Today, Dublin, Ireland is a thriving, vibrant, metropolitan European capital with a population of about 1.2 million, almost 25% of the country. Yet walking around the city, history is all over. While many come here seeking its spectacular pubs or its music, the history of Dublin is an exciting one, one visible all across the central city. For the purposes of this article, we are going to talk about three periods: Viking, medieval, and Georgian/Victorian.

It is thought that Vikings established Dublin in the 10th century. (In 1988, Dublin officially celebrated its 1000th birthday, but that date is said not to be based in any sort of objective fact, and was done more for political expediency.) The Vikings would dominate Ireland (and Dublin) until 1171. Relatively little exists of what we think of as Viking, but a visit to the National Museum of Archaeology holds a myriad of artifacts that have been found while digging foundations for newer construction. (The museum holds relics from the late Stone Age through medieval times, and is free.)

Viking swords at the National Museum of Archaeology

However, with the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity, a surprising monument to their rule stands in central Dublin: the city’s oldest church, Christ Church Cathedral. While today’s huge stone structure is the result of centuries of additions, the original church was founded in 1030 by Sigtrygg Silkbeard, a Viking local king. Across the street stands Dublinia, a museum to Viking times I did not have the chance to see.

Christ Church Cathedral

In the late 12th century, Normans from England completed their conquest of Ireland, and transformed Dublin. Walls were built around the city, and two of the most famous landmarks were built: Dublin Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Dublin Castle was built for defensive purposes in 1204 in the traditional Normal style of thick walls with circular corner towers around a central courtyard with no keep. For visitors today, one circular tower remains, although it is a reconstruction, and the rest of the modern castle was built over the following centuries. But it does date all the way back.

The circular tower of Dublin Castle is not original, but is how it would have looked. The chapel in front is newer.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral was founded in 1191 for the patron saint of Ireland. Its spire rises to 225 feet, the tallest in the country. At its founding, it was – of course – Catholic. Today, St. Patrick’s belongs to the Church of Ireland, the Irish branch of the Anglican Church.

St. Patrick’s

So why do so few buildings exist from these early times? There are a few reasons. First, Ireland is very cold and damp, so the mainly wooden buildings of earlier days just didn’t survive. Second, as the population of Dublin grew from less than 50,000 in 1700 to nearly 200,000 by 1800, older construction wasn’t efficient enough to house them and new buildings were needed. Third, the wealthy of the city liked to be in style with whatever was most popular in England, leading to a huge building boom during Georgian and Victorian times, which we will talk about next. And finally, Ireland has been conquered and occupied a lot. There was heavy fighting here in Dublin during the battle for independence, and some buildings didn’t survive that. In addition, older buildings were seen as remnants of colonial occupation, and some were torn down.

This brings us to Georgian times, which literally is the reigns of four King Georges, from 1715 to 1830. (The Victorian era basically follows immediately as her ascension was in 1837.) It is from this time period that most of Dublin’s historic grand buildings date. Georgian architecture consists mainly of completely symmetric and unadorned brick row houses, grand buildings with columns, and planned city parks.

Georgian row houses (and a taxi that blocked my view)

The row houses can be seen all over, but a great example is the Little Museum of Dublin. Once a mansion, then a home with more than 100 people living inside in squalor, today this three story brick building is both a typical Georgian residence and home to one of my favorite little gems in Dublin. The museum is small, hence the name, with an eclectic collection of items donated by Dubliners from throughout the city’s history. A visit is by guided tour from a costumed actor who will dazzle you with a hilarious commentary on the city and some of its more interesting stories. In just about an hour, you’ll have a better understanding of Dublin and a lot of laughs! (Another great place to see old Georgian row homes is Fitzwilliam Square, now a ritzy upscale neighborhood.)

My guide at the Little Museum of Dublin

Grand Georgian buildings are all over. The Bank of Ireland building was once the Parliament here. The aforementioned National Museum of Archaeology is another spectacular edifice. But the best way to see Georgian construction is at Trinity College. Though the college was started by Elizabeth I in 1592, its oldest surviving buildings date from Georgian times. (The cobblestones of Parliament Square just inside the gate facing that old Parliament building are the only things original to the founding.) Walking tours of the college are a great way to hear some of the history of Dublin, and include a visit to the Old Library and its famous Book of Kells, a 9th century illuminated manuscript. I did mine with Trinity Trails and loved it, despite the rain!

Georgian architecture in the gate to Trinity College

The Long Room of the library is one of the most spectacular buildings you’ll see, although as of this writing, the books have mainly been removed in preparation for a refurbishment that is expected to last roughly from 2025-28. (Don’t hold me to those dates.)

The Long Room

As for Georgian parks, look no further than St. Stephen’s Green, sitting across the street from the Little Museum of Dublin. The park is basically square (rectangular), with a dug lake, planned flower beds, and green grass with pathways running through. Several such squares exist in the city still, though this is the easiest to access, and most well-known as it was one of the places the Easter Rebellion took place in 1916.

St. Stephen’s Green

Victorian buildings are similar to Georgian, but can be best identified by their extra embellishments. Things like turrets, glass, and other decorative features distinguish the Victorian era. At Trinity College, the Museum Building with its huge number of floral and animal carvings is a good example, and the interior with its green marble bannisters is stunning.

Interior of the Victorian-era Museum Building

Following the Victorian Era, Dublin entered a period of decline that would culminate in Irish independence, and with it a slow but sure rejuvenation of the city and a restoration and preservation of some of the older buildings to survive. And yet, even with how much has been destroyed over the centuries, within just a twenty or so minute walk, one can see all the ages of Dublin’s history spread out: Viking times, the medieval city, and the Georgian/Victorian grand metropolis.

Thank you so much to Trinity Trails for sponsoring my tour of Trinity College, and to the Little Museum of Dublin for hosting my visit there.

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