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The earliest map of Ireland, made by the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy in 150 AD, shows a settlement called Eblana civitatis near the current site of Dublin, at the mouth of the River Liffey. This was probably a fortified Roman trading post near the confluence of the only major roads on the island. An important river crossing gave the place its official name in Irish, Baile Atha Cliath [the Town of the Ford of the Hurdles], Unreliable later texts record that the locals won a military victory over the kingdom of Leinster in 291 AD, and that their descendants were converted to Christianity by St. Patrick at a holy well in 450 AD.
In 836 AD Scandinavian rovers moored in the nearby Dubh Linn [“Black Pool”] where the River Poddle joins the Liffey. The Vikings, initially split between Fin Gall (White foreigners, i.e. Norwegians) and Dubh Gall (Black Foreigners, i.e. Danes) submitted to King Olaf the White, who went on with Ivar Thorgissi to conquer Northumbria. Coins minted in Dublin (Diflyn in Danish) bear the names of Olav, Sitric, or Ivar, with the title of ‘high king of the Northmen of Ireland and England.’
In 919 AD a great host of the Uí Néill was utterly routed on the outskirts of Dublin, but Muircertach of the Leather Cloaks beat the invaders at sea on Strangford Lough in 926, and took and burned Dublin in 939 AD.
Despite this, the Norse community thrived, and Dublin continued to develop into a small but powerful kingdom, with links to the Isle of Man and the Orkneys. The city was ruled by a succession of interestingly named kings such as Ivan the Hairy and Olaf the Legless. In 949 AD, King Godfrey of Dublin plundered Kells and other churches of Meath, and carrying ‘3,000 persons into captivity, besides gold, silver, raiment, wealth, and goods of every description.’ After their conversion to Christianity c.950 AD, the marriage and military alliances between the Norsemen and Gaelic chieftains intensified, but Dublin was again partly razed in 988 AD. Nevertheless, the city continued to grow and prosper.
At the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, the Gaels led by Brian Boru broke the military power of the Norsemen, but most were by then long settled, and remained in the city. King Sitric III founded Christchurch Cathedral in 1038. Gaelic rabble occupied Dublin on a number of occasions, notably in 1052, 1075, and 1124. For a time, the city paid tribute to both the Gaelic King of Leinster and the Norse Isle of Man. Nevertheless, Dublin gradually became the de facto commercial capital of Ireland.
In 1171 the Anglo-Normans led by Strongbow took the city easily, but then had to defend it from a large army brought from overseas by the last Norse King, Hasculf. Their daring strategy worked, Hasculf was executed in his own palace, and the Ostmen were expelled to what is now Oxmanstown. Henry II, king of England, held his court in Dublin for 3 months in 1172, receiving homage from Irish civil and ecclesiastical leaders, and declared Dublin a Royal City, and a dependency of the English city of Bristol.
Despite numerous Gaelic tribal attacks (notably on “Black Easter Monday” in 1210, when hundreds of “Bristolmen” were massacred by marauding O’Byrnes and O’Tooles), an unconsummated siege by Edward Bruce in 1315, and devastation caused by the Black Death and other plagues, English overlordship in Dublin remained relatively unchallenged for the next two centuries. Dublin Castle became the seat of English administration in Ireland, which effectively extended only to a variable region called the Pale, along the East coast, and sometimes also the South East and South.
The most powerful Anglo-Norman families in Medieval Ireland were the FitzGeralds or Geraldines of Kildare and their arch-rivals the Butlers of Ormond. Their supporters often brawled in the city streets.
Dublin came under Yorkist influence in the C15th English Wars of the roses. Garrett Mór Fitzgerald, the powerful 8th Earl of Kildare and Lord Lieutenant, approved the coronation of the Pretender Lambert Simnel in Christchurch Cathedral, and also supported Perkin Warbeck’s claim to the English throne. Both he and his successor, Garrett Óg, virtually ran the country. However, on hearing of the latter’s death in London, his son “Silken Thomas” Fitzgerald laid brief siege to the city in the course of a foolish and doomed rebellion in 1534, and was duly hanged, drawn and quartered in 1537.
