A history of Dublin in the 1800s is a story of great contrasts. On the one hand the century oversaw huge advances in design and engineering, ushering in major improvements in the city’s physical infrastructure. On the other, poverty and disease were endemic, as the population of one of Europe’s most compact capitals burgeoned towards almost half a million by the end of the century.
Following the Act of Union in 1801, Dublin’s power and influence waned. With its political star no longer in the ascendant, the city experienced a corresponding decline in economic fortunes throughout the 1800s. Meanwhile the talents of a number of its citizens shone brightly in the worlds of music, literature and art.
It is fair to say that the inhabitants of Dublin in the 1800s were both witnesses to and participants in a historic time of momentous change. In highlighting some of the key events of the time, this article will trace some of the main developments that emerge from a study of the history of Dublin in the 1800s.
Act of Union
The century opened with a seismic legislative and political act, sometimes characterised by historians as a good example of ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’. In response to the insurrection of the United Irishmen of 1798, the Irish Parliament voted in favour of The Act of Union, merging the Kingdom of Ireland with the Kingdom of Great Britain to form the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In passing this piece of legislation, the Irish Parliament effectively voted itself out of existence, and the consequences were felt immediately. Dublin’s political influence diminished radically as power transferred to Westminster. Economically too, the city experienced a corresponding downturn in fortunes as many of its wealthiest inhabitants swiftly relocated to London, bringing their power, money and influence with them.
Insurrection and Emancipation
The city witnessed further political turbulence just two years after The Act of Union, when Robert Emmet again invoked the spirit of the United Irishman to lead another uprising in Dublin. His short-lived rebellion of 1803 was quickly suppressed and he was subsequently tried and convicted of treason. In a memorable speech from the dock he entreated, “When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then and not till then, let my epitaph be written.” Emmet was hanged, then beheaded outside St Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street.
In a later effort to retrieve the power enjoyed by Irish Catholics before the Act of Union, the reformer Daniel O’Connell led a peaceful mass movement which led to the achievement of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. O’Connell later served as the first Catholic Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1841-2, and the city’s main thoroughfare, often reputed to be Europe’s widest street, was named after him in 1924.
Women and Politics in Dublin in the 1800s
At a time when public life was regarded as the preserve of men, another mass movement saw attempts to extend the franchise from upper and middle class men of property to working class men. In tandem with this, efforts were also made to extend the vote to women. Suffragists Anna Haslam and her husband Thomas set up the Dublin Women’s Suffrage Association in 1874, and their efforts were partially rewarded when the Local Government of Ireland Act of 1898 eventually enabled women to vote and run in district council elections for the first time.
Population Growth in Dublin In The 1800s
The 1800s saw the population of Dublin effectively double in less than 100 years, increasing steeply from 180,000 in 1800 to just over 400,000 at the beginning of 1900. In the mid 1840s, the Great Famine led to a dramatic acceleration in the numbers living in the city, as starving people took flight from the countryside, hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families between the boundaries of the city’s two canals.
The city struggled to deal with the social and health issues arising from the explosion in its population. Many once lofty residences became homes to sprawling tenements, with whole families living in cramped conditions in single rooms. While wars and rebellions meant that poverty and disease were commonplace throughout the cities of Europe in the 1800s, contemporary reports describe Dublin as having “the worst living conditions in Europe.” Attempts to stave off starvation included the erection of workhouses and fever hospitals, augmented by street soup kitchens.
Transport and Infrastructure
The citizens of Dublin also witnessed the transformation of the city throughout the 1800s, as clever feats of engineering delivered an extensive network of bridges, tramways, roads and street infrastructure. A scheme to bring light to the city’s streets at night was realised through the establishment of the Dublin Gas Works in 1824, and the city’s streets were lit by gas from the following year on.
With the opening of The Royal Canal in 1817 water transport took on greater significance as new trade arteries opened up between the city and the rest of the country. Meanwhile attempts to connect the developing suburbs north and south of the Liffey, saw the river bridged by a number of impressive new structures throughout the 1800s. These included bridges such as O’Donovan Rossa (1813), Ha’penny Bridge, also called Liffey Bridge (1816), Kingsbridge, later renamed Heuston Bridge (1828), and Queen Victoria bridge, now known as Rory O’More Bridge (1859). The fact that many of these landmarks still exist in Dublin today is a tribute to the engineering prowess and ingenuity of the time.
Culture, Music, Literature and Arts
A history of Dublin in the 1800s would not be complete without reference to the cultural revival it experienced towards the end of the century. The city was home to artists and writers such as Walter Osbourne, Sarah Purser and Oscar Wilde, and the 1800s also saw the founding of a number of cultural institutions and amenities in Dublin. These include institutions such as the Zoological Gardens in the Phoenix Park (1830), the Irish Academy of Music (1848), the Natural History Museum (1857), The National Gallery of Ireland (1864), The Gaiety Theatre (1871) and the National Museum of Ireland (1890).
In 1892 a new fruit and vegetable market opened, with the arrival of a new fish market five years later in 1897. Meanwhile 1832 saw the opening of Glasnevin cemetery, which developed over the years to become the final resting place of over one million Dubliners.