Until the 16th century, the entire (walled) medieval city of Dublin lay on the south bank of the river Liffey. Across the river the only significant settlements, apart from the distant suburb of Oxmanstown, were the Dominican Friary of St Saviour and the great Cistercian Monastery of St Mary’s. The second of these was the wealthiest and most powerful medieval Monastery in Ireland. They conducted much of the administration of the early Anglo-Norman colony, they had a monopoly on fisheries on the Liffey, were the largest landowner in Ireland, hosted key governing meetings, and controlled both the food supply and food markets of medieval Dublin.
a superb painting of the Abbey of St Mary’s and in the far distance, St Saviour’s by the artist Stephen Conlin. From the book Dublin the making of a Capital City, by Stephen Conlin and Peter Harbison, published by O’Briens Press. All rights reserved.,
Yet after the suppression of the monasteries by Henry VIII from the 1540s, the mighty Abbey of St Mary’s and St Saviour’s both lay empty and deserted. So what happened next?
Built by the developer Humphrey Jervis from the 1670s, Capel Street is the first great Dublin street that ever reached North across the Liffey, projecting Dublin city streets fro the first time onto the North side of the river. Over the following 250 years this area, already synonymous with monasteries and markets, became a vital artery through the Georgian and Victoria city, as well as a place of business, shops, wholesale fruit, vegetable and fish markets, historic court houses and prisons.
On our tour we will start on the south side, outside the oldest extant theatre in Ireland, which traces its origin to the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and which saw some of the greatest actors of the 18th and 19th century grace its boards. We’ll then consider the development of the Dublin’s Quays in the 17th century, under the influence of James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, and then briefly consider James Gandon’s famous architectural masterpiece, the Four Courts. Then we’ll cross the Liffey to explore the area of narrow streets, squares and backstreets immediately west of Capel St. Here we will learn about the vanished courtyards of early modern Dublin; the disappeared markets of the 17th century; the 20th century soccer star who grew up kicking a ball in the playground of these city centre housing projects. We’ll visit the site of an ancient medieval survival, a fragment of two large rooms, from the previously vanished abbey of S Mary’s, long thought destroyed yet miraculously rediscovered underground in the late 19th century.
As we push further North we’ll view the stunning architecture of the Victorian markets with their intricate, unique terracotta sculptures. And we will finish around the late 1700s classically-proportioned Green Street Court House, and discuss the former complex of three prisons that used to surround it, including an old Debtor’s prison, the notorious “sponging house” that still stands beside the old Court House. The Courthouse itself provided the setting for some of the most famous trials in Irish legal and political history, including the trial of doomed 1803 patriot, Robert Emmet, the Young Irelander John Mitchel in the 1840s, and the setting for the notorious Maamtrasna murder trials of the late 19th century, now regarded as an appalling miscarriage of justice.
All around this historic area in other words, we will glimpse insights into the story of Dublin over the last 700 years, everything from its law and politics, its religious upheavals, its trade and food, its architecture and urban development.
If you are looking for a fresh way to understand this historic district of the city, you might enjoy this tour!
We run this tour as a public event just two or three times per year. To see all our upcoming, scheduled Public Tours please see our Public Tours page on this website. book this tour instead as your own private event, for your own group, on a date of your choosing, please fill in the contact form below. Please don’t forget to include the date/ dates you’d like to do the tour? Please only use the contact forms to inquire about Private tours. For Public tour info, please first consult the Public tour page instead. Thank you.