I THOUGHT I KNEW the history of my hometown, Dublin, and then I read David Dickson’s wise and stylish book. The experience has been akin to learning the ennobling backstory of someone you have taken for granted as an eccentric character. In another great (albeit much shorter) book about the city, Dublin: A Portrait (1967), written by V.S. Pritchett, a sympathetic Englishman long acquainted with the town, we come face to face with that character:

If I were to write an account of my education, the city of Dublin would have to appear as one of my schoolmasters, a shabby, taunting, careless, half-laughing reactionary. His subject? History, of course.

The schoolmaster’s own history began well over a millennium ago, on the banks of the River Liffey. “This first chapter,” Dickson writes, “is still very opaque, but what is clear is that there were several nodes of settlement […] and, as [fellow historian] Howard Clarke has shown, such duality is not untypical of many embryonic towns in the Europe of the Dark Ages.”

What is notable about Dublin is that this duality, as Dickson subtly instructs us, remains the key to the city’s identity, from its muddy beginnings to its world-stage present. It’s there in the very signs pointing you toward the place. The name “Dublin” derives from the Irish Dubh Linn — the dark pool — beside which one of those original nodes of settlement formed. But the Irish you’ll see on the bilingual road signs is Baile Átha Cliath: the town of the ford of the hurdles, another riverside node.

The adoption of Baile Átha Cliath as the city’s official Irish name probably dates back to the Gaelic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when, as the struggle for Irish independence gained steam, Dublin was “a capital in waiting.” Dickson mentions municipal government’s “partial adoption c.1905 of bilingualism on the city’s letterheads and on new street wall-plaques.” Áth Cliath is arguably the older name, and it also has better indigenous credentials, as Dubh Linn was the phrase taken up and modified by the Viking and Anglo-Norman colonizers: Dyflinn, Dubline, Dublin.

The new lords of Ireland used the burgeoning town as “the bridgehead and primary conduit through which [they] sought to influence or control much or all of the island.” These projects of dominance were often accompanied by policies of ethnic and religious exclusion. The names of ancient suburbs memorialize this intermittent apartheid: Oxmantown for descendants of the Vikings, Irishtown for the Gaels.

But, thankfully, something in human nature, or in that dark Liffey water, meant that any attempt to impose cultural “purity” on Dublin was doomed to fail. “[I]ts population from the earliest Norse era,” Dickson writes, “was a mix, a genetic and cultural melting-pot, to a greater extent than anywhere else on the island.” In the course of 563 narrative pages, he provides many vivid examples of this fruitful and sometimes unexpected blending. Reaching beyond the usual literary suspects (though Joyce, Yeats, and Swift have their say, of course), Dickson directs our attention to intricate figures on the margins, such as the “popish” teacher Seán Ó Neachtain. He lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, when the anti-Catholic Penal Laws were in their most oppressive phase. But it’s hard to keep a good writer — and a community of writers — down:

In its multilingual punning (in Latin, English and Irish) and linguistic hybridity, [Ó Neachtain’s] memoir catches something of the transitional yet cabalistic cultural world of these teachers, for apart from their own circle very few in the city could read such material. Yet in no sense were they isolated. […] [T]hey had some contact with the world of high learning in the city, notably in the friendship between Tadhg Ó Neachtain [Seán’s son] and Anthony Raymond, a [County] Meath Church of Ireland [Anglican] cleric, a friend of Swift and former fellow of [Trinity] College, thanks to whom old Irish treasures in the Trinity library, notably the Book of Ballymote, were leant out to Ó Neachtain.

Yes, that’s Dublin — a city of loans and borrowings, some of it cultural, much of it economic. Far more Dubliners knew the rag-and-bone shop as a fact of harsh reality than as a Yeatsian metaphor for the heart. Dire poverty is the tenacious villain of Dublin’s story; the fight against the notorious tenements, abandoned aristocratic housing that splintered into slums, was still going on into the 1960s, decades after Irish independence. Dickson notes that “the very poor are themselves almost voiceless in the historical record,” but, nevertheless, he manages to make them present in his text, such as when he offers us this surreal image: “Some 2,000 registered beggars were marched through east-side streets one day in September 1818 to shock affluent householders into supporting the ‘Mendicity [Association].’”

That demonstration of poverty to prosperity occurred, therefore, during the city’s celebrated Georgian era, when Dublin wore, to borrow the title of a book Dickson edited in the 1980s, a “gorgeous mask.” The latter half of the 18th century was in many ways the high point of Dublin’s history — “in 1750 […] the city was […] the ninth largest in Europe […] more populous than Madrid or Berlin” — and the chapters on this half-century are the high point of the book.

These were the years in which Catholics began to emerge from the shadow of the Penal Laws and the Protestant Ascendancy was in its most enlightened and creative phase. The city became itself. Architect James Gandon transformed the riverscape with his monumental Four Courts and Custom House, as well as the first version of the Carlisle (later O’Connell) Bridge. The Wide Streets Commissioners Haussmannized the city center without Parisian heartbreak; they created new thoroughfares but did not make the town unrecognizable. Dublin Corporation splashed out on an extravagant mayoral coach, as Dickson puts it, “its bare-breasted goddesses glistening in the rain as they attested to Hibernia’s fortunes rising under Dublin’s protection.”