During the tempestuous reign of Queen Elizabeth I, western rebels were imprisoned in Dublin Castle. Some escaped, notably Red Hugh O’Donnell, the “fighting prince of Donegal”. In 1592, the Queen founded Trinity College “near Dublin”.
Dublin was predominantly Royalist during the English Civil War (1545 – 49), but surrendered to Oliver Cromwell when he landed with his troops at Ringsend. The city had only 9,000 residents at this time and was in a state of shambles. With the Restoration of the Monarchy (1659), the Duke of Ormonde began an ambitious programme of extending the city with plans for new streets, parks and squares, mainly to be financed by the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and named after them or members of their families.
Almost all Ireland backed King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, but Dublin crowds jeered the hapless monarch as he fled from the rout.
The C18th was a golden era for Dublin, if not for the rest of Ireland. The port moved downriver and grew considerably in importance. Commerce boomed. Protestant refugees from the European continent arrived in considerable numbers. Members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy moved into new residences near the old city, and the nouveau riche abandoned the confines of medieval Dublin to live in the fine new Georgian houses lining broad streets and stately squares. Trinity College came into its own, and the intellectual and cultural life of the city thrived with the foundation of various learned societies. In the course of the next decades, Dublin grew enormously.
The 1798 Rebellion did not affect Dublin directly, but the execution of Wolfe Tone and other rebel leaders caused widespread unrest. Another badly planned and ill-conceived revolt in 1803 saw rioting street mobs murder the Chief Justice. The ringleader, Robert Emmet, was executed outside St Catherine’s Church, joining a lengthening list of eloquent Irish martyrs.
The Act of Union 1801 drastically reduced Dublin’s status, and the city soon fell into a slow but steady 50-year decline.
Daniel O’Connell held several ‘monster meetings’ around Dublin to agitate for Catholic Emancipation and later Home Rule. He also engaged in a few famous duels.
Although Dublin escaped the worst effects of the Great Famine, the streets were packed with refugees, and the slums grew dramatically. However, from 1850 onwards Victorian Dublin regained a degree of prosperity and was proudly called “the second city of the British Empire”
Charles Stewart Parnell linked the two issues of Home Rule and rural Land Reform, and in several elections to the Westminster Parliament, his party won easily in most constituencies outside Ulster, but the Dublin area also returned several Unionist MPs.
The Phoenix Park Atrocity of 1882, when the British Chief Secretary for Ireland was assassinated by a Fenian splinter group, met with widespread revulsion. Royal Visits by Queen Victoria and the Princes of Wales were enthusiastically received by the populace, while Irish patriotism entered an introspective phase.
Appalling poverty in the city’s slums led to industrial unrest, culminating in The Great Dublin Lockout of 1913.
In the Easter 1916 Rising, the General Post Office (GPO) and other key points in the city were quickly taken by the rebels. However, they soon found themselves outnumbered and outgunned. Shelbourne guests were bemused to observe Countess Markievitz organising the digging of trenches in Stephen’s Green while the British Army installed machine guns on the hotel roof. After days of fighting which left large parts of the city in ruins, the insurgents surrendered, and their leaders were jeered and spat upon by irate Dubliners as they were led away to jail. However, the rebel leaders’ May executions at Kilmainham transformed them from public nuisances into heroes.
The Sinn Fein victors of the British general election of 1918 formed the first Dáil Éireann in the Round Room of the Mansion House. The British government refused to recognise this body.
Within a short time, terrorist strikes against symbols of British control began, led by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the military wing of Sinn Fein. The British countered by introducing tough militias, notably those known as the Black and Tans because of the colour of their uniforms. Both sides committed atrocities in and around the city, and several public buildings were badly damaged. On November 11th 1920, the Tans opened fire on the crowd at a hurling match in Croke Park. The violence continued until a truce was signed on July 11th 1921, followed by the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created the Irish Free State on December 6th 1921
Civil War broke out in June 1922. Dublin had its share of violence, including political assassinations and executions, and several municipal landmarks suffered attacks before the Truce of May 1923.
Since then, Dublin has enjoyed a relatively tranquil existence, marred only by occasional periods of social unrest, demonstrations, marches, a few riots, and the infamous 1972 bombings.