Development of Dublin City

The Medieval City

The celtic road network that existed in Ireland prior to the arrival of the vikings had its nexus at the Ford of Hurdles over the Liffey. These celtic routes formed the basis of the present main routes through the city. There were two important foci in the development of the city – the Ford of the Hurdles and the intersection of the river Poddle with the Liffey – the Black Pool which gave the name Dubh linn while a settlement at the ford was known as àth Cliath – now accepted as the Irish for Dublin.

The viking’s arrived in 837 but it was not until 841 that they settled here. Once settled they carved out a small kingdom around their trading post and the area has names redolent of the viking origins – Leixlip, Howth, and Skerries. Dublin was known as Dvfflinskiri and became an important settlement in the viking world. After the defeat of the vikings by the irish at Clontarf in 1014, their power waned and the city developed along more european lines. By the 12th century, Dublin had acquired all the trappings of a medieval city – walls, cathedrals, abbeys and civic buildings.

In 1170, the city was seized by the Normans and joined the mainstream of european development. It became the centre of the norman colony in Ireland and a royal charter was granted in 1172. In 1174 , the city was granted to the men of Bristol by the King for services rendered. Guilds, a mayor and bailiffs were introduced to control the city and the Vikings were expelled to a settlement at Oxmanstown on the north side of the river – thus forming a city with two ethnic communities – a situation which existed well into the eighteenth century.

The city continued to expand dramatically through the 12th and 13th centuries when all of the important institutions were founded. The city’s development was continuous with no major radical surgery performed on the street plans. The Vikings built their settlements around existing Celtic routes and positioned the future suburbs while the Normans confirmed this and extended the city. The city as developed by the Vikings was based around the ridge of high ground that runs alongside the south side of the Liffey. At this time the Liffey was a wide tidal estuary before the quays were built to confine it.

Wide Streets Commissioners

The Wide Street Commissioners were responsible for setting up and enforcing the laws that governed the development of the east city centre as well as responsible for the development of civic set pieces such as Parliament Street and Westmoreland and D’Olier Streets. The Chief Commissioner was for some time the Rt. Hon. John Beresford who was largely responsible for shifting the main north-south axis of the city from Capel-Parliament Streets to Drogheda now O’Connell Street.

Beresford favoured shifting the city centre eastwards from the Capel – Parliament Street axis towards a new axis on College Green with Sackville Street and the construction of a new bridge linking the two sides. Naturally this was supported by the Fitzwilliam and Gardiner Estates who had much to gain. Luke Gardiner was also a Commissioner and a brother-in-law of Beresford. The Custom House was built on land reclaimed from the estuary of the Liffey when the Wide Streets Commissioners started to construct the Quays. The line of the crescent that surrounds the Custom House follows roughly the line of the old North Strand along the estuary before the construction of the Quays.

Prior to this period, Lower Abbey Street was a country lane which meandered between Sackville Street and the North Strand. The old Eden Quay area followed the irregular shoreline of the river estuary. It was felt by the Wide Streets Commissioners that this should be rectified and so Abbey Street Lower and Eden Quay were driven straight through from Sackville Street to end in the new crescent allowing the Custom House to close the vista. There was also discussion about constructing a new avenue to radiate from the Custom House to the Royal Barracks (now called Collins Barracks) nearly two miles away. The other street intersecting with the crescent, Store Street West, was placed on an axis originating in the dome of the Custom House. At the time of the Custom House construction, this area was largely unbuilt land and Store Street was laid out as a short street of the same width as Gardiner Street merely for symmetry in much the same way that the Gardiners laid out Belvedere Place from Mountjoy Square as a dead-end.

The Gardiner Estate


Developed by three generations of the Gardiner family between 1720 and 1820, the estate was made up of holdings bought in individual segments leaving it interrupted by other holdings. This left the estate disjointed with several large set pieces existing without reference to each other.

The first Luke Gardiner (died 1755) started around 1714 by buying some land around Bolton Street and George’s Quay. This land was part of the lands belonging to St Mary’s Abbey and was previously owned by the Moore family. His first development was Henrietta Street (1720). Originally open to the fields at one end, it was intended as an upmarket cul-de-sac and was very successful and was responsible for turning the northside of the Liffey into a fashionable place to live.


He was also responsible for creating Sackville Mall out of Drogheda Street, now O’Connell Street. After purchasing the street from the Moores, he demolished it and replaced it with a mall 1050 ft long and 150ft wide. Each roadway was 50ft with a 50ft mall decorated with obelisks and trees in the centre. This was also a very fashionable place to live and was lined with large mansions. He originally intended to continue the street to the river and have the vista terminated by a large public building on the south side of the river. At the northern end Dr Bartholomew Mosse took a lease on land on Great Britain Street and built the rotunda hospital complex and assembly rooms. The lack of cohesive planning in Dublin is again shown where the rotunda is not placed on the axis of Sackville Street but to one side allowing the assembly rooms to terminate the vista.

