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Publication in Focus: How Ireland’s First Cities Emerged

20 January 2022 - A new book from David Dickson, Professor Emeritus in Trinity’s Department of History, tells the story of how the first Irish cities emerged before the age of industrialisation and details the significant population growth of urban Ireland during that time.

Professor Dickson’s publication with Yale University Press, The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation,takes him beyond Ireland’s capital, the source of much of his scholarly attention, to include nine other urban centres around the country that developed substantially during the eighteenth century.

“I always had an ambition to do a collective study of the cities that paralleled the development of what we normally call Georgian Dublin”, Professor Dickson explains.  

As a Derry native with strong family connections to Cork, Professor Dickson is ideally suited to carrying out such a study, which encompasses cities throughout the country, from Cork to Limerick, Waterford, Belfast and Dublin.

While much has been written about the architectural profile and “high culture” of these cities during this period of “unusual growth”, Professor Dickson says he wanted to focus on the world of work and on “life on the street” in the eighteenth century, and to illuminate some of the themes that draw out the darker side of these urban centres.

Ireland as Exporter

The dramatic growth of Irish cities and urban centres in the eighteenth century—particularly the southern and eastern cities of Ireland—can best be seen by observing their “high tide” mark, which coincided with the first national census of 1821. Professor Dickson chose the top ten cities and urban centres in 1821 and traced their trajectories of growth from the time they were very modest towns in the mid-1600s, shattered by war, to become in most cases significant urban centres by European standards, and in several cases showpieces of Enlightenment development.

One of the main factors driving this transformation was sustained growth of Irish foreign trade, which saw many of the port towns adding substantial value to exports. “There was a large amount of processing and warehousing of exports, and therefore employment in port towns, with exports both to Britain and to far distant markets across the Atlantic, to France, Spain and Portugal”, Professor Dickson explains.

I wish the real past of a lot of our cities was better understood, because I think that would inform the planning process in ways that perhaps it doesn’t at present.
Professor David Dickson

“I think what's striking for that period compared to later periods is how much workshop activity was going on, how diverse the crafts were, both those sectors working for the export market and those preparing and finishing shop goods for middling and higher-class households.”

In Dublin, he notes the Liberties as a key district.  It housed many of the workshops processing raw materials coming from outside the country and producing much of fashionable dressware and consumer goods that those with money craved.  Immigrant crafts people were important early on, but their role has been overstated.

Artisans and merchants were in fact highly mobile.   There was indeed something of an Irish diaspora from these cities in the eighteenth century. Professor Dickson highlights the “commercial spread” of Irish trading families into places such as London, Bordeaux, Lisbon and Philadelphia, where they maintained strong familial links with Ireland.

This diaspora was religiously mixed, but the development of Catholic trading networks during the period was particularly important. “Catholic trading families of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway were for the most part—putting it mildly—disadvantaged from Cromwellian times, but in many cases they adapted and survived, not necessarily as big trading houses but by literally setting up shop in France, in Spain and in the Caribbean.”

Image: Thomas Sautelle Roberts, 'East view of Waterford city, 1795' [National Library of Ireland]

Professor Dickson notes how some of the continental port cities in the eighteenth century had particularly strong connections with Irish cities dating back to the Catholic exodus in the previous century, and one of the cases he highlights is the strong link between Waterford and Cádiz, in southern Spain. “There is a two-way movement of people, a movement of trade and of wealth that had begun in the seventeenth century and had originally been political and religious but, after that, it becomes really just a kind of career path for families who are placing younger siblings into business.”

Integrating recent research on Ireland’s diaspora into his new publication, Professor Dickson says the  existence of these transnational networks goes some way to explaining the urban renaissance at home, notably in Munster. “The success of these families who are able to use backdoor methods and family connections to carry on trade with France and the French slave islands in the Caribbean during the times of Anglo-French warfare is very striking.” 

Politics and the City

Dublin remained very much the centre of eighteenth-century politics, its highly visible parliament having a practical as well as a symbolic importance in shaping Irish development.   But Professor Dickson emphasizes the importance of regional parliamentarians who, although domiciled in Dublin, were very successful in “using their political leverage to bring resources back to their political base”, notably those who represented the cities of Limerick and Cork in the Irish parliament.  

