In 1732, Jonathan Swift wrote a friend that, while he had lost all hope of favor with those in power in Dublin, he had won “the love of the Irish vulgar” and inspired “two or three dozen signposts of the Drapier in this city.” Here, he was referring to Dublin’s gratitude for the eloquent stand he had taken against a debased halfpence, a stand that constituted one of the first stirrings of Irish nationhood—albeit a distinctly Anglo-Irish nation:
A people long used to hardships, lose by degrees the very notions of liberty; they look upon themselves as creatures at mercy; and that all impositions laid on them by a stronger hand, are . . . legal and obligatory. Hence proceed that poverty and lowness of spirit, to which a kingdom may be subject, as well as a particular person. And when Esau came fainting from the field, at the point to die, it is no wonder that he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.
When the coins were revoked, Swift had his victory, about which the Irish parliamentarian Henry Grattan would later remark: “Swift was on the wrong side of England but in Ireland he was a giant.”
This episode says a good deal about Dublin. The city has always reveled in its great men, even if they tend to repay the compliment by abusing their hometown. (Dean Swift, for example, liked to tell his English friends John Gay and Alexander Pope that he had left England for Dublin because he preferred to be “a freeman among slaves, rather than a slave among freemen.”) Dublin has always been fond of good writing and good talk, though its “notions of liberty” have tended to be fitful. Consequently, its history has always been one of promise unfulfilled. Elizabeth Bowen saw this when she described Dublin as being “full of false starts and dead ends, the store plan of something that never realized itself.” The beautiful buildings of Georgian Dublin might have been built to accommodate the Irish Parliament, but in one stroke, the Act of Union (1800) made most of them superfluous. Here, as in so many other instances, venality trumped “notions of liberty.”
Many of those buildings—most notably the Customs House and the Four Courts—were commissioned by John Beresford (1738-1805) in his 30-year tenure as head of the Irish revenue. That Beresford, the descendant of a powerful political dynasty rooted in the Londonderry plantation, should have also been instrumental in passing the Act of Union was an irony with an altogether Irish twist. Working behind the scenes with William Pitt to subvert the Irish Parliament, Beresford paved the way for the sectarian divisions that would undo all that the Georgian city had accomplished.
“Union will leave Dublin but a splendid ruin, the fallen and impoverished and crumbling capital of a province,” David Dickson, the author of this massive new history, quotes one patriot prophesying as early as 1795. And so it proved for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Lawyers, it is true, made a good living in the post-Union city: The Anglo-Irish, after all, were incorrigibly litigious, and doctors never went broke coddling the city’s legion of hypochondriacs. But nearly everyone else was hard up. As for Beresford, although an inspired town planner, he epitomized all that was most treacherous about the Irish Ascendancy, and there was poetic justice in Daniel O’Connell and the Catholic Association defeating a Beresford for the County Waterford seat in 1826, which led not only to Catholic Emancipation (1829) but to the eventual destruction of the Anglo-Irish ruling class.
If the Protestant Dublin of Swift and Grattan left little behind but memorials of betrayal, the Roman Catholic Dublin of Fianna Fáil fared no better. Éamon de Valera’s claim that Irish neutrality would somehow reaffirm Irish nationalism rang with comical hollowness. In his brilliant Ireland: 1912-1985 (1989), J. J. Lee asked whether a Nazi invasion, with all its attendant atrocities, could have “disturbed the complacent certainties of hereditary hatreds.” He gave an answer that Swift himself might have enjoyed:
It is precisely because these things did not happen, as they could so easily have happened if the fortunes of war had shifted, that the citizen of a small state must be grateful, not so much for neutrality, which in itself could do little to prevent such horrors, but for the most important event in the history of Irish neutrality, Allied victory.