The Liberties – defined by Dublin’s walls

The historic Liberties, both north and south of the Liffey, were ‘free’ because they were outside the city.

During the middle ages, limestone city walls were erected around an area of around 350 metres in the city of Dublin for its protection against foreign invaders – as Dublin’s port and Ireland’s largest urban settlement came to prominence.

An intact section of Dublin’s medieval city walls via

The south wall stretched from Dublin Castle to Little Ship Street. The western wall ran along Lamb Alley. The original northern wall was built along Cook Street – where the biggest piece of it can still be seen – and the eastern wall went from Upper Exchange Street and back to Dublin Castle. 

Inside the walls, a city authority as well as several guilds were established to control trade, business, justice and taxes within the city. 

The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in the late twelfth century led to the reinforcement of the walled city. The walls were extended into the north of the River Liffey, and a moat was built to surround Dublin Castle.  

Towers as well as several gates, such as St Audoen’s Arch, were built around the perimeter of the fortification. These gates served as the only way to access medieval Dublin from outside the city walls, controlling who got in and out. 

A set of areas beyond the city walls became known as the Liberties, because the people who ruled there were given different privileges and ‘liberties’ than those from within the walled city, including exemption from some taxes.

They were often controlled by religious institutions, such as the Liberty of St Mary’s Abbey, run by Cistericians north of the Liffey, and the large Liberty of St Thomas Abbey, run by Augustinians on the southside.

Drawing of the Abbey of St Thomas the Martyr by © Stephen Conlin.

The monks were given the means to have authority over trade and business within their liberties.

Thomas Street, the main street in the Augustinians’ liberty, quickly reaped the benefits and became a busy market space due to the establishment of many craftsmen’s guilds which led to an influx of industry for market traders and family-owned businesses.

New ownership

In 1538, King Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries. The land was given to Sir William Brabazon, an outspoken supporter of the king.

Sir Brabazon soon became the first Earl of Meath. His family and descendants remained proprietors of the area for three centuries.

The family named streets and places that still exist today like Meath Street and Brabazon Row.

Some of these places still stand today and is a way to link the modern-day Liberties to its eight-century old history.

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