‘Pleasant comfortable and wholesome’ – Dublin in the late 16th century

Dublin in 1610.
Dublin in 1610.

By John Dorney

Travellers to Dublin in and around the year 1577 would have found not an Irish but an English city. It was in theory the capital of the Kingdom of Ireland but in reality it was the centre only of the English enclave known as the Pale.

The Pale was not, as is often imagined, an immediate product of the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland in the 12th century. Certainly the Anglo-Norman conquistadores did seize these lands –some of the most fertile in Ireland – and settled much of Ireland’s east coast with English peasants and labourers.

Dublin in 1577 was an English, or to be more precise, a Pale city.

These people certainly held themselves apart from the Gaelic or Irish speaking population but there was in the early medieval period, no need to barricade themselves into a fortified enclave. The Pale itself was a defensive reaction to the decay and retreat of the English presence in Ireland in the 15th century. The inhabitants of the Pale developed an identity familiar from other settler-colonists, that of a beleaguered enclave of  civilisation surrounded by barbarous natives.

Around Dublin were the ‘marches’ the borderlands, mostly possessed by the Gaelicised Anglo Norman dynasties such as the Fitzgeralds of Kildare, and to the south butting right onto the city’s hinterland were the Dublin and Wicklow mountains, still in the hands of Gaelic Irish clans.

A siege mentality

The siege mentality of medieval Dubliners is best illustrated by their annual pilgrimage to Cullen’s field in Ranelagh, where in 1209, 500 recent settlers from Bristol had been massacred by the O’Toole clan during a fair. Every year on “Black Monday”, the Dublin citizens would march out of the city to the spot where the atrocity had happened and raise a black banner with a raven emblem in the direction of the mountains to challenge the Irish to battle in a gesture of symbolic defiance;  “the sight of which daunteth the Irish beyond measure” – so wrote one Palesman.

Dublin's city wall on Cooke Street.
Dublin’s city wall on Cooke Street.

This was however, still sufficiently dangerous throughout the 16th century, that the participants had to be guarded by the city militia and a stockade against, “the mountain enemy”. [1]

Dublin city was a tightly knit place of around 5,000 people, intimate enough for every newly married citizen to be escorted by the mayor to the city bullring to kiss the enclosure for good luck. It was also very small in area, an enclave hugging the south side of the Liffey of no more than two square kilometres.

Outside the city walls were suburbs such as the Liberties, on the lands of the Archbishop of Dublin, and Irishtown, where Gaelic Irish were supposed to live, having been expelled from the city proper by a 15th century law. Kilkenny had a native suburb of the same name, as did several other towns.[2]

Although by the native Irish were not allowed to live inside the city walls, by 1577 many did so.

The Dubliners and Palesmen had a highly conservative attachment to English laws and to the pre-reformation Catholic religion, and repeatedly requested that these be extended to all of Ireland. The Irish Parliament passed laws, most notably the Statute of Kilkenny in 1366, forbidding the English from marrying the Irish, speaking Irish, or dressing in the Irish manner. But even the Pale was becoming Gaelicised, since many Irish-speaking peasants migrated into this fertile area.

The Black Plague of the 14th and 15th centuries had hit the Pale communities hard, creating a labour shortage that was filled by native migrants.[3] Only in the barony of Fingal (north county Dublin) was English the sole language of the common people. In the rest of the Pale, Irish was becoming the lingua franca. One Palesman complained, “we must embrace their language while they detest ours…we must gauge our laws in gibbering Irish”.

It became common to use Irish slang in conversation, especially insults such as bodach, foagh and poghue.[4]   In 1515, a deputation from the Pale, led by William D‘Arcy, appealed to the English Privy Council for a new initiative to stop the ‘decay’ of the English colony before it was too late and the whole country was lost to assimilation with the Irish.[5]

Law and order

Dublin was governed by an oligarchy of merchant families such as the Stanihursts, the Fyannes, the Sedgraves, the Fitzsimons, the Cusacks the Redlows and the Fagans from whose ranks the mayor was usually selected. All citizens of Dublin – a coveted status available only to members of guilds, their families and descendants, elected aldermen, who in turn elected the Lord Mayor. Dublin had 24 aldermen,  48 sheriffs and 96 guildsmen, who were all elected to the common council in the borough of Dublin.

Law and order was kept by a citizen’s militia which mustered  for parade four times a year – Black Monday, Mayday, John the Baptist Day the eve of Peter’s day.  They could also be summoned when needed by the Mayor, Sheriffs or by their commander, the ‘captain of bachelors and unwed youth’ who was elected by the citizens.

Among their duties were punishing those who ‘frequent brothels and other unchaste places’.  A smaller number of gate-keepers, constables and clock keepers kept watch the rest of the time.[6]

Proud Dubliners

Then as now Dubliners saw little reason to leave their city and visit the rest of Ireland. A proud Dubliner, Richard Stanihurst wrote in 1577 of his native city,

‘It is pleasant comfortable and wholesome. If you would traverse hills they are not far off. If champion ground [open country]it lieth off all parts; if you be delighted by freshwater, the famous river called the Liffey runneth fast by. If you will take the view of the sea, it is at hand’.[7]

He acknowledged that the streets were roamed by many ‘extraordinary beggars’ but contended they were fed by the ‘charitable citizens’.

Late 16th century Dubliners were very proud of their city, but theirs was an identity under threat.

The port, he conceded was in bad shape, much of it blocked by a sand bar which no one had the resources to clear. Nevertheless, the markets of Dublin, he boasted, which were held on Wednesdays and Fridays were, ‘so well stocked with meat and corn as not only in Ireland but also in other countries you shall not see any market better furnished than this one’.[8]

But all was not well in Dublin. Many citizens resented the new Protestant religion imported into Ireland by the English Tudor monarchs. In 1537 50 Catholic shrines in Dublin and Meath had been closed down by the state. Just three years after Stanihurst’s glowing account of his native city, 45 Catholic ‘outlaws’ were hanged in Dublin  for their part in the rebellion of the Catholic Pale lords, James Eustace of Baltinglass. In 1613 they lost control of the Parliament of Ireland when boundaries were redrawn to make Protestant settlers a majority.

A depictions of different social classes in 1600s Ireland.
A depictions of different social classes in 1600s Ireland.

Richard Stanihurst himself left for Spain where he informed king Phillip II, arch enemy of Elizabeth I of England, about the interests of Catholics in England and Ireland in 1602 he became a priest.

The 16th century Dubliners imagined that they were the bedrock of the English presence in Ireland but the religious wars that wracked Ireland for the next hundred years would sweep their eclectic Catholic English in Ireland identity away forever.



[1] Richard Stanihurst, Hollinshed’s Irish Chronicle 1577, p42-44

[2] Ibid. p44, 58

[3] Colm Lennon Sixteenth Century Ireland p46

[4] Stanihurst, p15-18

[5] Lennon p79-82

[6] Lennon p23 Stanihurst p43

[7] Hollinshed’s Irish Chronicle pp39-52

[8] Hollinshed’s Irish Chronicle p41

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