The mercantile character of the area attracted generations of tradesmen and crafts. The area grew into an industrial suburb of Dublin, with an extensive tradition of brewing, distilling, tanning, weaving and trade in agricultural produce.
In the 16th and 17th centuries the area had a notable Huguenot population and became a centre of excellence in silverwork, wool and silk weaving, as well as ‘dirty industries’ such a tanning. European tradesmen brought their own distinctive architectural styles to the city, such as gable-fronted houses or ‘Dutch Billys’ as they were known, and these houses became a feature of areas such as Pimlico, Spitalfields and The Tenters. The area’s placenames reflected its diverse and international population: so Marrowlane Lane (or Marie le Bon Lane), and Fumbally Lane (Fombily Lane). The area’s growing craft industries drew resistance from English merchants and a series of laws and trade restrictions imposed on Irish produce after the Act of Union in 1801 gradually destroyed a number of key industries. The area began to decline.
During the late 18th and 19th century, The Liberties was dominated by great brewing and distilling families, most notably the Guinness family, who from 1759 built and developed the world’s largest brewery at St James’s Gate. Renowned distillers Powers, Jameson, Millar and Roe were all located here, creating a Victorian cityscape of chimneystacks, mills, malthouses and bustling streets. The area even had its own harbour linking it to the Grand Canal, and a mini-railway through the St James’s Gate brewery to the quays.
However this industrial wealth and prowess often went hand in hand with dire poverty and horrendous living conditions. The 19th century area had notorious slums which in turn spurred a number of enlightening housing developments by the Earls of Meath and the Guinness and Power families in the latter years of the century. The now-charming enclaves about Gray Street and John Dillon Street were originally examples of modern new homes built for the working class by the Dublin Artisan Dwelling Company, while the Iveagh Trust Buildings on Patrick Street remain beautiful examples of the first ‘flats’ built for Dubliners.
The ancient ‘liberties’ were finally abolished and subsumed into the city in the 1840s, however the name ‘The Liberties’ remained and became primarily to mean the old Earl of Meath’s Liberty.