Current views on the coinage of the phrase
“Dear dirty Dublin” is a favourite epithet applied today in sentimental or nostalgic reference to the city of Dublin. It is an expression that Joyce used on several occasions. Don Gifford annotates the occurrence in Ulysses:
Dear dirty Dublin – A phrase coined by the Irish woman of letters Lady Sydney Morgan (1780-1859)
The expression is traditionally ascribed to Sydney Owenson, Lady Morgan (c1781-1859), an Irish novelist, woman of letters, and socialite, perhaps best known nowadays for The Wild Irish Girl (1806). She was the daughter of Robert Owenson, an actor celebrated on the London stage for his “stage Irish” characters. In 1812, after several years as a governess and lady’s companion, she married Thomas Charles Morgan, later Lord Morgan.1
The ascription of “dear dirty Dublin” to Lady Morgan has in recent years been called into question. Jeremy DeVito’s online notes on Jane Kavanagh’s English Women of Letters (1863) suggest that there is some doubt:
Although "dear dirty Dublin", a phrase later taken up by James Joyce, is often attributed to Morgan, the origin of the coinage seems to be untraced.2
In addition James Newcomer, in Lady Morgan the Novelist, points out that Morgan’s attitude to Dublin was ambivalent, or at least liable to change depending on circumstances. He draws attention to a number of negative comments on Dublin by the novelist in her Memoirs, including:
This unfortunate country. (1829; p. 277)
When summer comes, Dublin is a dreary desert occupied only by loathsome beggars, and I feel suffocated. (1832; p. 342)
Wretched Dublin, the capital of wretched Ireland. (1835; p. 402)3
Hugh Fitzpatrick is quite right to query the attribution to Lady Morgan when he presents a new instance of “dear dirty Dublin” in the James Joyce Quarterly, from a recently discovered manuscript letter written by James Whiteside, Chief Justice of the Queen’s Bench in Ireland, on 2 April 1868.4 But he is arguably less accurate in stating that “Whiteside’s use of this phrase is among the earliest so far identified”.
A review of the material currently available shows that the expression “dear dirty Dublin” predates Whiteside by over thirty years, and suggests that it arose within Lady Morgan’s circle or comparable aristocratic circles in Britain, but does not confirm that Lady Morgan is herself responsible for it. It might be safer to regard the expression as “traditionally ascribed” to Lady Morgan, rather than certainly originating with her.
The emergence of the phrase “dear dirty Dublin”
Complex expressions such as “dear dirty Dublin” do not always arrive in the language fully formed, but rather emerge gradually as their component parts become “available” to speakers of the language.
As early as 1716 John Philips’s farce The Pretender's Flight: Or, a Mock Coronation provided an example of the irregular collocation of “dear” and “dirty”:
Dear, dirty, loyal, rebellious Scotland farewell.5
But this usage should probably be regarded as an outlier, unconnected to later similar uses. Although it shows both adjectives employed together, the play was not – or was only rarely – performed, and is unlikely to illustrate the birth of a new lexical unit.
The elements of “dear dirty Dublin” started to coalesce amongst the literary and social elite in the second half of the eighteenth century. The component “dear Dublin”, without the originality of “dear dirty Dublin”, is in place in the language by 1769 as a familiar epithet for Dublin:
When you stare, and you speak, Like a Roman or Greek,
As the Mob of dear Dublin believe, [etc.].6
Around the same time another stream, involving the concept that Dublin is a city with an impoverished underclass occupying an insalubrious environment, appears in Richard Griffith’s Genuine Series of Letters, between Henry and Francis (1770):
I shall not be in Spirits to write, or do any Thing else that is pleasant, till I am satisfied that you are safe, and well in dirty Dublin.7
The collocation of “dear” with “dirty” begins to make its presence known as an alliterative literary trope, especially amongst the polite readers of magazine reviews. The Monthly Review for February 1770 offers:
And now dear, droll, dirty Fabulist, having had our fell revenge of you […] (p. 135)
Soon a three-word familiar expression for the capital, “dear little Dublin” (and also “dear little Ireland”), becomes a literary (sometimes patronising) cliché, as these quotations from the late eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth demonstrate:
I confess I have been puzzled to know the meaning of their [Irish] toasts; for they rarely give you more for a guide than the day and the year of the event, believing, according to their own warm souls, that every body should know those days which proved an universal benefit to dear little Ireland.8
All come aboard while the sea breezes blow.