Behind and to the north of the Rotunda were the Pleasure Gardens, later turned into Rutland Square, now Parnell Square. The square was developed as three separate streets, Cavendish Row( 1753-55), Gardiners Row (1769) and Palace Row (1755). Palace Row on the high ground behind the Rotunda contains Charlemont House and its curved sweep walls mirrors that of the Rotunda. The square is more uneven and irregular that any of the other Dublin squares but the houses are more varied and were once the most sophisticated and elaborate of all Dublin residences. The houses all still survive some modernised and some in decay. The land to the west of the square was owned by the Dominick family and was developed by them.

The second Luke Gardiner opened up new streets on the Eccles Estate, Gardiner Street and was responsible for the laying out of Mountjoy Square (1792-1818). Gardiner Street was a series of sloping terraces that led from the crescent of Beresford Place on a radius of the Custom House to the proposed new square almost three quarters of a mile. This is shown on one of the proposed designs for Mountjoy Square with a note: “Gardiner’s Street extending in a right line from the centre of the new Custom House”. Until the completion of the Loop Line Railway bridge, the Custom House presented a magnificent ending for the vista.

Original schemes for the design of Mountjoy Square show symmetrical terraces with domed pavilions at each end. Mountjoy Square, the only square in Dublin at 600×600 ft was designed as a single symmetrical design with a church in the centre. Two streets exit each corner of the square with Belvedere Place a short dead end to complete the arrangement. The streets running north south run straight through while those east west are offset by two houses to allow corners to be formed confirming the space. The sides were to have uniform façades with central cupolas and end pavilions. These were not built and the ubiquitous elevation was adopted. Unity with the Gardiner estate holdings around Rutland Square was prevented by the land that became North Great Georges Street and was owned by another family.

The Gardiners also developed Hardwicke Place around the new St George’s Church. Of this was to radiate several new streets several of which were built while others were left unexecuted. The final and most ambitious Gardiner plan was the construction of a Royal Circus to the north of Mountjoy Square with radiating avenues to their three major holdings at Rutland Square, Mountjoy and Hardwicke Place. This was never constructed but would have assimilated their three separate developments into one cohesive unit. Luke Gardiner was killed leading the County of Dublin Militia at the battle of New Ross in 1798.

With the third generation of Gardiners, the estate started its final descent into decay and bankruptcy. The estate’s collapse between 1846-48 effectively destroyed the northside of Dublin with the loss of an overall guiding hand. The estate survived as slums until the 1950s when demolition and redevelopment led to the decimation of Gardiner Street, Mountjoy Square and others. Much of the estate still survives but in very poor condition.

The Fitzwilliam Estate

The most cohesive estate in Dublin was laid out between 1760 and 1850. The land acquired by the Fitzwilliam family was leased as a block from the City Corporation and as it was a single block, this lent it a cohesiveness that was lacking in the Gardiner Estate which was developed and bought in small parcels. Their first project was Merrion street in 1758 which was laid out to run parallel to Kildare Street and backing on to the gardens and garden front of Leinster House, home of the Earls of Kildare. The street narrows at the top where it meets St Stephen’s Green – a typical happening in Dublin where there was no cohesive planning between various estates. It was quickly built on and plans were made for Merrion Square using Merrion Street as one side. The square was designed by James Ensor, the planner of Rutland Square and was designed to be 1500 ft long. As built it was 1150 x 650 and the positioning of exit streets at the corners laid the plan for the rest of the estate. Of this was laid Mount Street Upper and Mount Street Crescent as well as Fitzwilliam Street. Fitzwilliam Street forms the eastern side of both Merrion and the later Fitzwilliam Square and is a long expanse of Georgian architecture terminated by Holles Street Maternity Hospital. Holles Street was designed to run of the square from the corner but was dislocated to allow for the building of Antrim House, now the site of the Hospital. Fitzwilliam Square was designed from 1789 but was not developed until the first decades of the 19th century.

