Dublin is an old city, with a settlement established on the banks of River Liffey over 1,000 years ago. The area we know today as The Liberties is one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, its fascinating history intricately connected to that of the wider city.
Dublin grew from two small settlements in the 9th century (Ath Cliath – or ‘the ford of hurdles’ and Dubhlinn – the ‘black pool’). The settlement really gained strength and prominence under the Norsemen or Vikings who arrived from about 840. The Vikings built a port here in the estuary of the River Liffey and it became their most important trading post in Ireland. In time Norse Dublin gave way to new invaders – the Anglo-Normans – and Dublin became a small city, surrounded by a large wall and included a castle, a cathedral, parish churches and a complex system of local government run by a Corporation and guilds. Today, the modern city has far outgrown its medieval origins, but there are still vestiges of the past there to uncover.
The Anglo-Norman city was characterised by its surrounding wall, which, at its largest extent, included 19 gates. Over the centuries the wall was breached and removed as Dublin grew. However you can still see intact sections of the wall: at Cornmarket, where the main western gate stood, a section is preserved at Lamb Alley; while an impressive stretch of wall is found in nearby St Audeon’s Park, including the only remaining gate – St Audoen’s Gate. You can discover the story of the City Walls with this app and map from Dublin City Council.
Dublinia is a fascinating visitor attraction located in the old Synod Hall, next to Christ Church Cathedral. The centre includes exhibits and interactive displays that tell the story of Dublin during its Viking and Medieval periods, and explores the work of the archaeologists who uncovered the city's past layers. Top off your visit to Dublinia with a climb up St Michael’s Tower for panoramic views of the surrounding area.
While the medieval network of streets in the Old City has changed much in the past century, you can still get a sense of the past from placenames. Many of the streets in the area are named for practical reasons: so Cook Street was the location of the city’s ovens and bakeries (placed outside the walls to limit the spread of fires); Fishamble Street was the location for a fish market; and Cornmarket was just that, a marketplace for agricultural wares coming into the city from its western hinterland.
The church of St Audoen’s is the oldest church in the city that’s still in use. Dedicated to a Norman saint, St Ouen, the church was built in 1190. St Audoen’s has been a protestant church since the Reformation, while an imposing catholic church was built alongside in the 19th century. The former Guild Chapel of St Anne within the church houses an exhibition on the importance of St Audoen’s Church in the life of the medieval city (April to October).
Liberties were a feature of many medieval walled cities under Anglo-Norman control, and there were also liberties in Cork and London. In Dublin, a number of liberties were granted by the city’s first Anglo-Norman conqueror, King Henry II, each with different rulers to maintain a delicate power balance. So the Liberty of St Thomas Court & Donore was attached to the Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr (and later the Earls of Meath), while the Liberty of St Sepulchure was attached to St Sepulchure’s Palace, once the home of Dublin’s Archbishops (and now a police station!).
Christ Church Cathedral is the city’s oldest place of worship, reputedly founded by the Norse King Sitruic in 1030. The cathedral’s first archbishop was Laurence O’Toole, who later became the city’s patron saint. Over the centuries the cathedral has undergone many rebuildings and restorations and its present look dates to the 1870s, when a major restoration was paid for by a local whiskey baron Sir Henry Roe. Among the Cathedral’s monuments is a tomb reputed to be that of Richard de Clare ‘Strongbow’, who led the Anglo-Norman invasion of Dublin.
Did you know that the origins of the area we now call The Liberties was an abbey, established to the west of the city of Dublin in 1170 on the orders of King Henry II of England. The Abbey St Thomas the Martyr was endowed by the king with lands and privileges for what became known as the Liberty of St Thomas Court & Donore. The abbey continued until the 1530s, when another King Henry dissolved religious houses across England and Ireland as part of his religious Reformation. Find out more about the Abbey, why it was founded and the recent events to uncover its story.
In 1170, a battle of wills between the king and the church in England led to the murder by soldiers of King Henry II of Thomas a Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury and England’s most senior churchman. As an atonement for this sinful killing, Henry committed to building and endowing a number of churches across his realms, and this included Dublin, then a newly-minted Anglo-Norman city. The king established a royal abbey of St Thomas the Martyr, at Donore to the west of the city Dublin, a foundation which became the genesis of the area we know today.
Nothing of St Thomas’s Abbey remains today. After its dissolution in 1536, the abbey and its lands passed to Sir William Brabazon, a courtier of King Henry VIII. Over time the old abbey was converted into a house, and later a court or bawn attached to Brabazon’s new landholdings. Our knowledge of the abbey today comes from archaeology and knowledge of similar buildings that do remain. As part of the study of St Thomas’s, an image recreating the abbey c.1500 was created by artist Stephen Conlin.
In October 2017, Dublin City Council hosted a major symposium on the lost Royal Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr in The Liberties. The programme included papers on recent archaeological finds informing our knowledge of St Thomas’s, the Augustinian order in Dublin, the turbulent relationship of the Abbey and City of Dublin, how the abbey might have looked in its day, and much more. This fascinating event is podcast with presentations and more information on HistoryHub.ie.
Would you like to learn more about life in Medieval Dublin? The Friends of Medieval Dublin have been telling the histories of our ancient city for over 40 years. Each year, FMD holds a symposium and lecture series on life in the medieval city. You can find out more about FMD and its work at the link below.
Experience Dublin's oldest surviving medieval parish church and explore the history of the city's guilds in its Visitor Centre.
Experience over 1,000 of history at Christ Church Cathedral, which has been a centre of religious and political life in the city since medieval times.
Explore Dublin's Viking and early medieval origins with this multimedia exhibition and visitor attraction.
Explore Ireland's historic National Cathedral for the Church of Ireland which has been a defining feature of Dublin's skyline since the 13th century.