Four best books on Dublin, for your Christmas list.
Often after giving a talk or a tour, guests ask me to recommend a good reference book or two on Dublin. People, with their curiosity piqued or revived, naturally want to learn more. I’m flattered to be asked, and usually recommend the same books I use myself.
This answer comes with one caveat, the book you choose depends on which aspect of Dublin interests you most. There is more information on how to do that below, and how to make the right choice.
Anyway, this is a post (a book list effectively) I’ve been meaning (and promising various people) to write up and post for well over a year now! So here at last it is …
1- For a terrifically erudite but highly readable general introduction to the city, its history, politics, trade and economy, its buildings, social, literary and cultural life and its material objects, the book I continually refer back to is
Dublin: the Fair City, by Peter Somerville-Large
For years this has been my favourite book on the capital. Be warned, there are very few illustrations. Worse though, the book is also frustratingly (and inexplicably) sometimes out of print. With this in mind, my own battered and much-thumbed copy is a treasured possession. If you can source a copy, in a second hand bookshop perhaps, be sure to pounce!
I’ve never met Peter Somerville-Large but believe he’s from Cork and is a relative of that lady Somerville who (alongside Ross) once wrote the Irish RM books. Be that as it may, I can vouch that he’s an absolutely terrific guide to Dublin, writing with a concise, entertaining precision and great deftness of touch. Using a chronological approach, the book excels from the outset as he describes Hiberno-Norse Dublin using objects found by archaeologists at Islandbridge, or the famous 1980s Wood Quay dig to give a flavour of the ancient Norse city of “Dyflinn”, using telling human details such as the bizarre abundance of combs found, or that little wooden toy ship, once used by a Viking Dublin child.
Another vignette, deftly chosen to illuminate the mixed heritage of the Hiberno-Norse citizens, describes a Dublin Viking prince returning to compete in an athletics competition in ancient Scandinavia – (a sort of Viking Olympics, if you like) – and causing a minor stir there by running in bare feet, “in the Irish manner”!
So we learn, it was not only the Normans who became Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis : “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.
Somerville-Large is equally good on Medieval Dublin, its laws and its conflicts, its powerful trade guilds which dominated civic life and municipal politics, and its strange rituals and customs, such as the “Bachelors’ Ring”, or the annual “Riding of the Franchises”. I doubt in fact if his evocative descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of Dublin of that era have been bettered.
In the 12th century Dublin was dominated first by a Norman warrior, then by a clergy elite who did most of the administration for the Anglo-Norman colony. But by the 14th to 16th century Dublin’s trade and municipal life was so dominated by traders and merchants, originally from Chester and (especially) from Bristol, that that the “Dublin” accent then in the streets and markets – just discernible now in small remaining fragments of medieval “Mummer” plays and guild pageants – was almost certainly, the author maintains, a “soft West country burr”. I love his depiction of the patois of the time and its “sub-Chaucerian texture”.
Somerville-Large is equally good on the following centuries. His pen portrait of the great Dean Swift, for example, is a model of its type. I won’t go on, you can discern my near reverence for this super book. I imagine it will be back in print soon. In the meanwhile, keep your eyes peeled in the second-hand market bookstalls. An absolute treasure!
So clearly I endorse Somerville-Large’s highly readable, vivid account of the city and its overall history and material culture But what if you wanted a book by a specialist academic historian, with more detail on the specifics of Dublin’s economic development, its endless expansions, and occasional contractions, with more in-depth analysis of its ever changing politics, power shifts, its economy, laws, ethnicity, religious strife and accommodations, with the real nuances of often complex historical material?
Then I’d have to point you in the direction of Dublin, The Making of a Capital City. David Dickson.
This was published in 2014, to great excitement and recognized almost immediately as one of the definitive accounts of our city. Dickson is professor of Modern History at Trinity College and a fellow of the Royal Irish Academy. As one would assume he is thus in total command of his subject. That leads in turn to a wonderfully concise, un-fussy style.
This is a large book, well over 500 pages of terse, expertly written prose by a highly respected professional historian, and likely to be his magnum opus on the subject. Even the first 25 pages had me rethinking a few of my own lazy assumptions and received ideas on our city, revisiting some nuances of our shared history. The religious make-up of the trade guilds in the 1600s say. No, don’t smile, this was of course a vital issue at the time, as it went to the heart of power in the capital (and with it access to patronage and opportunity) .
Yet fortunately, and what makes this book a genuine pleasure to read, Dickson also has that gift of the crisply chosen phrase. He’s a compelling writer and in a book that covers centuries of history, and huge amounts of complex, sometimes contested material, that’s no mean feat.
This book is already being described as “magisterial” and with good reason. It hardly needs my endorsement, but for what it is worth, I was utterly gripped. This seems likely to become the definitive history of Dublin, for many years to come.
So above are those two superb books on general Dublin history I recommend most highly, with no quibbles or caveats.
But my talks and tours focus on Dublin’s beautiful old buildings, using them as a way to look at wider themes. Accordingly many of the guests look for guidance on what books to read on that specific topic, on our city’s rich store of first-class architecture.
The obvious first two books in this field, very different ones, which you will want to use in very different ways, are, firstly,
Dublin 1660-1860, a social and architectural history. By Maurice Craig.
This is a classic, in short. You will not find a better book on Georgian Dublin.
The Georgian era is sometimes “Dublin’s Augustan Age”, when the great townhouses, palazzi and magnificent public buildings like Four Courts, Customs House, Kings Inns and GPO were made. In this much loved book, Craig, routinely named the doyen of Irish architectural historians, takes his readers on a trip through the city’s built history, replete with great descriptions of buildings and anecdotes of Georgian social history .
