Architecture - Towns and Cities

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Ireland was outside the Roman Empire and excluded from one of the chief benefits of Roman civilisation: its towns and cities. As a result, the first urban settlements had their origins in Celtic society, and their immediate genesis in the form of the early Christian monastery. In the absence of a central authority these institutions acquired an important role in Irish life, and the first concentrations of people grew up in the shadow of large monasteries like Clonmacnoise in Co. Offaly and Glendalough in Co. Wicklow (see page 7). Huts and workshops accumulated around the circular enclosure with its churches and round tower forming the elements of an ecclesiastical city.

The earliest recognisably European towns, with streets, walls, and timber houses, were small Viking trading settlements built around the coast in the 9th and the 10th centuries. Wexford (see page 48), Waterford and Limerick were founded in this way, while Dublin, established in 841, grew to be a place of some importance in the affairs of Viking Europe.

The Norman colonists laid the foundations of a comprehensive urban network in Ireland. From the 12th century they were responsible for building and incorporating scores of small, fortified, trading towns in the south and east, many located along rivers or adjacent to feudal castles and abbeys. Kilkenny city, granted a charter in 1207, is a good example: it evolved as a disciplined rectangle of streets within a ring of stone walls, towers and gates. Laid out along the river Nore between the castle and the cathedral, it contained a parish church, several abbeys, and substantial merchants’ houses on the main street. Youghal in Co. Cork gives some impression of the close density within the ramparts of a medieval town, narrow streets with gabled houses, towers and churches in close proximity to one another. Athenry in Co. Galway has significant remnants of its walls and Drogheda in Co. Louth retains its 13th century St Lawrence’s Gate.

The reconquest and plantations of the 16th and early 17th centuries initiated a new era in Irish history and a new phase of formal town planning. The town of Bandon in Co. Cork, founded by the Earl of Cork in the early 17th century, has a Classical plan where regular plots of land stand on streets intersecting at a Market Square. Like Derry, its layout has references to the ideals of the Renaissance, and its plan has parallels in the colonial towns of North and South America. Castlefinn in Co. Donegal, one of many plantation villages built across the north, repeats the ideal on a more humble scale.

The 18th and early 19th centuries witnessed some of the greatest achievements of town planning in Ireland. Dublin became one of Europe’s most beautiful capital cities, laid out with well-proportioned streets and squares of red-bricked Georgian houses embellished by magnificent public buildings. The elegance of Georgian Dublin can still be seen in Merrion and Fitzwilliam Squares.

Landlord towns were created in every part of the country, often set out as grandiose plans with their axis focused on a local monument, the church, the market house or the gates of the local great house. Tyrrellspass in Co. Westmeath is planned as a semi-circle with the church at its highest point; Templemore in Co. Tipperary has its elongated town square with the town hall as its focal point. These towns and villages are universally built up with narrow three and four storey houses with brightly painted facades and, traditionally, with elaborate and decorative shopfronts.

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by Michael Green
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