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Chapter 5 – The Growth of Cities.

A Purgatory of Misery by Frank Parker and Pat Lillis – stave #6

Chapter 5 – The Growth of Cities.

It is worth pausing for a moment to remind ourselves that in the eighteenth century Dublin was a prosperous, cultured city on a par with the greatest cities of Europe. Handel’s Messiah had its premier there in 1765. Belfast, Cork and Limerick, too, prospered from the trade that was handled by their ports.

It was during the eighteenth century that Dublin was transformed from a medieval city, with narrow cobbled streets, into a Georgian metropolis with broad boulevards and Paladian buildings. The squares we see today were created then. The landowners referred to in the previous chapter built second homes here. The Lord Leutenant, Lord Kildare, who already had one of the grandest of the many country houses in Carton House, built the Paladian mansion that today houses the Irish parliament.

When parliament was sitting, in Dublin Castle, the magnates of the Protestant ascendancy arrived with their retinues. Alongside the conducting of government business they staged great banquets and supported, by their patronage, the creative arts of one of the most vibrant and populous cities in the British Empire. All that came to an end with the Act of Union. Now there was no longer a parliament to attend; no need for that second home, however grand.

Meanwhile the outer parts of the city remained undeveloped. A steady migration of mainly Catholic families from the surrounding countryside both created slums in which rival gangs vied for supremacy and ensured that Catholics were in the majority by the end of the century. With the ending of the Parliamentary ‘season’, many of the city’s once elegant Georgian neighbourhoods rapidly became slums, too.

By the 1840s, the emancipation of the Roman Catholic population produced a situation in which the City Corporation became dominated by Catholics, among them Daniel O’Connell who, whilst campaigning for repeal of the Act, became mayor.


Whilst Dublin’s prosperity was built on the patronage of high society, Belfast thrived as a merchant town and the centre of industry. It was the only part of Ireland to benefit from the Industrial Revolution. It did see similar, but smaller scale, developments of Georgian streets and buildings. In the early years of the nineteenth century, it also saw a similar inward migration of mainly Catholic families from the rural hinterland although this was eclipsed by migration from Scotland, England and further afield in Ireland.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century the first Roman Catholic Church building in Belfast was funded by protestant business men and Church of Ireland and Presbyterian congregations. A largely Presbyterian military guard of honour was provided for the parish priest on the occasion of the first mass celebrated there on the 30th May 1784.


Cork benefited enormously from wars during the eighteenth century. First the American War of Independence, then the Napoleonic wars, saw the port as a principle provisioning centre for the Royal Navy. It was also a centre for the export of food to mainland Britain and to the West Indies. Butter, salt beef and pork featured heavily. The Cork butter market, with its rigorously enforced quality system, became the largest and most well known such facility in Europe.

Tanning, brewing, distilling and textiles were also important to the growth of Cork throughout the eighteenth century. Linen for sails, wool and cotton for uniforms and civilian clothing, beer, gin and whiskey were all exported from the port.

Hand in hand with the growth of the economy went a steady development of the physical infrastructure with the reclamation of several marshes and the creation of the street layout familiar to visitors today, including several bridges across the river Lee.

The ending of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 reduced the need to service the Royal Navy. Demand for food fell, too, with a corresponding fall in prices. There were always high levels of unemployment in the city, despite the growth of trade, with a steady influx of poor people from the rural hinterland and further afield. With the collapse of the city’s economy in the 1820s, unemployment rose to very high levels. In 1832 there was a Europe wide cholera epidemic which further depressed economic conditions.

Shipbuilding, brewing, distilling, tanning and the butter trade still flourished and Cork Harbour remained a major port for trans-Atlantic trade. However, these were not sufficient to reduce the high levels of unemployment that served to depress wages and contributed to the poor living conditions in the densely populated inner city.

As in Dublin, Catholic emancipation in the 1800s led to the substitution of the ruling Protestant elite on the City Corporation with a majority drawn from the Catholic merchant class.


Like Cork, Limerick benefited from the trans-Atlantic trade. In the second half of the eighteenth century a new city was constructed to the South of the original medieval city, with wide streets and fine Georgian terraced houses. Some of Ireland’s finest examples of Georgian Architecture can be seen at the Crescent area and Pery Square.

Chief imports through the port included timber, coal, iron and tar. Exports included beef, pork, wheat, oats, flour and emigrants bound for North America.

One of the great exponents of emigration, with the declared intention of clearing his estates of ‘paupers’ was Francis Spaight. He ordered the construction of a small fleet of ships specifically for the purpose and advertised sailings each spring in the decade preceding the onset of the Great Famine. Other owners of large estates close to Limerick who advocated and encouraged emigration included the Vandeleur family.

As noted in the preceding chapter, many other towns saw expansion in this period, often financed and encouraged by Protestant ascendancy land owners. One such was the small port of Kilrush on the northern bank of the Shannon estuary. The Vandeleur family established the town, building many grand town houses and encouraging merchants and professional people to become established in the town. The town’s layout with broad streets named after family members, when seen today, suggests a degree of self confidence verging on arrogance. As in Belfast, and no doubt many other places, it was the Protestants, in this case the Vandeleur family, who provided the land and some of the funding for the building of an imposing Roman Catholic church and, after the famine, a Convent for the Sisters of Mercy.

And yet, despite this apparent philanthropy, the Vandeleurs also became notorious for mass evictions of tenants and cottiers from their land. And despite the prosperity that enabled the creation of those streets and buildings, Kilrush was, by 1847, declared to be one of the 20 most distressed of 130 Irish Poor Law Unions.

Continue to Chapter 6

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