coal, Ireland exported linen, corn, butter, salt pork and other farm produce.

No city in Ireland benefited more from the expansion of the British Empire than Dublin. Captain William Bligh – the same captain of Mutiny on the Bounty fame – supervised the impressive deepening of the Liffey estuary to allow vessels to come up at all tides to the new stone-lined quays. The population, which had been 58,000 in 1683, was close to 129,000 by 1772 and 182,000, making Dublin the second city in the British Empire. It was in Dublin city that the viceroy held court at Dublin Castle. In the 1750s the handsome Bedford Tower was erected there and the Castle was extended to be given an elegant square built of red brick and cream stone. Edward Lovett Pearce, designed a magnificent new Parliament House in College Green with a line of stone columns in the new classical style. Across the island, expanding trade, a rising population and – above all – the long period of peace increased the income of the Kingdom.
Much of this wealth was spent in the development of Dublin. As well as erecting great mansions on their estates, this new ascendancy built magnificent town houses in Dublin. The first to be put up in the new Georgian style was Tyrone House, built for Sir Marcus Beresford, the Earl of Tyrone, in 1740. Then followed many others, including: Powerscourt House in South William Street put up for Richard Wingfield, Viscount Powerscourt; Leinster House in Kildare Street (completed for James FitzGerald, the 1st Duke of Leinster in 1745) and now the home of Dáil Éireann; Northland House, built for the Knox family of Dungannon in 1770 and now the Royal Irish Academy; and Charlemont House designed by and built for James Caulfield, the 1st Earl of Charlemont of Co Armagh, and later the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art.
Other Protestant gentlemen became urban developers. The included: Luke Gardiner, 1st Viscount Mountjoy, who built Gardiner Street and Mountjoy Square; the 6th Lord Fitzwilliam of Meryon who developed Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Street (still the longest Georgian Street in the world); and Dr Bartholomew Mosse who developed Rutland Square, now Parnell Square. Dr Mosse, on the same site, built the Rotunda Lying-in Hospital – the first maternity hospital in either Britain or Ireland. The Assembly Rooms, attached to the Rotunda, rapidly became Dublin’s social hub where concerts and other events were put on to raise funds for the hospital.
Most of these Protestant gentlemen and their families had become newly rich only in one or two generations. Visitors from England often found them to be noisy, wild, brash, extravagant and hard-living – in particular, hard drinking. Lord Chesterfield, when he was Lord Lieutenant, was horrified by the ‘beastly vice’ of excessive drinking of French wine which destroyed ‘the constitutions, the faculties, and too often the fortunes of those of superior rank’. Heavy drinking naturally took place on festive occasions when endless toasts were given, the most popular being to "The glorious, pious and immortal memory of the good and great King William, who delivered us from Popery, slavery, arbitrary power, brass money, and wooden shoes." This caused Sir Jonah Barrington to remark: "Could his Majesty, King William, learn in the other world that he had been the cause of more broken heads and drunken men, since his departure, than all his predecessors, he must be the proudest ghost, and most conceited skeleton that ever entered the gardens of Elysium."
According to the Englishman who visited Dublin in 1764, John Bush, a ‘middling drinker’ would drink four bottles of claret – that is, red wine from Bordeaux – without showing any effects. No man was considered a serious drinker in Dublin who could not, he wrote, "take off his gallon coolly" – that is eight bottles of red wine drunk at one sitting. Dublin, indeed, was a city of excess and extremes. However, out of these excess came new freedoms for the Kingdom of Ireland. Freedoms which flowed from the constitutional settlement under William of Orange.

The Bill of Rights 1688 gave us freedom of conscious, and the expansion of Irish literature and free press. In addition to laying down the guiding principles of democracy; 'more so than all the Irish revolutions put together.' W.B Yeats " battle of the Boyne overwhelmed a civilization based on religion and myth and replaced it with intelligible laws." 'Fine words from Yeats.'

Chris Thackaberry Irish historian and Dublin tour guide Historical Walking Tours of Dublin