The Liberties: A History

The Liberties: A History

by Maurice Curtis


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Following the murder of Thomas á Becket, King Henry II came to Ireland. He decreed that an abbey be founded in his memory, and the monks that founded it were to be free from city taxes and rates. This "Liberty" expanded and took in the part of Dublin which today is known as the Liberties, one of Dublin’s oldest and most interesting parts of the capital, occupying a unique place in Ireland’s social and cultural history. In this book, author Maurice Curtis explores this fascinating history and its significance to the people of Dublin.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781845887711
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 03/01/2013
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Maurice Curtis is an author, historian, and long-time resident of Dublin. This is his fourth book with The History Press, following on from his histories of Rathmines and Portobello.

Read an Excerpt

The Liberties

A History

By Maurice Curtis

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Maurice Curtis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9032-8



As The Liberties are an intrinsic part of the history of Dublin, let us first look at the history of the wider city.

Settlement in the area can be traced back to the Early Christian period. One of the most significant settlements was the church of St Patrick, sited beside the River Poddle and very close to the present-day St Patrick's Cathedral.

Baile Átha Cliath is the ancient Irish name for Dublin and it means literally 'the town of the ford of the hurdles'. The Vikings built the town they called Dubhlinn, named after the Black Pool, which was formed by the meeting of the rivers Poddle and Liffey. Viking Dublin stretched roughly between Wood Quay, Winetavern Street, Christ Church and Fishamble Street.

A network of ancient routes (slighe) linked the early settlements with other locations in the country and familiar streets such as Augustine Street, Francis Street, Thomas Street and New Street in The Liberties are all descendants of these Gaelic routes. The city walls were constructed around the hill of Christ Church. This established it as the heart of the medieval city on high ground above the river, and drew the populace into the impressive cathedral. Further routes were developed, building on the slighe to develop an early urban network of streets. John Speed's map of Dublin, 1610, showed the city centred on Dublin Castle, with Thomas Street and Patrick Street being significant routes to the west and south.

From the Battle of Clontarf to the Normans

Following the Viking settlement, Dublin evolved into the Kingdom of Dublin. Despite a number of rebellions by the native Irish, it remained largely under Viking control until 1014, when Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, defeated them at the famous Battle of Clontarf. After this remaining Vikings were assimilated into the Irish way of life.

The Norman invasion of Ireland was launched from Wales in 1169. The King of Leinster, Dermot Mac Murrough, enlisted the help of Strongbow, the Earl of Pembroke, to help him conquer Dublin. Following Mac Murrough's death, Strongbow declared himself King of Leinster after gaining control of the city. In response to his successful invasion, and fearing that Strongbow would form a rival kingdom, King Henry II of England reaffirmed his sovereignty by mounting a larger invasion in 1171 and pronouncing himself Lord of Ireland. Henry's show of force was aimed as much at his own Anglo-Norman vassals as it was at the native Irish.

On arrival in Dublin, King Henry II then granted the city of Dublin to his faithful men of Bristol following its capture and on 15 May 1172, Dublin's first written Charter of Liberties was granted by Henry, Lord of Ireland, addressed to all his 'French, English, Irish and Welsh subjects and friends'.

In 1177 Strongbow died in Dublin and was buried with great solemnity in Christ Church, where a monument to his memory is still on view. The same year Vivian, the Pope's legate, held a synod in Dublin, and therein published King Henry's title to Ireland, ratified by Pope Adrian (the first and only English pope). He announced that all who should withdraw their allegiance from Henry would be excommunicated. (Recent historians, however, have questioned the authenticity of the Pope's Laudabiliter as one of the justifications for Henry's invasion of Ireland).



The term 'The Liberties' is a very familiar feature in Dublin, but what exactly does it mean? The Liberties are not so called because they were ever free – in fact they had several masters – but because they lay outside the medieval city walls and so were not under the city's jurisdiction or control. The Archbishop of Dublin executed justice and levied dues in one part, the monks of St Thomas's Abbey another, and there were some lesser overlords. Those in control of The Liberties were granted certain privileges; the Archbishop, for instance, was entitled to have a boat on the River Liffey and to take salmon and other fish. He was also entitled to all the fines imposed on jurors for non-attendance at the King's Bench. The court of his Liberty was held in the Palace of St Sepulchre's (now Kevin Street Garda station) and the Archbishop himself tried and sentenced persons for offences committed within his Liberty.

