Dun Laoghaire: Social Change in a Historic Town

Philip Lawton, Geography, Trinity College Dublin

Dun Laoghaire town is often represented within the media through a narrative of a thriving seafront and a struggling town centre, with a long-held desire to tie the two together. Socially, it is the focal-point of one of the wealthiest parts of Ireland, yet, at the same time it also reflects the actually-existing social unevenness of its surrounding area. As a point of departure, the relationship between social change and consumption patterns can be witnessed in the landscapes of the Dun Laoghaire area, such as in the nearby smaller villages of Monkstown and Glasthule, that have been significantly remade into spaces of conspicuous consumption over the last two decades. This transformation of social space is also increasingly relevant to Dun Laoghaire town.

Mellifont Ave, Dun Laoghaire

In keeping with its long history as a port, the town is playing out through a myriad of processes that are local, regional and global in scope. The transformations taking place in Dublin since it has emerged from the 2008 recession are perhaps exemplified through the locations such as the ‘Silicon Docks’. However, these spaces cannot be seen as a single point on the map, and must be seen in the context of complex socio-spatial networks at an urban-regional scale, that connect data centres around the M50 to broader economic transformations and associated residential changes. As an historically established population centre, and by virtue of its social context, this is manifest in particular ways within Dun Laoghaire town.

Residential Transformations

A cursory glance at the CSO census data from 2016 demonstrates that recent years have witnessed a number of significant demographic and social changes within the town (map excerpts located at the bottom of this blogpost). As a starting point, in the period from 2006-2016, the population of the two Electorial Divisions’s (ED’s) that roughly comprise the centre of Dun Laoghaire town – Dun Laoghaire-East Central ED and Dun Laoghaire-West Central ED – increased by 34.18% and 32.58% respectively. Meanwhile, in the context of the construction of Honey Park on the former Dun Laoghaire golf course, the ED of Dun Laoghaire-Sallynoggin West has increased by 45.31%. While it is hard to extrapolate directly, the recent CSO data suggests that parts of locations such as Honey Park are becoming focal-points of those working in professional occupations, and are thus socially differentiated from their immediate surroundings. Furthermore, in the context of the time-lapse between 2016 and 2019, this pattern seems likely to be repeated in the newer development of Cualanor, which lies between Honey Park and the town centre. This chimes with research I was involved in on the residential preferences of workers in the creative-knowledge economy from a number of years ago where professional groups seek out greater amounts of space, yet in a manner that retains proximity to transport nodes and amenities. However, is is also worthwhile to examine the changes taking place within the town centre itself, where, in the context of new-build apartment developments, 36% and 37% of residents at the Small Areas (SA’s) scale work within professional occupations. In as much as these areas contain a highly diverse population group, they also chime with the internationalized image of the new economy. Moreover, in both the town centre and in the case of the newer developments of Honey Park and Cualanor, the shift towards higher-density living in close proximity to services and infrastructure can be seen to play out.

These current changes, including a significant shift towards residential uses in the town and associated strategies of reinvestment can be perceived as a boon for the town. These changes, however, also present significant challenges for the future questions of affordability and inclusion. Although arguing through a very different context – that of the San Francisco Bay area – geographer, Richard Walker highlights the key role of ‘growth, affluence, and inequality’ in housing crises, to which he adds: ‘finance, business cycles, and geography’. While impacts of the crisis in Dublin can be seen across the urban region, the example of Dun Laoghaire and surroundings is perhaps of particular note given the extremes in both high prices and, as pointed out by Dylan Connor earlier this week, high levels of inequality. If, in following from Walker, albeit accounting for significant differences in context, we can look at the ways in which the residential choices of the wealthy influence the dynamics of housing, then the Dun Laoghaire area presents significant challenges for issues of housing affordability and inclusion. Yet, preferences don’t just materialize out of thin air, and the intertwining of market actors, social norms, and urban form needs to be more fully understood. In the context of Dun Laoghaire, the extreme edge of this is perhaps the recent granting of Co-Living at the centre of the town, where the invocation of cities such as London, New York and Vienna has been used as a means of selling a particular notion of urban living. While these forms of transformations may take a relatively long period of time to become fully manifest, there is need for significant care in how they are considered from the perspective of promoting an inclusive approach to housing.