The 19th Century

After the Act of Union of 1801, Dublin entered a period of decline with the loss of its administrative power and structures. Architectural development still continued for some years with the construction of the General Post Office, St George’s Church, and the ongoing development of the Fitzwilliam Estate. With the bankruptcy of the Gardiner Estate in 1846, the north side of the city started its long slide into disrepair as many of the once fine Georgian houses became tenements and slums. In the later part of the century, fine Victorian structures including banks and public houses were constructed. Important buildings like the South City Markets on Great George’s Street and the Museum Building of Trinity College were designed and built. The regional railway companies constructed four fine termini in the city all based on different architectural styles. So despite the decline of Dublin into a regional city of the British Empire, the city still managed to acquire a wealth of important 19th century building.

With the loss of funding resultant from the dissolution of the Irish parliament in 1801, many of the fine and ambitious plans of the Wide Streets Commissioners and Landlords had to be shelved. The Royal Circus, a elliptical development planned for the top of Eccles Street by the Gardiners never materialised but “˜haunted’ maps of the city for many years. The construction of the city quays continued with the last of these: Wellington Quay completed in 1812. The Wide Streets Commisioners were finally abolished in 1841.

The romantic notions of the victorians meant that money was available to restore the ailing medieval cathedrals of the city. The Guinness family paid for St Patrick’s Cathedral to be heavily renovated, while a Dublin distiller Henry Roe paid for the repairs to Christchurch. At St Patrick’s, the buildings adjacent were bought, demolished and turned into a park to set off the cathedral to its pictorial advantage. Christchurch required much more intervention – the building was in poor repair. As well as demolition of part of the building – the long choir, adjacent buildings that were built against the cathedral were bought and demolished and the building linked across to the Synod House. The generosity of benefactors like these enabled Dublin to maintain many of its fine churchs and buildings.

Also evident in the 19th century was the inability of those running the city to see beyond the immediate – just after the Act of Union, the city fathers advocated filling in the centre of Stephen’s Green for housing, the redevelopment of the Mansion House as a street and the demolition of the Tholsel – one of Dublin’s medieval civic buildings. The Tholsel was demolished but neither of the other two ever came to pass. Similar suggestion occurred in the twentieth century – notably the suggestion that Merrion Square be filled with a new national Roman Catholic Cathedral.

The Abercrombie Report


In 1916 the Civics Institute of Ireland held a competition for suggestions and designs for the city planning of Dublin of which the judges were Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), the Dublin City Architect C.J. McCarthy (1858-1947), and John Nolen. The winner was Patrick Abercrombie of Liverpool University. This competitive design formed the basis of the Abercrombie Report published in 1922 which, apart from recommending a site at Aston Quay for a Central Bus Station, also suggested the removal of Butt Bridge (which was then in a dangerous state) and the completion of the crescent around the Custom House by filling in the redundant dock. Since the dock’s construction, the docks had expanded and moved further down river. In addition a new bridge positioned centrally in front of the Custom House was to be constructed and Amiens Street Railway Station extended down to the quayside. All the buildings surrounding the Custom House were to be rebuilt in a Beaux Arts style with the station closing off the Abbey Street vista with a huge colonnade. Abercrombie was influenced personally as an architect by the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and particularly by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891) whose city planning of Paris he admired. It was reported in The Irish Times that Abercrombie felt that it was necessary:

… to complete a crescent surrounding the Custom House with buildings for offices of similar purposes which would form a regular setting for the central building, The design of these buildings as shown in his Dublin report of 1922, was of a Renaissance character but they might quite equally well have been carried out in a more modern idiom. In any case he thought it would have been necessary for the surrounding buildings to be considerably higher than the Custom House.

Nothing ever came of this report and Abercrombie’s recommendations were largely ignored. In December 1922 the Greater Dublin Reconstruction Movement published their proposals for the city. This report, like Abercrombie’s, advocated extending Amiens Street Station to the quayside and new docks constructed alongside it for passenger services across the Irish Sea. It also suggested the removal of the Loop Line railway bridge and its replacement east of the Custom House which would become the new General Post Office. Again, nothing ever came of this.

Throughout the late 1930s the general public had been agitating through the newspapers for better transport facilities specifically the provision of bus shelters along the quays where long distance bus passengers caught their buses. In 1937 The Irish Builder and Engineer suggested that a Central Bus Station be constructed on the bonding warehouse site next to the disused and abandoned Custom House Dock. It was not the first time that the dock was suggested for use in civic improvements. In 1927 the same journal had reported a far sighted plan to fill the dock with an underground car park for two hundred cars and placing a new road over it to the quayside.

The 1941 Sketch Development Plan for County Borough of Dublin and Neighbourhood by Professor Abercrombie, who was now Professor of Civic Design at Liverpool University, Sydney Kelly, a Liverpool architect, and Manning Robertson (1888-1945) a Dublin based town planner, also proposed a Central Bus Station which was to be sited at Aston Quay on the McBirneys Department Store site keeping the original building frontages.

