The history of Dublin city spans at least 1,200 years. In Celtic times there was an important ford on the Liffey and this may have supported a small settlement and there is also evidence for a monastic establishment. In the ninth century, Vikings established a raiding base along the river and by the tenth century Dublin had developed into an important Viking trading town. It passed into the hands of the Anglo-Normans in the late-twelfth century and became the focus of the feudal lordship of Ireland. By 1610, the date of the earliest surviving map, Dublin was a small walled town (approximately 12 hectares) on the southern riverbank with substantial suburbs on both sides of the river. The combined population of the town and suburbs is estimated at ten thousand with 3,800 within the walls. Little remains of this city today with the exception of two cathedrals, Dublin Castle and elements of the street plan.
Dublin flowered in the eighteenth century as both city authorities and private speculators developed the city beyond the medieval walls. A Wide Streets Commission established in 1757 oversaw development and acted as a planning authority for almost a century. The city was provided with wide, straight streets, residential squares and impressive public buildings – the Four Courts, Custom House and Parliament buildings – in a style greatly influenced by contemporary European ideas. By 1790, the city’s elegance and charm had found widespread admiration across Europe.
In the nineteenth century a number of circumstances combined to produce serious social problems. Following the Act of Union (1801), the economy of the city suffered as many wealthy citizens moved to London. More importantly, the better-off moved in large numbers to legally independent townships just outside the municipal boundary thus reducing the tax-base of the city. Two townships, south of the city, became particularly important as higher status enclaves. These events were combined with an influx of rural poor and a failure to develop sufficient labour-intensive industry to absorb them productively. By 1851, the city’s population had risen to 258,000 from 182,000 (1800) and there were problems of public health and housing of such intensity that it was well into the twentieth century before they were satisfactorily addressed. Nonetheless, Dublin continued to function as an important regional centre, many infrastructural improvements were undertaken and the better-off continued to come to the city for business and recreation. Governance of the city passed into the hands of nationalist politicians.
The suburbs grew dramatically during the twentieth century and a well-defined social geography emerged. The south-eastern sector, the location of the most successful nineteenth-century townships, developed a high social status. Extensive programmes of social housing also resulted in the creation of large suburban developments from the mid-1920s. In the south city, these were mainly to the west, producing a west/east social gradient. However north of the Liffey, less favoured as a high status residential location, the social geography of the city was less clear-cut. Suburban appeal was enhanced by shopping centres (after 1967) while industry also deserted the increasingly congested central areas for cheaper and more accessible sites in suburban industrial estates and business parks. Increased car ownership has made commuting more and more difficult and in-fill housing developments in older suburbs have proved popular since the 1990s.
The population of the city continues to grow and efforts to control the size of the urban footprint has seen higher density housing developments. Whereas flats were almost universally associated with social housing during the first half of the twentieth century, all social groups are found in flats and apartments. This form of housing is no longer confined to the inner city area but exists in all parts. The pressure on commercial development in the city centre has resulted in taller and taller office complexes and there are now designated zones where very tall buildings will be permitted.