Famously, his introduction opens with great bravura, not in Dublin, but with the fall of Byzantine Constantinople to the Ottomans 1453! The same introduction ends a few breathless pages later, on the sands of Sandymount Strand, with the return of the Viceroy James Butler, Duke of Ormonde to Ireland in 1660 to great public jubilation. Craig well knows the transformative changes to the city Ormonde will bring, and concludes his introduction with the immortal words “…the Renaissance had arrived”.
Ormonde, a truly dreadful wartime leader (meekly surrendering Dublin to the Parliamentarians for example, then dismally trying and failing to win it back just a year or so later) was by contrast, a superb peacetime ruler. He laid out the city quays, and the Phoenix Park, and was responsible both for the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham as well as the rebuilding of the dismal outmoded medieval Dublin Castle (Upper yard) as a neo-classical palace. Both of these buildings – the Royal Hospital and the rebuilt Castle – introduced neo-classical architecture to Ireland, pre-figuring the Georgian style a few decades later. So Craig’s ringing introduction is perfectly chosen.
James Butler, duke of Ormonde, maker of Dublin.
I was lucky enough to be present once when the well-known broadcaster John Bowman interviewed the hallowed author. As Craig, who is now deceased, was one of the last people then living to have met James Joyce, Bowman was understandably keen to ask for his recollections of the author of Dubliners and Ulysses. The great man was having none of it. He brushed the questions off, being much more keen to talk about buildings, conservation, and his other great love; for book-binding! So it was that we missed a chance, the last chance really, to hear one great man described by another.
Craig is a good model for what it takes to be a great critic, of architecture or indeed any other art. You need both the confidence to make value judgments, as well as the frame of reference and erudition to back them up. This aspect is where Craig’s book triumphs. One of my favourite moments in the book is where he surveys John Skipton Mulvaney’s great railway terminus at Broadstone (now shamefully neglected).
Looking on, describing the great Egyptian flavoured neo-classical façade to his reader, Craig grandly but sadly proclaims it “the last Dublin building, to partake of the sublime”.
next up is Dublin; A Grand Tour. by Jacqueline O’Brien and Desmond Guinness.
A handsome “coffee table book”, to use that dread phrase, but an excellent survey of the great houses and grandest, institutional buildings in the capital, like Gandon’s great buildings, and others by Castle, Pearce, Ivory, Colley and all the rest. A picture book of the various Dublin masterpieces, in short.
It’s fitting the two authors took the notion of a Grand Tour as their subtitle. Not only were many of the great houses featured furnished and decorated with art and artifacts sent back from that 18th century aristocratic rite of passage, but the design of the houses themselves display a similar mix of vision, internationalism, foreign and classical tastes, grandeur, hauteur and genius, all in equal measure.
Grand Tourists in 18th century Rome, detail from Parody of School of Athens, by Joshua Reynolds. National Gallery of Ireland.
The books photographs are stunning, the accompanying commentary brief and authoritative. Desmond Guinness, noted conservationist, and founder of the Irish Georgian Society, was mentored as a young man by Maurice Craig.) Maurice Craig’s book has the best text and expertise and judgments. But if you want a book with more and better pictures, on the grandest, standout, set-piece buildings of Dublin, this “Grand Tour” is the one to enjoy.
Another essential is The Buildings of Ireland: Dublin. Ed. Christine Casey. From the Pevsner architectural guides series. Published Yale University Press.
In contrast to the three previous recommendations, this is a very different sort of tome, almost definitely not one you sit down to read cover to cover. It is rather a reference work. Or rather it’s the reference work, the indispensable guide to the buildings of Dublin. The bible, in fact, for all architectural historian, critics, recorders and conservators working on, in or about Dublin.
The book is part of a massive, on-going project, spanning well over half a century. It began in the 1940s in England, spearheaded by the great architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, a Jewish German academic, driven to England by the Nazis.
As a German Pevsner was actually interned briefly by the English but later released. The interment gave him time to write. He went on to become an important author and academic, and the pioneer in recording the buildings of this particular corner of Europe.
Penguin Books suggested he write a series of guides and they have become the standard and definite reference works. There are 46 volumes just covering England alone (covering the buildings of different counties). Pevsner wrote dozens himself, and co-authored even more. But with such a massive ambition, later areas were delegated to other chosen experts. The entire series was later expanded to include Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The books, which effectively are a sort of old fashioned “Gazetteer”, were originally published by Penguin. Today, the series is published by Yale University Press.
Even the work on Ireland, begun in 1979, is a massive project on its own. When complete it will run to 11 volumes. To date only the Dublin guide (covered above), the North Leinster guide and two on Ulster have been completed and published. When I’m working or researching, the Dublin version seldom leaves my side.
Needless to say, the authority of this book is, by universal consent, unimpeachable. A must-have reference for any serious student of architecture.
I could go on and recommend another dozen or more books on more specific topics and aspects of Dublin. Michael Barry’s wonderful books, like this one on Victorian architecture and decor stand out for me:
Victorian Dublin Revealed by Michael Barry, published by Andalus Press.
I’m sure I’ll add more books in future, or book reviews on separate stand alone posts. I haven’t even touched here on the guides to different areas of Dublin, like Dundrum or Ballsbridge, by the likes of the excellent Hugh Oram. (Pictured below)
But I’ll return to all that another time. In the meanwhile, thank you for reading, and have a super Christmas.
Arran Henderson is an art historian, writer, amateur historian, who leads historic and architectural walking tours of Dublin, March to November each year. The notifications for when public walks go ahead are best seen on this free monthly newsletter.