The ancient Liberties remained independent of the Lord Mayor and Corporation up to 1840. They were town lands united to the city, but still preserving their own system of local government.

How did these semi-independent royal government-mandated entities come into being, and to what extent did they retain their privileges and immunities that they enjoyed until well into the nineteenth century? Kenneth Milne in his excellent in-depth study, Dublin Liberties 1660–1850, shows that the four main Dublin Liberties were rooted in charters granted to ecclesiastics, the Archbishop of Dublin (St Sepulchre's), the prior of the Augustinian monastery of Thomas Court, and the two cathedral chapters.

Liberty of Thomas Court and Donore

The origin of this liberty goes back to the founding of the Abbey of St Thomas in what is now Thomas Street, near St Catherine's church, in 1177. The founder was William FitzAldelm, deputy and kinsman of King Henry II. The church was dedicated to Thomas à Beckett (St Thomas the Martyr), who had recently been murdered in his cathedral at Canterbury by followers of the King. The church, which became a rich and powerful monastery, was for the use of the Canons of the Congregation of St Victor. In return for the support of the prior of the abbey, or to alleviate certain hardships suffered by Englishmen or the Church in Ireland, privileges were granted to the abbey. These allowed the abbey to have its own courts of justice, where it was allowed to try a limited number of crimes, mainly dealing with bad debts. The court-house was located in Thomas Court Bawn, off Thomas Street, while the jail was in Marrowbone Lane.

In 1538, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. At this time the Abbey of St Thomas Court held 56 rectories, 2,197 acres of land, 67 houses, 47 messuages (houses and attached lands) and 19 gardens. Most of the land was in Meath and Kildare. These possessions were confiscated and distributed among several people, of whom Sir William Brabazon (ancestor of the Earl of Meath) and Richard St Leger were the major beneficiaries.

On 31 March 1545, Sir William Brabazon was granted the lands of the abbey, with all jurisdictions, liberties, privileges, and so on. This grant was confirmed in 1609 to Sir Edward, his son. In 1579 the city of Dublin claimed the abbey to be within the jurisdiction and liberty of the city, but they lost their case. From then on the head of the liberty was the Earl of Meath.

Liberty of St Sepulchre

The Liberty of St Sepulchre (also known as the Archbishop's Liberty) was under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Dublin. The headquarters of the Liberty was the Palace of St Sepulchre, located now where Kevin Street Garda station stands. This was originally constructed by John Comyn, the first Anglo-Norman Archbishop of Dublin, appointed in 1180. The name was suggested by the campaigns being waged by the Crusaders for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre from the Muslims. Comyn was shortly after granted land by the monarchy for the See of Dublin, which provided the basis for the Liberty. The importance of the Liberty of St Sepulchre was enhanced by the fact that it consisted of a number of smaller Liberties, many of which lay outside the city or even county of Dublin. The Liberty of St Sepulchre in the city was, however, the principal Liberty.

As with the Abbey of St Thomas Liberty, privileges were granted to the Liberty (that is, to the archbishop and his successors) at various times and by various kings of England in return for his support. These rights and privileges were ended by the Manor Court of St Sepulchre Abolition Act 1856, the last such jurisdiction remaining in Ireland.

A courthouse and jail for the use of the Liberty were built in the early nineteenth century at the corner of Long Lane and Bride Street. Most of the prisoners were insolvent debtors. Much of the business of the court related to trading, fairs, and weights and measures.

Milne points out that:

Until modern times the lords of the larger Liberties, that of St Sepulchre and that of Thomas Court and Donore, exercised legal jurisdictions comparable to those of the Lord Mayor, and in all four Liberties they controlled the economic life of their territories (including the two smaller Liberties of St Patrick's Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral) through their market juries and by administering the assize of bread, the provision of public lighting and fire-engines. The Liberties tenaciously maintained their privileges until the demands of an increasingly complex urban society became too much for them.

