High up on the venerable façade of Heuston railway station in Dublin one can just make out three coats of arms. They represent the cities of Cork, Limerick, and Dublin itself. That is probably the only place where the civic symbols of what were once Ireland’s three largest cities are displayed together.
Irish people tend not to think of their cities collectively. Even defining what constitutes a city in Ireland, what a town, has merited far less interest than in other jurisdictions. Perhaps this is because Irish urban centers have never enjoyed a collective formal status like, say, the royal burghs of Scotland. Certainly they have hardly ever displayed common purpose or common rivalry—compared to Irish counties. If the mighty Gaelic Athletics Association had perhaps organized sporting competition in Ireland a century ago by city region rather than by parish and county, things might have been very different.
Individual Irish cities have however generated deep tribal loyalty and attracted local pride in what has often been a highly selective version of their history, set in the shadow of English hegemony. Yet there is an unexpected and largely untold story here: the emergence more than three centuries ago of a network of unusually large urban communities with populations ranging from 10,000 to 180,000. This didn’t just happen, and it didn’t occur without profound consequences for Irish society at large.
Of the top ten urban places in 1800, all but one (Belfast) had actually been trading centers for 500 years or more. Yet by medieval European standards, even at their most expansive moment (in the 1200s), these centers had been insignificant places. That began to change in the early 1600s: Dublin surged forward to become much the largest urban center in the country, thriving on the growth of central government and English authority (and surviving several sharp setbacks during the century).
But it is precisely the brilliance of Dublin’s subsequent ascendancy in the eighteenth century that hides a wider story. Leaving behind some fairly horrific recent history, a small cluster of provincial cities commenced a long growth cycle, and this continued up until the 1820s. Led by Cork, this soon involved its old Munster rivals of Limerick and Waterford, later including Belfast, Drogheda, and Kilkenny. Highly favorable external markets for Irish agricultural goods (in Europe and across the Atlantic), and a transformation in the demand at home for shop goods and new-style services drove this growth, and in so doing created a set of far more complex and diverse urban communities. Only Galway among the medieval ports lagged behind.
The eighteenth century was for Ireland—up to the 1790s—a century of peace. But it was also a time of religious repression and Protestant dominance in some, but not all, these cities. There was for example a vast cultural distance between the Presbyterian-dominated world of Belfast and a place like Waterford, where wealth from trade was widely distributed across all religious denominations.
There were however common elements linking these Irish cities. The long peace brought a dividend for everyone. Granted that the memories of siege and destruction, expulsion and confiscation were at first very raw, the widening of overseas trade and ever busier streets created a sense of stability, opportunity, and a new equilibrium. The most concrete sign of changed times was the gradual but quite uncontroversial dismantling of town walls and other old defensive works. Most city folk were living outside the former walled areas—those with money seeking out fashionable locations, those without resources crowding into market districts, back lanes, and dockland streets.
A second common factor was the physical appearance of cities. Much of what has been christened the “urban renaissance” in provincial England was adapted and slowly adopted in eighteenth-century Ireland, as indeed it was in the seaboard cities of colonial America. The “rules” of classical architecture became more widely assimilated, brick generally replaced stone as the dominant building material, and elegant “assembly rooms,” market houses, and dedicated public spaces became standard features. Timber, tiles, and thatch were banished to distant memory.
Building controls and street planning were however slower to arrive in Irish cities than in estate towns or villages, and for one over-riding reason: the relative weakness of city government, even in Dublin. Thus when it came to the development of publicly-owned property—of town commons, parks, and reclaimable foreshore—these were in effect privatized.
One consequence of this was the creation of multiple layers of stakeholder. Public control over building use and the re-development of street alignments became close to impossible. The Irish parliament established “Wide Streets Commissioners,” first in Dublin, then in Cork and Waterford, with unusual powers of compulsory purchase. But the borrowing powers needed to purchase and re-shape city streets were for a long time not forthcoming, and it was only in central Dublin that major street re-planning and building controls were implemented, and even in Dublin this was a process spanning decades.
However where large well-resourced private urban estates (and competent managers) existed, we do find a measure of impressive urban planning—in the re-development of large parts of later eighteenth-century Belfast, in the strategic development of the Gardiner and FitzWilliam estates on Dublin’s east side and, most spectacularly, the creation of Newtown Pery in Limerick city.
The great gridiron plan for Newtown Pery was a collaboration of sorts between a Sardinian architect, Davis Ducart, and a young Irish surveyor and self-styled “engineer,” Christopher Colles. The Limerick project, as ambitious as Edinburgh’s New Town, had hardly started when Colles emigrated to Philadelphia (he was it seems in financial trouble), but over the next seventy years the Limerick plan became a reality as the new central business district for the city. Meanwhile Colles earned a minor place in the history of American civil engineering and invention as something of a failed visionary, not least as tireless advocate of long-distance canals. At least two of his many projects reflected his Irish background: first, his partially completed scheme to supply New York City with water in 1775, coming after his former patron in Limerick, Edmond Sexton Pery, had attempted something similar back home. His waterworks were however destroyed during the war. And later his famous 1789 Survey of Roads of the United States, which was directly modelled on the highly successful atlas of Ireland’s roads that George Taylor and Andrew Skinner had published in 1777.
Colles is only one of a great many eighteenth-century professional and artisanal immigrants who brought expertise and technical knowledge, learnt and mastered in Irish cities, across the Atlantic, at a time when those Irish cities were larger and in many respects more advanced than their American equivalents. That of course would soon change, for in the era of post-revolutionary urban growth in America most of these Irish cities entered a long period of stagnation. But that is another story.
David Dickson is professor emeritus of Modern History in Trinity College Dublin. His previous books include Dublin: The Making of a Capital City, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster 1630–1830, and New Foundations: Ireland 1660–1800, Revised Edition.