Image along Thomas Street showing the façade of NCAD.

History of The Liberties

As Old As Dublin Itself

The city of Dublin grew from two small settlements at the confluence of the River Liffey and one of its tributaries, The Poddle. The original settlements were known as Áth Cliath (The Ford of Hurdles) and Dubh Linn (The Black Pool), later anglicized to Dublin.  In medieval times, the city was walled for its protection and administered by a corporation and guilds, which controlled trade and commerce within the city, administered justice, and levied tariffs and taxes to run and protect the city.  You can still see remnants of the old City Wall of Dublin today at Cornmarket and in St Audoen’s Park, and Cornmarket was once the location of the New Gate, the main westerly approach to the city. Outside of the walls, areas outside of the Corporation’s control were established called liberties.

Illustration
The area now known as The Liberties developed to the west of the Norman city of Dublin, along the main western approach known as the Sligh Mor. In the 12th century, a royal abbey was established in the townland of Donore and given extensive estates in counties Meath, Dublin and Wicklow, including an area of its own jurisdiction and certain privileges and entitlements to regulate trade and commerce within the ‘liberty’. And hence the name, The Liberties. At its height in the 15th century, the abbey would have formed one of the largest complexes in the city, with its main commercial throughfare – Thomas Street – lying to the north. Image by Stephen Conlon, courtesy of Dublin City Council.
Detail from John Roques’ remarkable map of Dublin from 1756
This detail from John Roques’ remarkable map of Dublin from 1756 shows the then-Earl of Meath’s Liberty centred around Thomas Street. The map opens a fascinating window to the past: a densely-packed city of narrow and crowded streets and long-lost placenames. Lying at the centre of Thomas Street stood the Corn Market House – a huge 13 bay building that was finally removed in the 19th century. Also marked is the streets famous Glib Market of street traders, a tradition that maintains to this day. To the west, Arthur Guinness’s famous brewery had yet to emerge and the dense city gave way to fields and orchards.

In the 12th century, King Henry II of England ordered an Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr to be established at a site close to the modern church of St Catherine. The Augustinian monks of the Abbey were given extensive lands to the west of the city, as well as in counties Dublin, Meath and Wicklow, and certain privileges and powers to control trade within their ‘liberty’ and as a result the Liberty of St Thomas Court & Donore became extremely wealthy.  The abbey in turn gave its name to St Thomas Street, the main street of the area, which itself ran along the alignment of the ancient western route into the city of Dublin. It quickly became a bustling marketplace and trading street, lined with mills, hostelries and various providers all serving the growing city.

With the dissolution of monasteries by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, the abbey’s lands passed into the ownership of Sir William Brabazon, an ambitious courtier of the king. The Brabazon family, who later became Earls of Meath, dominated the area as landowners for the next 300 years and different generations of the family were responsible for many of the urban developments we recognise today. The great market space at Newmarket was laid out in the 1620s by the second Earl of Meath and his townhouse was located closeby. A later earl supported some of the pioneering Victorian-era housing developments for the working class. Today, streetnames such as Meath Street, Brabazon Street and Ardee Street evoke the family connection.

The Liberties – Na Saoirsí is one of Dublin’s oldest & most historic neighbourhoods, having first developed as a suburb of the medieval walled city in the twelfth century.
The Liberties – Na Saoirsí is one of Dublin’s oldest & most historic neighbourhoods, having first developed as a suburb of the medieval walled city in the twelfth century.

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) evoke the area’s French community.  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.

Illustration of St Catherine’s Church on Thomas Street
A church has stood on the site of St Catherine’s on Thomas Street since the 12th century. In the mid-1700’s the area’s growing commercial prowess led to the construction of a new church building, designed by John Smyth. The church remains to this day and is considered among the finest Georgian churches in the city. While its interiors suffered 20th century damage, its magnificent stucco altarpiece remains intact. 60 years after its construction, the church provided the backdrop to the execution of Robert Emmet, a republican martyr of the failed 1803 Rebellion against English rule.
Roe & Co’s Dublin Whiskey frame
In addition to brewing, numerous distilleries thrived in The Liberties during the 18th and 19th century. The area became known as the Golden Triangle, marked by three behemoths of the industry: Power, Jameson and Roe. Henry Roe, the 19th century owner of George Roe & Sons operated the largest whiskey distillery in the world by the 1880s and grew fabulously wealthy. Among his achievements was the reconstruction of Christ Church Cathedral, which he funded to a reputed cost of £230,000 or over €30m in today’s money.

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 Liberties 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.

This photograph taken by John Cooke in 1913 shows Forbes Cottages, Forbes Lane, off Marrowbone Lane with a Guinness Brewery building in the background.
Grinding poverty and horrendous housing conditions for the working class characterised much of The Liberties right into the 20th century. This photograph taken by John Cooke in 1913 shows Forbes Cottages, Forbes Lane, off Marrowbone Lane with a Guinness Brewery building in the background. The 1911 census gives details of the Walsh family living in No.9 – Mary Walsh, a widow, lived here with her four daughters, Maryellen, Annie, Kathleen and Lizzie, who ranged in age from 17 to 23; three of them list their occupation as factory girls.
Aerial shot of the Guinness Brewery
By the 1880s , the Guinness Brewery at St. James’s Gate was the largest brewery in the world, covering sixty acres on the south bank of the Liffey. Consignments for export were placed on barges owned by Guinness at the company’s own wharf at Victoria Quay, beside Kingsbridge (now Heuston) Railway Station. The barges (ten in total) could carry up to sixty-eight tons each and brought export stout further down river to waiting ships. The brewery also has its own harbour on the Grand Canal, originally used to transport beer into the Midlands. Gradually road transport replaced the canal barges, and the harbour closed in the early 1970s.

While the fortunes of the area declined in the 20th century, Thomas Street and Meath Street remained the quintessential heart of Auld Dublin, renowned in song and story.  The area has produced its fair share of storytellers, master musicians, street characters and thespians.

Today, it retains its distinctive character and curious detachment from the life of the wider city.  It’s a place to discover and enjoy: a place of evocative place names, engaging architecture, vibrant street life and strong community spirit.

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