Milne also notes:

The Liberty and Ormond Boys frequently clashed (weavers versus butchers). This then led to the development of a law and order system to regulate crime, the dispensing of justice, courts, disputed jurisdictions, a legal system to oversee local government services, such as paving, sanitation, lighting, the right to hold markets and fairs and their supervision (the Kevin Street Market in the Liberty of St Sepulchre was the largest market south of the Liffey), the size, standard and quality of bread, water supply issues and problems of flooding, hazards of fire, payment for services through various taxes, e.g. hearth taxes, paving tax, foundling tax and many more.

The main two Liberties are mentioned in Allen's Register of 1529, but without describing their exact location. In 1728 Charles Brooking published a detailed 'Map of the City and Suburbs of Dublin', which contained a description: the Liberty of St Sepulchre boundaries stretched from Bishop Street to St Stephen's Green, along Harcourt Street to Donnybrook, across Rathgar to Harold's Cross and back along Clanbrassil Street to Patrick Street. The Earl of Meath's Liberty ran west along the Coombe to Ardee Street, turning north towards Echlin Street, then along James's Street and Thomas Street to Meath Street, then through various smaller streets to Ash Street and back to the Coombe.

In 1754 Roger Kendrick produced a map of the Liberty of St Patrick's and Thomas Reading followed ten years later in 1764 when he made a map showing the Liberty of Christ Church. In 1837 the Ordnance Survey started developing their maps, and that of Dublin published in 1840 showed all The Liberties, from the smallest (Christ Church Liberty, one acre two roods) to the largest (Earl of Meath's Liberty, 380 acres).

Riding the Franchises

There were those who quibbled at using the term 'Liberties' – according to a late nineteenth-century visitor to Dublin, the 'Franchises' and not 'Liberties' was the correct term. In fact the National Library of Ireland has a manuscript and map called: Survey of The Liberties and franchises of Dublin City as ridden and perambulated every third year, published in 1815, which seems to corroborate this view.

'Riding the franchises' was a tradition that began in the Middle Ages and continued until the early nineteenth century. It involved the Lord Mayor of Dublin and his entourage, including representatives of the various guilds and other important citizens, parading in their regalia and finery around the boundaries that marked the city from The Liberties. Every so often they would stop and the Lord Mayor would bang his mace on a wall, signifying the boundary of his rule. This had the function of asserting his authority, protecting his territory and pointing to the authorities in the adjacent Liberties, the extent of the latter's rule: thus far and no further.

But the use of the word 'franchises' to describe the local government system of royal administration is quite interesting. The Liberties need to be seen and understood in the context of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland. The granting of so-called 'Liberties' by Henry II to the native Irish was in reality a contradiction. In fact the original lands they had enjoyed were sequestered by the invaders and handed back with stipulations that were called 'Liberties' with privileges. But these 'Liberties' and privileges were a step back from the freedoms and rights they previously owned and enjoyed before the invasion. The native Irish in these 'Liberties' were henceforth tenants of the English king and the 'Liberties' their rent books. In later years this policy was extended to other parts of Gaelic Ireland under the guise of 'surrender and re-grant'. The story of The Liberties area of Dublin then is also the story of Irish history and the overthrowing of that confiscation of the lands of Ireland. And some of the pivotal events in Irish history in this process took place in The Liberties.



Dublin Castle, which became the centre of English power in Ireland, was founded in 1204 as a major defensive work on the orders of King John of England. Following the appointment of the first Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1229, the city expanded and had a population of 8,000 by the end of the thirteenth century. Dublin prospered as a trade centre, despite an attempt by King Robert I of Scotland to capture the city in 1317, though it remained a relatively small walled medieval town during the fourteenth century and was under constant threat from the surrounding Irish clans.

By 1400, however, many of the Anglo-Norman conquerors were absorbed into the Irish culture, adopting the Irish language and customs, leaving only a small area of Leinster around Dublin, known as The Pale, under direct English control.