Swift as the arrow from bow flies to target,
Or packet from dear little Dublin to Parkgate,
I'll waft ye all safely from London to Margate, [etc.]9
Oh liberty! Jolly old girl!
In dear little Ireland, you know,
You taught me to love so well,
They never shall make me your foe!10
Lady Morgan’s France (1817) attracted the wrath of the Quarterly reviewer, John Wilson Croker. Ostensibly a history of the Bourbon restoration, the book was criticized for factual errors and political bias. Whilst attempting to demonstrate her European credentials, she found herself lambasted for Whiggism and insularity. More criticism came from William Playfair, in his France as it is, not Lady Morgan’s France (1819):
Her ladyship speaks of the patriarchs of the South of France, and les Petits Alps, as if she had been long living in those countries, when, to be sure, she had only quitted her dear little island of Erin for a few months.11
Playfair’s text was published in the same year that Lady Morgan was writing to her sister Lady Clarke:
If I return to odious Dublin ‘tis for their sakes, and they ought to reward me.
The Freeman’s Journal relives some of Lady Morgan’s solecisms in commenting on Playfair’s caustic critique of her France:
Mr. Playfair’s jests also, on Lady Morgan’s country, which he facetiously calls "her dear little Erin", are very lively. His first joke is on her Irish estates. “She said in Paris that [her husband] Sir Charles Morgan had thirty estates in Ireland – thirty estates! No less?12
Lady Morgan’s ambivalent attitude to Ireland and her increasing public profile as a literary figure in Ireland make her a prime candidate for the ascription of authorship of the expression “dear dirty Dublin”, even if she may not have coined it herself. The component parts of the expression were widely circulating in the polite conversation of the upper classes of the time, and she was a likely magnet for the phrase. But at this time there was is no evidence for the existence of the expression itself.
Further texts from the period show the elements of the expression “dear dirty Dublin” in action:
My dear dirty idle boy, if it should so happen that a gentleman should give you his horse to hold while he goes into a house, [etc.]
London Magazine (1825), vol. 1 p. 46
Why, now, to look at ye all, one might fancy one’s self at the play-house at once, or at a fancy ball in dear little Dublin.
Maria Edgeworth Parent’s Assistant in Works (1826), vol. 10, p. 296
In dear little Ireland lived a sweet creature,
And she, as they say, was the darling of Nature.
Universal Songster (1826), vol. 2 p. 442
[…] the comfort one always feels at coming back to the dear dirty streets, after having been banished from them a few days.
Lady Charlotte Bury The Exclusives (1830), vol. 2 ch. 4 p. 100
Lady Charlotte Bury shared a publisher, Henry Colburn, with Lady Morgan. It was Colburn who, in 1828, offered Lady Morgan a house in London, so that his author could be closer to her British public. Lady Morgan refused. The Freeman’s Journal heard about the offer:
Mr. Colburn, it is said, has offered Lady Morgan a handsome house for life in Regent’s Park, for any work she may produce in the ensuing season. We trust, however, not even a mansion in the Regent’s Park will tempt Lady Morgan to abandon her native city, where her social qualities, no less than her literary celebrity are of material advantage.13
In the following year Lady Morgan returned to Dublin after her latest travels, as recalled almost fondly many years later in her Memoirs:
After […] a detestable passage across the Herring Pond, we arrived at our own dear but dirty little home, and a most joyous meeting with our family in Great George’s Street.14
The evidence would seem to show that although Lady Morgan was familiar with the collocation of “dear” and “dirty” as part of the koiné of her upper-class circle, she does not appropriate the expression “dear dirty Dublin” to herself. Given her keen eye for publicity and self-marketing, she would almost certainly have done so had she coined it herself.
