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Dublin: Georgian Heritage, Famine, and Civil War

Dublin, Ireland

Tracing the story of Dublin, we see the Georgian elegance that came with English rule as well as the downsides: the Great Potato Famine, the War of Independence, and the tragic civil war. We get inside a Georgian home and get outside to see Dublin’s street life.

Complete Video Script

Dublin was founded here on the River Liffey in the ninth century as a Viking trading settlement. It grew to become a center of wealth and commerce second only to London in the British Empire. Dublin was the most “English” of Ireland’s cities, an “outpost of Englishness” when the rest of the island was rural, Catholic, and very Irish.

The Golden Age of English Dublin was the 18th century, when Britain was colonizing the world and growing very rich. Largely rebuilt during this Georgian era, Dublin became an elegant and cultured capital with its own parliament. The 18th century left Dublin with an air of grandness and sophistication.

Then the ideas of the French Revolution — nationalism, human rights, and so on — got in the way. In 1798 the Irish rebelled against English rule. This ended Dublin’s cozy relationship with London and her genteel age was replaced by a century of strife and struggle.

This memorial to the victims of the Great Potato Famine of 1845 is a reminder that good times were replaced by an age when the national costume became bare feet and rags.

In the 19th century, with the great hunger, the closing of the Irish Parliament, and several uprisings for independence, the Irish were treated — and felt — more like an English colony than a partner.

The tension culminated in the 1920s with a successful war for independence followed immediately by a tragic civil war. Finally, Dublin — its once elegant streets in ruins — emerged as the capital of the only former colony within Europe.

While patriotic statues keep memories of Ireland’s long fight for independence alive, it’s boom time now. Rather than exporting labor, for the first time Ireland is actually importing workers.

Grafton Street is the place to feel the new energy of Dublin. Once filled with noisy traffic, today this is a fun people zone lined with cafés, pubs and shopping temptations.

Grafton Street leads to St. Stephen’s Green. On a sunny afternoon, this lush city park is an inviting world apart from the big city. Once a place for public whippings and hangings, today it’s a cheery lunchtime escape for Dubliners. St. Stephen’s Green was enclosed in 1664 and gradually surrounded with fine Georgian buildings.

Today, 19th century Dublin appears as Georgian as any city in Britain. Georgian — the English term for neo-Classical — is named for the English kings of that era. Things were stately, uniform, and symmetrical. The streets are a grid plan — with vistas built in.

The only hint of playfulness comes from the fun colors. Locals say that after an English royal died, they were told to paint all the doors black in mourning — this sent the naughty Irish directly to the paint store.

To venture behind all these fancy facades, visit Number 29 Lower Fitzwilliam Street. Admission to this Dublin home from 1790 — now a museum — comes with tours giving an intimate glimpse at the elegance of Georgian life.

Guide: The word drawing room is short for withdrawing room so these are the rooms to which the family withdrew when they had finished dining downstairs. Very often near a fireplace they had a polescreen and this is a polescreen here, and it was used to shade people’s faces from the heat of the fire because they used heavy wax-based makeup, and that might run or melt close to the fire.

The tour also shows the bedrooms and dressing rooms of this typical well-to-do Georgian family.

The sons of that family likely would have gone to Trinity College — founded in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I to establish a Protestant way of thinking about God. Trinity has long been Ireland’s most prestigious college. While the student body was originally limited to rich Protestant males, today many of its students are women and Catholic.