How the Liberties area evolved

The city of Dublin grew from two small settlements known as Áth Cliath (The Ford of Hurdles) and Dubh Linn (The Black Pool), later anglicised to Dublin.

In medieval times, the city was walled for its protection and administered by a corporation and guilds, which controlled trade and commerce, administered justice, and levied tariffs and taxes.  You can still see remnants of the old City Wall of Dublin today at Cornmarket and in St Audoen’s Park. Outside of the walls – areas outside of the Corporation’s control – were called liberties.

In the 12th century, King Henry II of England ordered an Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr to be established at a site close to the modern church of St Catherine. The Augustinian monks of the Abbey were given extensive lands to the west of the city, as well as in counties Dublin, Meath and Wicklow, and certain privileges and powers to control trade within their ‘liberty’ and as a result the Liberty of St Thomas Court & Donore became extremely wealthy.  The abbey in turn gave its name to St Thomas Street, the main street of the area. It quickly became a bustling market place and trading street, lined with mills, hostelries and various providers all serving the growing city.

In the 16th century, the abbey’s lands passed into the ownership of Sir William Brabazon, an ambitious courtier of the king. The Brabazon family, who later became Earls of Meath, dominated the area as landowners for the next 300 years and different generations of the family were responsible for many of the urban developments we recognise today.

The great market space at Newmarket was laid out in the 1620s by the second Earl of Meath and his townhouse was located close by. A later earl supported some of the pioneering Victorian-era housing developments for the working class. Today, street names such as Meath Street, Brabazon Street and Ardee Street mark the family connection.

During the late 18th and 19th century, The Liberties was dominated by great brewing and distilling families, most notably the Guinness family, who from 1759 built and developed the world’s largest brewery at St James’s Gate. Renowned distillers Powers, Jameson, Millar and Roe were all located here, creating a Victorian cityscape of chimneystacks, mills, malthouses and bustling streets.  The area even had its own harbour linking it to the Grand Canal, and a mini-railway through the St James’s Gate brewery to the quays.

However, this industrial wealth and prowess often went hand in hand with dire poverty and horrendous living conditions. The 19th century area had notorious slums which in turn spurred a number of enlightening housing developments by the Earls of Meath and the Guinness and Power families in the latter years of the century. The now-charming enclaves about Gray Street and John Dillon Street were originally examples of modern new homes built for the working class by the Dublin Artisan Dwelling Company, while the Iveagh Trust Buildings on Patrick Street remain beautiful examples of the first ‘flats’ built for Dubliners.

The ancient ‘liberties’ were finally abolished and subsumed into the city in the 1840s, however the name ‘The Liberties’ remained and became primarily to mean the old Earl of Meath’s Liberty.

While the fortunes of the area declined in the 20th century, Thomas Street and Meath Street remained the quintessential heart of ‘Auld Dublin’, renowned in song and story.  The area has produced its fair share of storytellers, master musicians, street characters and thespians.

Today, it retains its distinctive character.  It’s a place to discover and enjoy: a place of evocative place names, engaging architecture, vibrant street life and strong community spirit.