Temple Bar Properties

The historic Temple Bar area of Dublin City is bounded on the north by the river Liffey, to the east the old Houses of Parliament, to the west Parliament Street and to the south Dame Street. During the 1960s and 1970s Coras Iompair Eireann (CIE) acquired much of the area as the site of a major new urban bus centre. This plan was abandoned and the Irish government established Temple Bar Properties with the objective of development within the context of an architectural and cultural framework. In 1991, following the purchase of the Córas Iompair Éireann (CIE) portfolio of properties, Temple Bar Properties initiated an Architectural Competition for the area. The brief for the competition asked the participating architects to convert objectives for the renewal of the area into outline architectural proposals.

The proposals were to cover such aspects as: Accessibility of the area and its relationship to the surrounding districts; Permeability of the site, pedestrianisation and traffic control; Land uses and the need to encourage residential development; Extension and treatment of public spaces; Encouraging movement and activity particularly at the western end of the area.

The intention was to avoid a Master Plan which would compel and be inflexible, and to develop ‘a framework plan’ which could stand the test of time as the face of Temple Bar changes and develops over the coming years.

The winning entry was devised by Group 91 Architects, a collection of eight Irish architectural practices. The plan provided a collective but flexible framework which allowed for a creative partnership between the public and private sectors: the public sector setting high standards in public spaces and the private sector encouraged to respond to these standards in developing its own spaces.

The plan revolved around:the development of a pedestrian east/west walk route from Westmoreland Street to Fishamble Street, punctuated by ‘hearts’ public spaces that attract people into the area and ‘spines’ that facilitate the movement of people into the area and along the route the regeneration of an urban population. The plan also included the construction of a new pedestrian bridge across the River Liffey and the construction of a new street between Temple Lane and Eustace Street (the Curved Street); the pedestrianisation of the core area and pushing motorised traffic to the edges of the area.

As the plan developed and was constructed – new urban spaces were completed in the area: Temple Bar Square, the Curved Street, Meetinghouse Square as well as pedestrian routed through the Irish Film Centre and the centre of the Wood Quay site. Many of these new spaces are surrounded by new cultural buildings and mixed use developments including apartments. New buildings such as the Arthouse, the Irish Film Centre and the Irish Photographic Centre have received acclaim and plaudits from the public and architects alike.

O’Connell Street Redevelopment

For most people, O’Connell Street is the centre of Dublin city – its where traditionally the trams stopped and in later years nearly every bus route passes through it. Originally as Drogheda Street and then Sackville Street the centre of fashionable Georgian Dublin and in later years the centre of commercial life, O’Connell Street has been in decline since the 1960s. Up until the 1960s O’Connell Street was known for its cinemas, the GPO and Nelson’s Column. With the destruction of the column and the closure of all bar one of the cinemas, the street has become a garish strip of discount stores and fast food restaurants. As the street increasingly became a no-go area after dark due to drugs and street violence, and business interests became concerned with a perceived fall in the quality amd pulling power of the street, the corporation formed a committee to come up with a development plan for the street and its environs.

O’Connell Street as it exists today is a result of its reconstruction after the street’s destruction by gunboat in the 1916 Easter Rising. The street was redesigned as a cohesive series of blocks by the city architect Horace O’Rourke with consistant parpet lines and similar façade treatments and materials. This is especially noticeable along the eastern side of the street. Up until the 1960s the three most impressive structures on the street were the General Post Office and Clery’s Department Store – sited on an axis running transversely across the street and Nelson’s Column sited on the Henry / Talbot Street axis. The vertical emphasis of the Column was a contrast to the width and almost overwhelming length of the street – a contrast which the street now misses.

As part of the scheme, an area covering O’Connell Street, and parts of the surrounding streets has been designated for the execution of an integrated area plan. The area stretches from Parnell Square, Marlborough Street, to Westmoreland Street, D’Olier Street and College Street. Ironically it now includes the development being disputed in the Irish courts at the moment. As part of the scheme, individual buildings and groups of buildings of merit have been listed. Others that the corporation feel should be redeveloped or are in need of repair have alos been listed for attention.

The main recommendations of the development plan included:

  • Widening of the pavements and central mall and reducing the number of traffic lanes in either direction to two lanes
  • Construction of a Luas station (new tramway system) in Lower O’Connell Street.
  • Construction of a plaza outside the General Post Office for use during civic celebrations and events.
  • Extensive replanting of trees in a more geometric fashion to provide strolling boulevards in the paved areas.
  • A competition to find a replacement for Nelson’s Column to add a vertical emphasis to the street.