But in 1801, with the Act of Union, the protector became the protected; the Irish parliament voted itself out of business, sending a reduced cohort of MPs to London. The imposing parliament building on College Green, amplified by Gandon during the boom years, became a bank.

The conventional wisdom about the Union is that it was an immediate and unmitigated disaster for Dublin, as money and influence drained out of the city and across the Irish Sea. Dickson has a more nuanced, but still distressing, story to tell. In everything from the production of textiles to books, there was a “hollowing-out process.” (Well, not quite everything: “Guinness was a real beneficiary of Anglo-Irish union.”) The distress was at its most intense during the Great Hunger of the 1840s, as the sick and starving tramped in from the country. Dickson doesn’t dwell on the failures of officialdom to deal with the catastrophe (these have been well documented and analyzed in books on the Famine); instead, he highlights the vigorous efforts of the city’s medical community to provide relief as well as individual heroics:

Asenath Nicholson, the Vermont “penny-philanthropist,” who travelled the country in 1847, spent six months as a penurious lodger in Cook Street during the peak of the Famine crisis, dividing her meager income between gifts of bread to all comers and the hand-outs of fuel, rent and cooked gruel to the most desperate twenty families she could find.

Better times lay ahead for the city in the second half of the 19th century, but that stability threw into sharper relief a long-running drama: the “hundred-year-long contest over ultimate control of the city’s destinies between predominantly Protestant interests and predominantly Catholic ones — in local government, business, welfare provision, education and high culture.” In this regard, the title of Dickson’s chapter on the fin de siècle city — “Whose Dublin?” — is a question that resonates throughout the entire book.

The answer the 20th century seemed to give was that Dublin “as a capital reborn” was essentially Catholic and Nationalist, the metropolis of the Gaels, an Irishtown writ large. Storied events appeared to confirm this outcome: the handover in early 1922, after the convulsions of the Easter Rising and War of Independence, to Michael Collins (whose signature on the Anglo-Irish Treaty read Mícheál Ó Coileáin) of Dublin Castle, “the ancient and defining symbol of English royal authority in Ireland”; the spectacular piety of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress and 1979 Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park; Archbishop John Charles McQuaid’s “intervention in plans for the 1958 Dublin Theatre Festival […] with objections to a proposed stage version of Ulysses and to parts of a new [Sean] O’Casey play.”

This clerical attempt at bowdlerization led not only, as Dickson notes, to the festival’s “entire cancellation” but also moved Samuel Beckett, in Parisian self-exile from his native city, to take action: “he banned [temporarily] all further Irish productions of his work: ‘As long as such conditions prevail in Ireland I do not wish my work to be performed there.’”

My own family lore backs up Dickson’s contention that the theatre festival controversy “was indeed unusual in being a very public display of the power of the crozier which was usually exercised covertly, and the customary invisibility of his methods was one reason why they were normally so effective.” My paternal grandfather had been a civil servant of middling rank before independence. The native takeover of the Castle did not bring about the egalitarian society envisioned by “democratic programme” of the First Dáil (autonomous parliament), but it did shatter a glass ceiling; Irish Catholics like my grandfather moved rapidly through the ranks after 1922. He became head of the department responsible for communications and broadcasting; my father remembered Archbishop McQuaid phoning the house for “little chats” with his dad. This was sotto voce theocracy.

But whether it was in public view or behind the scenes, the conditions that upset Beckett did not prevail. The sea-facing city could not resist outside influences. Dickson beautifully captures this orientation with an image late in the book: “during the 1950s [British TV] signals were picked up via the tens of thousands of aerials that now brushed the Dublin skyline.” The hybridity was back.

And it had never really gone away. Time and again, reading Dickson’s eloquent book, I was reminded of poet Louis MacNeice’s 1939 rumination on the city, simply entitled “Dublin.” Like Pritchett, the Belfast-born MacNeice was a perceptive outsider. He drank in the duality with his Guinness:

She is not an Irish town
And she is not English […]

Augustan capital
Of a Gaelic nation,
Appropriating all
The alien brought […]

By the time I read the poem in school in the 1980s, one of its stony images, “[Lord] Nelson on his pillar / Watching his world collapse,” was out of date; in 1966, in their own loud tribute to the 1916 rebels, for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the IRA blew up the pillar. This left the city’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street (Sackville Street under the ancient regime), without a focal point. Eventually, early in the present century, the pillar was replaced by a “stainless steel spire […] claimed to be the world’s tallest sculpture.” Dickson’s book was teaching me things about my hometown until almost the very last page, because I never knew the Spire’s official name was “the Monument of Light.” Dubliners do a good line of jokes about public art, so I had heard it referred to as “the Why in the Sky,” a nickname that captures an uneasiness that Dickson picks up on: “To some, it suggested a city without a past.”

The answer to this anxiety of erasure? History, of course. Dublin: The Making of a Capital City is a fine remedy.

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Robert Cremins is the author of the novels A Sort of Homecoming and Send in the Devils.