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Invaders and bloodshed, empire and rebels, scandal, beauty and culture – if it’s colourful history you’re after, Dublin has the lot. Handel’s Messiah, rebel gunfire, the harsh lives of the poor, and the swish of silk-clad aristocrats, and all within an incredibly small area.
Follow the story-filled Dublin Discovery Trails – each will take about two hours on foot – around the city, from Kilmainham Gaol and Trinity College up to Parnell Square. You'll almost hear the whispers of the past on your journey.
The Vikings had good taste – they certainly liked the look of Dublin in 841AD and it’s been a popular spot ever since. Over the centuries, the city has been a magnet for saints, scholars, poets, playwrights, and dreamers – and, of course, a sprinkling of dissolute aristocrats. Explore these ancient streets and find out where holy relics pulled in the pious, where speculators gambled, where scandals were hushed up, and where culture flourished.
Amid gracious Georgian architecture, Handel premiered his Messiah and rival gangs of apprentices and butcher boys fought in the streets; and as some of the finest literature in the world was being written in fashionable salons, Dubliners rioted against oppressive laws. Follow the Stories of Dublin Discovery Trail where you can revel in the city’s glories – and uncover its occasionally disreputable past.
“Where I go, fashion will follow,” declared the haughty, super-rich Duke of Kildare, and the result – Leinster House – was so grand it’s now home to Ireland’s government. Back in the 1740s, it changed the shape of the city, as the Protestant aristocracy hurried to build houses nearby to show off their wealth, in stark contrast with the terrible conditions of the city’s poor. Take the Empire Discovery Trail and stroll around the colonnades of the Bank of Ireland or past City Hall to find where high society met to gossip, gamble and flirt.
Dublin Castle was the heart of British rule, while further up Dame Street young bluebloods studied at Trinity College. By 1800, Dublin was bustling and fashionable, the second largest city in the British Empire. That changed, though, with the Act of Union, as the aristocrats departed and the city fell on hard times.
Not everyone left Dublin to starve however: the Guinness family used their vast wealth to help those less fortunate, arranging for St Stephen’s Green to become a public park, building houses and providing work for the poor.
The Republic of Ireland’s capital city was a cauldron of discontent for 200 years before the Easter Rising of 1916: those six days that shook Dublin and heralded the birth of a nation. Imagine the heady days when the city echoed with the speeches of political firebrands and the rattle of machine guns. Pass along streets that became battlegrounds, and imagine a Dublin where St Stephen’s Green was dug into trenches, the Shelbourne Hotel became a sniper’s post, and the General Post Office (GPO) was the rebel headquarters.
The Rebellion Discovery Trail takes in the spot where the Rising ended, in Conway’s pub on Parnell Street, scene of revolutionary Padraig Pearse’s surrender to the British. And finally, take a while to remember the generations of freedom fighters commemorated in the Garden of Remembrance, which is dedicated “to all those who gave their lives in the cause of Irish freedom.”
Take the Echoes of War Discovery Trail and you can almost hear the sound of marching feet. In an almost forgotten chapter of history, thousands of Dublin’s men and women enlisted to help the British Army in the trenches and medical centres of World War I. In hidden corners, you can find testament to their sacrifice: monuments and cemeteries and hospitals where shattered soldiers were slowly nursed back to life.
Even the dead were left unremembered for decades, their graveyard at Bully’s Acre ignored as if it held a secret shame. The National War Memorial Gardens near the Phoenix Park were built in the 1930s to honour all those who fought and died during World War I. It helped to heal still-fresh wounds – the workforce was roughly half ex-British Army and half ex-Irish Army, working together to remember fallen friends. For decades afterwards, facing the past was still too painful, but now, at last, the stories are being told again.