Candles and Guilds

Medieval Dublin was a busy place. Many of the people who lived within the city walls worked at a trade or a craft and serviced the needs of the castle which was the centre of the city. They also paid taxes to the castle for the privilege of living within the city walls. Amongst the craftspeople who lived in the town, or just outside its walls in The Liberties, were goldsmiths, carpenters, smiths, butchers and fishmongers. There were also tanners, weavers, coopers, shoemakers, tailors, and bakers.

These craftsmen were organised into Guilds that were modelled on the self-help principles of the trade and craft guilds. A large number of such guilds came into existence throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Most of the guilds were based around the High Street and St Audoen's church. One of most important was the Guild of Tallow Chandlers, Soap Boilers and Wax Light Makers that was founded in 1538 by a civic charter. Guild meetings were held at St Audoen's Arch. In medieval times candles were made by the simple process of repeatedly dipping a series of wicks on pieces of wood into melted wax until the desired thickness had been achieved. Candles would have been of great importance in the Middle Ages as a main source of light in churches, businesses and elsewhere. The old Dublin firm of Rathbornes Candle Makers were producing candles in Winetavern Street in 1488 and, now located in East Wall Road, Dublin, is still producing candles today.

Other important guilds included the Glovers and Skinners; the Weavers; the Brewers and Malters; the Felt Makers; the Smiths; the Tanners; the Tailors (who had their own Guild Hall on Winetavern Street and later at Back Lane); the Barber Surgeons (hence the red and white barber's pole signifying blood and bandages); the Coopers; the Cooks; the Bakers; the Carpenters; the Goldsmiths; and the Millers.

The Black Death

Like all medieval towns, Dublin was a dirty place. There were no sewers and rubbish was thrown into the streets. People did not have baths or showers regularly or even wash their clothes. There were rats and mice everywhere. Medieval towns were a perfect breeding ground for diseases and in 1348 the Bubonic Plague or 'Black Death' reached Dublin. The crowded conditions of the city allowed the deadly disease to spread like wild fire and it is estimated that around one third of the population was wiped out. This was a common occurrence across Ireland and England and the Black Death led to the complete disappearance of some villages and towns as the population either died or moved away. Dublin, like the majority of other European cities, was large enough to survive the Black Death as it had a population of about 35,000 when the plague hit.

The victims of the Black Death inside Dublin were buried in mass graves, something that is reflected across many of the major cities in Europe. The graves were located in an area still known as the 'Blackpitts', but there has been some debate recently as to whether this refers directly to the graves of plague victims. It cannot be underestimated how much this set back the development of cities throughout Europe, including Dublin.

The Black Death altered the balance of power in the city, which just before the disease was firmly in the hands of the Anglo-Normans, back in favour of the native Irish. The Black Death continued to return for most of the fourteenth century, and it meant that effective rule by the Anglo-Norman leaders was almost impossible. It was not until the sixteenth century that the English regained the full control of the city. Consequently Dublin was seen as a potential hotbed of rebellion for many years to come.


Excerpted from The Liberties by Maurice Curtis. Copyright © 2013 Maurice Curtis. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 6

Introduction 11

1 The Gaelic, Viking and Norman Origins of Dublin 15

2 Henry II: Liberties or Franchises? 19

3 The Middle Ages: Barbers, Blackpitts and the Black Death 23

4 From the Tudors to the Georgians 26

5 The Huguenots: Weavers and Dutch Billies 30

6 The United Irishmen: The Wearing of the Green 35

7 From Daniel O'Connell to the Irish Tricolour 43

8 Forged in the Smithy: Poverty and Tenements 49

9 The 1916 Rising and The Liberties 65

10 The Wood Quay Campaign and the Knight 70

11 Boots, Brews, Biscuits and the Golden Triangle 75

12 Stairways to Heaven: Landscape of Spires 90

13 A Tour of The Liberties: By the Sign of the Leather Bottle 120

14 Celebrating The Liberties 223

Notes 241

Bibliography 253

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