The Vikings returned to Dublin last month. About 70 Norwegians and Danes, descendants of the fierce Norsemen who founded the Irish capital more than 1,000 years ago, rowed replicas of Viking longboats up the muddy River Liffey into the heart of the city. There, they landed and staged a mock battle with local defenders as thousands of cheering Dubliners looked on. The visitors were refighting the Battle of Clontarf, a historic clash in which the Irish defeated the Vikings in 1014 but saw their king, Brian Boru, slain on the battlefield. But this time, organizers made sure that the Irish victory—part of a yearlong commemoration of the Irish capital’s thousandth birthday— was unmarred: no one died. “We have been waiting 1,000 years to get our own back,” said Jonathan Lyons, a crew member of the Irish longboat Dyflin, which took part in the July 16 and 17 reenactment. “The Vikings took it well.” With about 2,000 events spread throughout the year, local authorities acknowledge that the millennium celebration is in part unabashed boosterism—to attract more tourists. But the commemoration also has reignited civic pride in a historic city that, for the past
several decades, had fallen into disrepair. With a chronically depressed economy and haphazard urban planning, which caused the destruction of much of
its unique architectural heritage, Dublin had steadily declined to the point that some critics described it as no more than a backwater. The birthday party gave the area’s one million residents something to celebrate—and renewed calls to halt further neglect of the city’s past. Said Carmencita Hederman, whose oneyear term as Dublin’s lord mayor ended on July 4: “We really needed something to cheer about. There has been a terrible gloom over this city—and we needed to tell ourselves that we could turn it around.”
Still, controversy has erupted over the timing of the celebrations. Historians agree that Dublin was actually founded in 841, when the Vikings established a settlement on the south bank of the Liffey and named it Dubh Linn (black pool). And Irish schoolchildren have traditionally learned that the Battle s of Clontarf marked the emer| gence of their capital as a truly s Irish city. But city officials were ^ seeking a means of raising civic morale—and throwing a party. To that end, they fixed on a comparatively minor event that supposedly took place in 988, when the Irish King Mael Sechnaill II captured the city and forced the Vikings of Dublin to pay him a tax of one ounce of gold per household. Even that date, however, is in dispute: historians note that the old annals were faulty and that the event actually occurred in 989.
That discrepancy did not appear to worry most Dubliners. Last New Year’s Eve, thousands of them braved pouring rain to watch as Hederman lit a symbolic millennium candle. Crowds packed the city’s streets and lanes on the weekend of July 9 and 10 for what officials described as the biggest street party in Dublin’s history—an affair that included the cutting of a 14foot-wide cake. And thousands of onlookers watched the mock battle the following weekend and the progress through the streets of a 35-foot-high inflatable figure of Gulliver, the fictional character whose travels Dubliner Jonathan Swift chronicled in the 18th century.
But other events met with less enthusiasm. In June, city workers erected a 94-foot-long water display containing a reclining nude figure in the centre of O’Connell Street, Dublin’s main thoroughfare. That bronze stat| ue, which sits in a bathtub-like I stone container, supposedly repis resents Anna Livia, the mythical goddess of the Liffey. But cynical Dubliners quickly labelled it “the floozy in the Jacuzzi.”
While Dubliners revelled in such lighthearted disputes, they also engaged in a more serious debate over the future of their city and its dwindling heritage of fine buildings. British merchants and aristocrats built elegant squares faced by terraces of brick Georgian townhouses throughout Dublin in the 18th century, when the city was a prosperous centre of commerce and culture. But London’s abolition of the Irish parliament in 1800 prompted many of its wealthiest citizens to migrate to the British capital, and the city entered a long period of decline. Southern Ireland broke away from Britain in 1922. And the civil war of 1922-1923 that followed the creation of the Irish Free State resulted in the destruction of large areas of the central city, and much of the historic inner core declined into slums that endured until the 1950s.
When prosperity returned to Dublin in the 1960s and early 1970s— fuelled by tax breaks for businesses and low local wage scales—another kind of destruction followed. At that time, private developers and city planners alike favored new, highrise buildings.
As a result, many of the city’s historic Georgian homes, which many Irishmen regarded as symbols of British domination, were torn down.
At the same time, O’Connell Street, which was once an elegant boulevard, became a seedy strip of fast-food restaurants and movie theatres. And as city planners have opened new suburban housing developments, the population of the old city centre has fallen to 80,000 from about twice that number during the early 1960s. Declared Ian Lumley, a spokesman for An Taisce, Ireland’s conservation society: “There was a wholesale disregard of the city’s heritage. In every other city in Europe, governments would have told the developers that they couldn’t have it their way. Here, the city itself was the worst offender.”
Top city officials dispute that charge —saying that many of the changes were badly needed. City manager Frank Feely, Dublin’s most powerful civic official, said that conservationists had overlooked the need to provide poor
citizens with good housing. Said Feely: “This was the greatest slum city in Europe after the war. The misery and the bad housing for thousands of families were appalling. The biggest task the city faced was to clear those slums.”
In any event, much still remains of Dublin’s core—despite the planning mistakes of the past 25 years. Indeed, city planners recently helped spur the revitalization of an area south of the Liffey by turning fashionable Grafton Street into a pedestrian mall. The magnificent quadrangles of historic Trinity College remain intact, the city’s legendary pubs still ring with spontaneous song and wit, and Dubliners are still fiercely proud of their remarkable liter-
ary heritage—created by such native sons as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and a trio of Nobel Prize winners in literature: W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett.
As well, the local and national governments have renewed campaigns to attract business to Dublin, where unemployment stands at 19 per cent—and is as high as 70 per cent in some depressed neighborhoods. Prime Minister Charles Haughey’s government is redeveloping 27 derelict acres near the mouth of the Liffey as an international financial services centre. When completed in 1993, the $400-million centre will contain 300,000 square feet of modern office space. Civic officials say that they hope
tax breaks will lure financial institutions to the new centre—and generate as many as 8,000 new jobs in the process. Declared Gus MacAmhlaigh, the secretary of the Customs House Docks Development Authority: “Thirty thousand people are leaving Ireland every year, and the tragedy is that most of them are young and well educated. It’s a terrible drain on the economy, and we have to give them a reason to come back.”
Meanwhile, the millennium celebration itself has brought much-needed new revenue to Dublin. Organizers say they expect that an additional 250,000 visitors will join the 1.3 million tourists who normally come to Dublin each year.
The officials estimate that those birthday visitors will spend $43 million in local hotels and restaurants alone. Still, they express the hope that Dubliners’ newfound pride in their city will not vanish when the millennial celebrations end on Dec. 31. Declared organizer Aisling Kilroy: “We want this feeling of hope to continue. We want to make sure that no one can sweep away Dublin’s heritage as they did in the past—because the people won’t allow it.” Dubliners still face many obstacles in their quest to restore their city to prosperity—but they have clearly embarked on that task with renewed vigor.
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