Commercial Vacancy and Uneven Development

Overlapping with the unevenness at work in the residential sphere, a significant level of attention has also been paid towards the levels of vacancy on Georges Street, the main street of the town. This was recently highlighted in The Irish Times, but in a manner that quickly became somewhat sidetracked by essentialist notions of other locations as frames of reference, with Puerto Banus, Spain as ‘good’, and Beirut or anywhere in the Midlands or West of Ireland as ‘bad’. This approach was furthered in the same edition through David McWilliams’ invocation of the dated notion of ‘broken windows theory’, without recourse to its draconian reality via Rudolf Giuliani. Furthermore, through the use of terms such as ‘contagion’ or ‘endemic’, it was implied that vacancy can be perceived as something almost disease-like. Fundamentally, the problem with these narratives is in the degree to which they reproduce particular myths about a place without engaging in any meaningful manner with the day-to-day realities or intricacies of everyday life that exist within.

Recently refurbished shop unit and upper floor, Upper Georges Street

Units Beside Dunnes Stores on Upper Georges Street have been vacant for a number of years

There are other ways of understanding vacancy. Debates within urban studies have long highlighted the challenges of disinvestment and reinvestment over a prolonged period of time in the context of the market-oriented dynamics of urban change. This ‘seesaw’ is not just a question of theoretical interest, but has significant implications for the lived reality of towns and cities. This can be viewed as a combination of booms and bust cycles, urban-regional economic processes, and the ongoing social reconfiguration of the town centre and surrounds. Vacancy in this regard is not an anomaly, but the social and physical manifestation of how these contradictory forces play out. The role of governance is important here, and it is crucial that debates over a main street should go beyond that of functionalist notions of ‘mixed use’, but seek to understand the role that streets play in the daily lives of people. The mantra of consumption-oriented transformations has been all too dominant in the spatial imaginary of urban renewal in recent decades, and is a limited, if not socially questionable, ideal of urban change. An approach is needed that instead seeks to understand the dynamics of the everyday life of the street in all its complex forms.

The Lexicon Library, Dun Laoghaire

In the context of Dun Laoghaire, the challenges of the commercial role of the town are intertwined with that of the residential challenges outlined above. With the recent example of both the Lexicon library and the development of housing on Georges Place in the centre of the town, Dun Laoghaire continues a long history of providing for the public good. These are important steps that should be continued.


Appendix: Map Exerpts/Screenshots (Source: CSO)

AIRO Census Mapping: Population Change 2006-2016. http://airomaps.nuim.ie/id/Census2016/

Airo Census Mapping: Small Area data for Professional Occupations (1): Area encompassing Harbour Square Apartments

Airo Census Mapping: Small Area Statistics for Professional Occupations (2): Area Encompassing The Lighthouse Apartments

Airo Census Mapping, 2016: Small Area Statistics for Area Encompassing Part of Honey Park


Cultural diversity in Dublin and Dun Laoghaire a century ago

Dylan Connor, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University

Dun Laoghaire has long been a distinctive blip on the Irish cultural landscape. Not only is the area notable for its mixture of Catholics and Protestants but it remains a place of astounding wealth inequality. This is, perhaps, best illustrated by the numerous working class and publicly built housing estates situated just over the hill from the lavish Killiney residences of Bono, The Edge, Enya, and others. Speaking last year on the Ballybrack-based podcast What’s the Story?, PJ Gallagher summarized the peculiarity of the area by remarking that “every walk of life is down there in Dun Laoghaire, every kind of fucker that ever walked the planet.” Writing in The Irish Times, David McWilliams recently argued that this diversity has contributed to Dun Laoghaire being a trailblazer for social liberalism in modern Ireland. Thus, Dun Laoghaire is cast as an island of diversity and liberalism at the edge of the Irish Sea. In this post, I examine the deep roots of this distinctiveness.

Over last eight years, I have used the historical censuses of Ireland (available online from the National Archives of Ireland) to use the Irish past as a laboratory from which to examine how places affect human behavior and life chances. Understanding the deep roots of a place like Dun Laoghaire is challenging, however, as scientific data on how people think and behave (particularly for the past) are rare. I have been exploring one potentially productive avenue in this direction – how people name their children – which could shed light on the historical distinctiveness of Dun Laoghaire.

How you name your child is one of the longest lasting and most personal decisions you make in life. Unlike surnames, which are inherited, people can exercise a wide range of choice in the first names they give their children. Sons and daughters are named after well-liked friends and family members, people reveal religious inclinations by choosing biblical names, they express individualism by choosing unusual names, and often, parents just pick what sounds good in the moment. As the historical censuses of Ireland list the names and addresses of people across the country, they provide an unparalleled opportunity to investigate who was naming their children what at the turn of the last century.

