On the surface at least, Dublin in the 1790s was booming. A relative peace had reigned since late the 1600s and the population grew from approximately 60,000 at that time to nearly 180,000 a century later. Dublin was possessed of its own parliament, and was re-building itself in a modern style. A maze of narrow streets, some based upon a medieval pattern, was replaced, with ‘wide and convenient’ thoroughfares, graceful enough to rival those of London and cities on the continent. The engine of this change, the Wide Streets Commission, appointed by Parliament, was instrumental in shaping the city we visit and inhabit today.
Late eighteenth century Dublin was a capital full of extremity and contrast. It was a cosmopolitan place, with an international standing. Ships brought materials and people from all over the world to the Liffey quays and shops stocked a striking variety of goods from Europe, and beyond. In the 1750s, the celebrated Anglo-French surveyor, John Rocque, mapped the city because having previously surveyed London, he sought the “honour of having traced out two of the largest and most celebrated Cities of Europe.”
In religious terms Dublin was divided. Change however was taking root. 1794, for example, witnessed the admittance of the first five “avowedly” Catholic students to Trinity College. A Catholic middle class was also beginning to emerge.
Dublin in the 1790s had developed a cultural life of some sophistication. Those who were informed were well informed, with newspapers, journals, and magazines, such as the Dublin Evening Post and Walker’s Hibernian Magazine carrying up to date ‘intelligence’ of the conflicts in Europe, early in the decade. Dublin had a museum on Mary Street. In this establishment and in several of the exhibition rooms dotted around the city, Dubliners could view panoramas of the great cities of Europe, models of the latest inventions, and painting, sculpture, and architectural drawings by some of the country’s most talented artists. Music and theatre remained popular pass times with newspapers regularly featuring reviews and previews of performances.
For all its elegance Dublin was an astonishingly poor city. It was a violent place. For some this violence was random, and life was cheap. The division between rich and poor was stark, evident in such as the Earl of Meath’s Liberty in the west of the city, with its densely packed streets, open sewers, and overcrowded houses and newer areas such as Merrion Square in the east, where houses were advertised as being located in one of the most airy and healthy parts of the city. However, poverty was also evident within well to do areas. Dublin was a city where disease was rife. “The residents of Merrion Square may be surprised to hear”, wrote Whitely Stokes in 1799, “that in the angle behind Mount Street and Holles Street there is now a family of ten in a very small room, of whom eight have had fever in the last month”.
Dublin was also renowned for its squalor and the numbers of beggars on the streets. “Ireland itself is a poor country, and Dublin a magnificent city; but the appearances of extreme poverty among the lower people are amazing“, wrote Benjamin Franklin after a visit to the capital in the early 1770s.
Robbery was common for those moving around the city. Chaises and sedans were often pulled over and their occupants held up. Some of the most commonly stolen objects were the occupants’ pocket watches and purses, and silver belt and shoe buckles.
In some areas at least, public lighting was in a poor state. According to J. E. Walsh, “So late as 1812, there were only twenty six small oil lamps to light the immense square of Stephen’s Green, which were therefore one hundred and seventy feet from one another”.
For some in the 1790s, the fear of robbery extended into the domestic sphere. The size of the locks and chains on the hall door of houses such as this attest to the fear of house breakers.
By the turn of the nineteenth century changes were beginning to be registered within the governing class of the city. In 1798 Merrion Square, immediately adjacent to Fitzwilliam Street, was one of the main city bases for peers and Members of Parliament. After the upheaval of the Rebellion of that year came the Act of Union, and with Union the large-scale desertion of this city by those associated with parliament. The grand mansions of the nobility became less viable. Some were sold, some were converted for other uses. Leinster House, the grand town house of the Duke of Leinster and anchor of development in this part of Dublin had by 1812 slipped into a state of sad neglect and was sold in 1815 to the Dublin Society.
The houses now being constructed in the city were more modest dwellings, suitable for merchants, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and civil servants. This change was echoed throughout the city as Dublin became more bourgeois, and, as described by Maria Edgeworth, in her novel The Absentee, “commerce rose to fill the vacated seats of rank”.