The freedom of the Liberties


History of the Liberties

Christchurch Cathedral

The Liberties as we know it is considered to be the area in the city now marked

as Dublin 8. Eamonn Mac Thomáis, one of Dublin’s most notable historians,
describes the Liberties as “the old area around Christchurch and St. Patrick’s”.
However, over the course of history, the boundaries of the area expanded across
various parts of the city and county.

The Liberties’ name is derived from the liberties that once held the area. There were seven in the Old Dublin area, each of which had borders that varied and changed over time. These variations make mapping out an exact area for each individual liberty a virtually unworkable task.

But one of the most fascinating things about these areas isn’t found in the lands they included but the powers and rights they had. The word liberty means to be free within society and that’s exactly what these areas were. The lords who held these liberties only answered to “God and the King”. After that they governed themselves, collected their own taxes and, to a certain extent, implemented their own laws.

The idea of such small towns lands ruling themselves is at a complete contrast to modern society where small numbers of people are elected to govern millions. Dean Jonathan Swift, a lord mayor of the liberty of St Patrick’s cathedral, summed up his position in July 1733:

“I am lord mayor of one hundred and twenty houses, I am absolute lord of the greatest cathedral in the kingdom… only [the archbishop of Dublin and King of France] sometimes attempt encroachments on my dominions.”

This attitude was shared among the many liberties and brought about tense relationships with each other as well as Dublin Corporation (the former name given to the local government of Dublin City).

In Kenneth Milne’s book, The Dublin liberties, 1600-1850, he describes how the steward of Thomas Court and Donore refused to pay for facilities within the city that it availed of.

“The seneschal of Thomas Court was refusing to pay the contribution to the house of correction that the city demanded, on the grounds that the liberty was not liable to pay any presentments emanating from the city, and this despite the fact that several inmates of the institution came from that liberty.”

The quarrels between the liberties and Dublin Corporation never seemed to cease over the centuries of liberty-existence. These varied from issues about providing piped-water to residents, to accusations of a liberty providing a safe haven for debtors. The latter was accredited to St. Patrick’s Close, which had the highly abnormal position of being a liberty within the liberty of St. Sepulchre’s.

In the time of the liberties, land was the main currency when it came to acknowledging someone’s esteem. But the rights that went along with the awarding of liberties created huge issues for Dublin’s local government as it tried to provide utilities for the residents of the city. Whilst it may be a challenge to find the boundaries of these liberties nowadays, the lords of those areas certainly knew exactly what they owned and what they weren’t responsible for.

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