Examining the evolution of political culture within Ireland’s cities before the final years of the century, Professor Dickson shows how there was a transformation from the almost closed corporate governance monopolized by a business elite to a vibrant pattern of public contestation, usually turning on parliamentary election battles. He emphasizes how there was a noticeable “widening of political life” due to the strengthening of print culture and the growth in artisanal literacy.   Trade guilds and the more shadowy journeyman clubs were incubators for political debate where men became “used to speechifying”, and at a more elevated social level the emergence of new voluntary associations, notably the Chambers of Commerce, complemented this process. 

While there are many similarities between these cities in terms of their economies, their politics diverge greatly, due mainly to their diverse religious make-up. “Belfast in the 18th century is an overwhelmingly Presbyterian town with very strong links to its own hinterland, but also obviously to Scotland, and that decisively shapes the culture, the politics, as well as the religious structures of the town.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Professor Dickson highlights Kilkenny and Galway as “overwhelmingly Catholic cities”, where the trading wealth remains Catholic.  

...the Munster capital does not merit the label ‘Rebel Cork’ in the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s.” Dublin and Belfast do.
Professor David Dickson

“How does this affect politics?”, he asks. “It means to some extent that local politics around a narrow Protestant base is very, very thin. However, what's interesting to observe is the growth of informal voluntary associations and the ways in which Catholic towns marshal their own unofficial resources to shape the future. It's one aspect which isn't particularly well documented, but it's certainly fascinating.”

The slow-burning influence of the Enlightenment and shock of the American Revolution invigorated  opposition politics in Dublin and Belfast.  New calls for political reform, for widening the franchse and for making parliament more accountable were very evident in both places.  And “you’ve got a very strong new Catholic politics coming through in Dublin in the 1780s and particularly the early1790s. And yet, despite strong Catholic wealth in Cork, the Cork Catholic merchants are politically much quieter.  In the next century, that's most certainly not true of Cork, but the Munster capital does not merit the label ‘Rebel Cork’ in the 1770s, 1780s and 1790s.”  Dublin and Belfast do.

Decline in the Nineteenth Century

According to Professor Dickson, as we move into the 1800s, Ireland’s trade becomes much more focused on Britain in the era of the Industrial Revolution. “The great diversity of value-added processing that’s been such a feature of the eighteenth century withers away in the nineteenth, and agricultural exports – most obviously live cattle – pass through the ports much more quickly.  And Irish consumers come to depend on the cheap and the not so cheap goods coming from the industrial centres of Britain.”

Taking these early Irish cities and comparing them with patterns in Europe, Professor Dickson argues that their “relative decline” from the 1820s is unusual: “there are very few other areas, where there has been strong 18th century growth and nineteenth-century stagnation”. He also notes some stark changes in the make-up of cities, as we move into the nineteenth century, in terms of a greater income and welfare inequality, despite improvements in street lighting, water, sanitation, and social provision.  

Photo by Gregory DALLEAU on Unsplash  

A decline in the diversity of the workshop sector and of skilled and semi-skilled employment creates a bigger wage differential between men and women, between organized labour and the unskilled, and greater impoverishment as a result of new technical processes, Professor Dickson suggests.

He argues that the most dramatic changes occur because the wealthy classes are “now choosing to live outside the core areas of cities, partly because of the magnetic pull of suburbanization and the fall in the cost of movement (horse trams and railways), partly because of the fear of disease associated with the inner cities and the resentment at high municipal taxes”. What follows according to Professor Dickson was the growth of a wealthier suburban ring and of increasing poverty within the cities and towns, particularly visible in greater Dublin, Cork and Limerick, a process which, he adds, endures far into the twentieth century.

In terms of the current trajectory of Ireland’s cities, and particularly the planning crisis associated with the country’s capital, Professor Dickson describes himself as “an interested observer” but he cautions against a “mythical” view of the past, adding that his attitude towards rehabilitating Georgian dwellings or other historical structures of the period is informed more by environmental than by cultural considerations. “But I wish the real past of a lot of our cities was better understood, because I think that would inform the planning process in ways that perhaps it doesn’t at present.”

Professor Dickson, who helped to establish the first Masters course on Public History in Ireland in advance of the Decade of Centenaries, identifies the absence of a major municipal museum in Dublin as symptomatic of this deficit, there being no equivalent to the likes of the Museum of London.  “I think there are really good centres of interpretation of Dublin’s past, but a full-scale municipal museum would have enormous educational impact, and hopefully a planning impact too.”

Professor Dickson was recently appointed as a  Trinity Long Room Hub Emeritus Fellow. View his profile here

The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation is published by Yale University Press.

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