Although there are over 28,000 distinct first names reported in the online 1901 Census of Ireland, 80% of the population had one of the top 60 names. The wordcloud (above) lists the most common names of children under the age of 12 in Ireland at the time. The size of the name represents popularity, and the colors indicate whether a name was mainly Catholic (green) or Protestant/Jewish (purple). With roughly one in five girls holding the name, Mary was the most common first name in the country in 1901. People, therefore, generally seemed to pick their children’s names from a short list. I investigate whether people in Dun Laoghaire a century ago were distinct in giving their children unusual names (names held by less than 100 people across the country as a whole).

In 1901, Dun Laoghaire was not the place it is today. To examine what we might now think of as the greater Dun Laoghaire area, I focused on the Dublin sections of the Rathdown Poor Law Union, which encompassed present-day Blackrock, Dun Laoghaire, Dalkey, Killiney, Ballybrack and Shankhill. Descriptive statistics reveal that even in 1901, Rathdown was different from the rest of the county. Only 69% of people in the area were Catholic (78% for the rest of Dublin). The barchart shows that Rathdown also had relatively large shares of both laborers and professional workers, highlighting that greater Dun Laoghaire has a history of being class diverse.

The information on how parents were naming their children is particularly intriguing. Specifically, professional households in Dun Laoghaire were over 30% more likely to choose unusual names for their children than professional household elsewhere. To add to the intrigue, the sons and daughters of laborers, irrespective of whether they grew up in Dun Laoghaire, had quite common names. Thus, professionals in Dun Laoghaire appear to have been particularly distinct from their counterparts elsewhere.

How do we explain this tendency? Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of this pattern is explained by the fact that Dun Laoghaire had more Protestants (Protestants had more distinct names on average). What is more surprising, however, is that the data show that professional Catholic families living in Dun Laoghaire also appear to give their children distinct names. Thus, the story is not simply one of religious or class differences in naming.

This naming tendency among professionals in Rathdown is evident in the household of James and Annie Hoey, who were living on Upper Georges Street in Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) in 1901. James, a Catholic police constable, had a son named Herbert and daughters named Vera and Olive. As each of these names (Vera, Olive and Herbert) were quite uncommon in the city at the time, unusual naming appears to have been concentrated among numerous children within the same family.

Is this story of unusual naming broader than Dun Laoghaire? In the scatterplot, I graph the share of Catholic children under the age of 12 who have an unusual first name and a professional father. For every area in Dublin, I plot this share against the percentage of Catholics living in these same areas. This allows an assessment of whether Catholics who lived near Protestants tended to give their children more unusual names.  The strong downward relationship indicates that Catholics with Protestant neighbors were, indeed, giving their children more unusual names. Conversely, Catholics with more Catholic neighbors tended to give their children more common names. This graph illustrates this by showing places like Killiney, Blackrock, Clontarf and Rathmines to have both smaller Catholic population shares and Catholic children with more unusual names. Less than 60% of the people in Clontarf West, for example, were Catholic, and 15% of the children of Catholic professionals had unusual names. Places like Donabate, Rathcoole and Mountjoy, in contrast, were largely Catholic and Catholic children also tended to have more common names. We should be cognizant that this comparison is focused solely on professionals living in different areas of the city. Thus, it is unlikely that class difference is the main explanation here.

In short, Catholics living near Protestants named their children more distinctly than Catholics elsewhere. Having neighbors from different backgrounds likely provided opportunities for parents to pick up names they may not have considered otherwise. It may also be the case that the distinct social environments of places liked Dun Laoghaire permitted forms of liberal expression (such as choosing non-traditional names) that were curtailed in more traditionally Catholic places. Historical distinctiveness in something as (seemingly) idiosyncratic as child naming, and the area’s persistence as one of the most progressive constituencies in the country, implies that Dun Laoghaire’s tendency to break with tradition may have deep historical roots.


Note on author: Dylan Connor holds a PhD from the University of California, Los Angles (UCLA) and is an Assistant Professor at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. His work focuses on inequality in the United States and the economic and demographic history of Ireland (articles listed below).

  • Connor, D. S. (2019). The cream of the crop? Geography, networks, and Irish migrant selection in the age of mass migration. The Journal of Economic History, 79(1), 139-175.
  • Connor, D. S. (2018). Class Background, Reception Context, and Intergenerational Mobility: A Record Linkage and Surname Analysis of the Children of Irish Immigrants. International Migration Review, 0197918318806891.
  • Connor, D. S. (2017). Poverty, religious differences, and child mortality in the early twentieth century: The case of Dublin. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 107(3), 625-646.
  • Connor, D., Mills, G., & Moore-Cherry, N. (2011). The 1911 Census and Dublin city: A spatial analysis. Irish Geography, 44(2-3), 245-263.