The Liberties of Dublin

A vibrant working-class community under gentrification pressures

WHEN I MET THE O'ROURKES - There I was, Winter 2016. I had just missed the 67 bus to Maynooth, was starving, and just minding my own (research) world. And it was raining, of course! So, I went back and entered this café… and I met Sean. He was almost closing but still made me something to eat: a sandwich, without this, without that... next question: "where are you from?" I'm Italian, I do research, I need to get to know the local people. "Come by tomorrow morning, you'll find my brother Tony”. Tony brought me to meet Máirín Ó Cuireáin at Robert Emmet CDP, and made me to see firsthand how loving and generous people are, those in the Liberties. #cityofcare thanks Tony (left) and Sean (right) O’Rourke posing with their dog Spike on Bridgefoot Street almost at Usher's Quay.

There is no doubt that The Liberties holds a special place in the heart of Dublin people and in fact of people from all over Ireland. But why the fascination? Why the aura, magic and mystery that seems to surround the area? According to some of the residents themselves the reason is that the people of The Liberties are the ‘real Dubs’: this location is the area of Dublin where the city started and evolved more than a thousand years ago.

The city of Dublin began, like most cities, as a walled compound to protect the assets of the city and its citizens. The city had many masters over the centuries, and the heart of power lay in Dublin Castle. Within the city there were rules, laws and regulations, and everything had an orderly existence. But outside the walls, life was different.

Thomas Street and Meath Street constitute the quintessential heart of Auld (old) Dublin, renowned in song and story. Particularly Meath Street today retains its distinctive character and curious detachment from the life of the wider city. There are deadly cafes and restaurants but you can also pick up groceries from a street vendor or just watch the local young lads ripping around on their horses. It’s a place to discover and enjoy: a place of evocative placenames, engaging architecture, vibrant street life and strong community spirit. A special thank to James Crowe - guide at In Our Shoes Walking Tours - for posing at the Liberty Market.

The area just outside the city walls was a thriving merchant area, to which farmers came to sell their produce, especially grain from the fields of Kildare and further afield. Cattle and sheep were also part of this thriving market. The local residents ran ale-houses, hostels, abbatoirs and clothes stalls, and engaged in other less savoury occupations – including illicit distilleries and breweries.
The area was bohemian in attitude, with a different culture to that found inside the city. Rules and regulations were more lax, and sometimes non existent. That area was known as the Liberties.

The photograph portraits the ‘secret garden’ of the Meath Street Grotto. It lies behind S. Catherine’s Church, and is surrounded by pubs, markets and street sellers but is a strangely quiet and serene part of this otherwise bustling street. The Grotto may be the epitome of ‘Old Ireland’ with its strict religious customs, but visiting it is a pleasure that can make anyone feel like part of the community.

Over time, the area developed a great community spirit which gives a unique stamp and character to the people and place. The Liberties was also where some of the most pivotal events in Irish history occurred, ranging from the coming of Henry II, the Reformation, the United Irishmen and 1798, the 1916 Rising and the Wood Quay marches of the late 1970s. Some of the finest and most historically significant churches in Dublin are to be found here, along with some of the city’s most important industries and businesses.

"I moved to the area in September 2018. I fell in love with the winding and crisscrossing streets with shortcuts to different parts of town, the sense of history in the old bricks of the various buildings around St James’s Gate, and the variety of shops and services on Thomas Street that literally cater to every need (be it a birthday cake from Mannings Bakery or a buzzcut in Fades & Blades). They all add up to a real sense of character that is rapidly disappearing in the city."

Less than 10 years ago, places like Thomas Street – the area’s main thoroughfare – were left run-down and neglected after the property bubble burst. However, over the past two-three years, the Liberties has started to see some business momentum, with new enterprises moving in and some major firms, like Diageo, consolidating their presences. But with investment coming in, some local traders fear the Liberties could become a victim of its own growing success. Hopefully it’ll not just hotels and students accommodations. The character in the area needs to be protected, we've seen mistakes in Dublin in the past. We don't want the Liberties to become soulless.

"The needs of tourists are being given priority over local people, who can’t afford to live here any more. The public land in the area should be used for public housing.” (Rita Fagan, community activist and long-term resident, The Irish Times Feb 7, 2020) 

The people who live in a city are what make it what it is. However, in the Liberties the regeneration is being overdone and places like Francis Street - full of antique shops and hotels - are changing so fast that the real locals are becoming marginalised.

The photographs above portray some of the social housing complexes around Vicar Street (Michael Mallon House) and Pimlico Terrace.

The area known as The Liberties is the south-west part of Dublin’s inner city, approximately west of Dublin Castle, Werburgh Street and Bride Street and stretching to James’s Street and Cork Street, including Pimlico, the Coombe, Newmarket and The Tenters; south of the River Liffey from Wood Quay, Merchant’s Quay and Ussher’s Quay, extending to the Coombe Hospital, New Street and Kevin Street – predominately in the Dublin 8 postal district.

After years of campaigning by local residents in the Liberties area, local authorities approved the idea of creating a park at Bridgefoot Street. Thanks to Liz O'Connor for walking us through the site.

In October 2007, Dublin City Council revealed plans for a multi-million euro redevelopment of The Liberties. They argued that lack of investment and the rationalisation of traditional industry throughout the twentieth century combined to cause both physical and social decay and this was therefore an area crying out for a major urban renewal project.

Thanks to Anthony Freeman O’Brien - Operations Manager Robert Emmet CDP - during an In Our Shoes Walking Tours on the streets of Liberties.

The area is also home to Ireland’s number one tourist attraction – the Guinness Storehouse – an institution, which is hugely important, both historically and culturally for the city and the wider country. The Digital Hub and Digital Exchange next to the Guinness brewery continue to grow and foster some of the most innovative digital enterprises in the country, as does the Digital Depot, on the other side of Thomas Street. Across The Liberties we have countless small businesses: are all hives of entrepreneurial activity.

Arthur Guinness was born in Celbridge, Co Kildare in 1725. He started brewing ale and beer, and eight years later he became the master of the Dublin Cooperation of Brewers. In 1770 Arthur decided to create a different kind of ale. This beer was made from roasted barley. It was dark in colour and was called ‘porter’. This later became known as ‘Guinness’.

Throughout the 1930’s people were dependent on the brewery for their livelihood. If you received a job in Guinness’s, you were set up for life. The Guinness family really looked after their employees. They paid for healthcare, not just for their employees, but for their entire family. On retirement the pension provided never required contributions. They received free meals daily and had access to co-operative stores, where their work clothes were bought at a reduced rate. The old saying from the employees working for Guinness’s was that you were cared for ‘from the womb to the tomb.’ They developed the Thomas Court houses and houses in Rialto Street for their employees. The houses in Rialto Street are still here today.

The area boasts the country’s most popular tourism attraction: the Guinness Storehouse. Recently, it has been confirmed by the multinational drinks company Diageo the development of 12.6 acres of the iconic complex at St. James's Gate into an urban center complete with housing, offices, and shops called the "Guinness Quarter."

Yet these regeneration plans meet with strong opposition from residents of the area, claiming that the character (and soul) of one of the city’s oldest surviving areas would be destroyed.