When a visitor reaches the top of Dame Street, the tourist attractions suggest an area of the city that once possessed great power and prestige. Dublin Castle, administrative centre of British rule in Ireland, stands near Christ Church, Ireland’s most well known cathedral, which has survived for 985 years. Triangulating them is what was once known as the Royal Exchange, built by the Guild of Merchants between 1769 and 1779.
The exchange housed the magnificent Rotunda, a circular, domed entrance hall supported by twelve columns, where merchants discussed business. It was an example of Dublin’s architectural prowess during Georgian Dublin, indicative of the city’s prestige at the time.
Since 1852, the building has been known as City Hall, and in the ground floor (below the publically accessible Rotunda), visitors can get a taste of Dublin’s history at ‘The Story of the Capital’ exhibition.
The exhibition offers a potted history of the city’s municipal government, providing an interesting reminder of the law’s evolving attitudes on who a city council represented through the ages. It documents the two earliest charters to Dublin: the first from King Henry II in 1171/2, which provided his ‘men’ in Bristol with rights to populate and colonise Dublin; the second from King John in 1192, entitled ‘The Charter of Libertarianism to Citizens of Dublin’. John, the son of Henry who inherited his Irish lands, allowed the formation of a guild of merchants, a statute that was only repealed in 2007!
The first charter is exhibited in the museum, and is regarded as the earliest Norman document in Ireland. Also on display are the Dublin lord mayor’s original mace and the Great City Sword.
Modern day debates about how much power local government should have, and day-to-day issues of street paving, public health, water supply and transport are not new. ‘The Story of the Capital’ charts some of these issues throughout Dublin’s history, as well as lesser known political episodes like the battle between Dublin corporation member Charles Lucas with the aldermen of the time over what he regarded as the illegal usurpation of powers belonging to the common citizens by the aldermen and the lord mayor. Viking and Norman times are also charted through this exhibition, which includes video, artefacts, computer displays and period costumes. The exhibition’s most detailed section is arguably that about life in Georgian Dublin.
One won’t get a forensic account of Dublin’s social history here, but if you’re interested in how local government and its powers and parameters have evolved, this exhibition is worth visiting. Adults can visit for €4 and it will take you less than an hour. And if you’re in Dublin because you’ve eloped with your intended, one can get married upstairs in City Hall.