The earliest known source to cite Lady Morgan as the originator of the expression “dear dirty Dublin” is the Irish Quarterly Review in July 1859, three months after Lady Morgan’s death. In this, William John Fitzpatrick presented an extensive biography of Lady Morgan, including an ascription:
Considering her great popularity in Ireland, it is indeed no wonder that Lady Morgan should so long have preferred "Dear Dirty Dublin", as she herself called it, to a splendid house in Regent Street which the late Mr. Colburne offered her rent free.15
This was reprinted as a book, and was widely cited at the time. It does not actually say that Lady Morgan coined the expression, but that might easily be understood. It is not clear that Fitzpatrick has any authority for saying that Lady Morgan coined the phrase. Fitzpatrick also wrote biographies of others in Lady Morgan’s circle.
But well before 1859 the expression was claimed for another public personality, the actress Fanny Kemble. Lady Morgan’s father had been an actor, and the families knew each other. There was plenty of opportunity for confusion. In 1864 the Dublin University Magazine regards “dear dirty Dublin” as Fanny Kemble’s expression:
To the Editor […] Sir, - As the season when the tea-drinkingest, car-drivingest, sea-bathingest, and country-lodgingest metropolis in the world – your own "dear dirty Dublin" (as Miss Fanny Kemble affectionately calls it) – annually migrates to the country […]16
But it seems that Fanny Kemble spoke of “dear, nasty Dublin” in her Journal for 1832 (published three years later in 1835):
This hotel reminds me most extremely of our "iligant" and untidy apartments in dear, nasty Dublin, at the Shelbourne [on Stephen’s Green].17
“Dear dirty little Dublin”, in which the expression is expanded to accommodate “dear little Dublin”, is cited anonymously in the Freeman’s Journal for 1834, as if it were a phrase of some long standing:
The lucky thought of a trip to that terra incognita, "dear dirty little Dublin", as it was once defined, occurs to Bob Logic (Mr. Brown), who proposes the excursion to his friends.18
Dear dirty Dublin
Polite conversation in the 1830s teemed with “dear dirty” and related expressions (not associated with Lady Morgan):
"Fountain of stolen waters! Dear, dirty, dingy, exciting, enchanting den!" cried Lady Robert.
Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine (1832), April p. 44
Margate was the place for all the dear dirty folks who, like their own table-cloths, wanted washing only once a week.
New Monthly Magazine (1833), vol. 2, p. 349
The Ministers […] have learned the necessity of treating their dear dirty friends with balls […]
John Bull (1833), 4 November p. 349
This "dear dirty little temple of ungodliness" (as Madame de –- called it, the Palais Royal).
Morning Post (1842), 10 May
He perceived that the notes thus made visible to him, were the dear, darling, dirty dollar-notes, as precious to his heart as they were familiar to his eyes.
Mrs Trollope in New Monthly Magazine (1843), vol. 67 p. 307
It was not unusual for this collocation to appear in the New Monthly Magazine, for which Lady Morgan and others of her circle wrote. The conjunction of “dear” and “dirty” seems to have been associated with the slightly affected conversation of the upper-classes in general, and by later popular opinion with Lady Morgan herself.
But where and when is the expression “dear dirty Dublin” first attested?
The earliest reference so far discovered occurs in the first, magazine, publication of Charles Lever’s picaresque novel The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer, in the Dublin University Magazine of November 1837:
Fortified with these strong documents, and sustained by as sanguine a spirit as consisted with so much delicacy of health, I committed myself and portmanteau to the inside of his majesty’s mail, and early on the following morning found myself once again in "dear dirty Dublin".19
When the novel was published in book form in 1839 this passage of chapter 9 is omitted, but the expression has moved to the start of chapter 12:
Dear, dirty Dublin – "Io te salute" – how many excellent things might be said of thee, if, unfortunately, it did not happen that the theme is an old one, and has been much better sung than it can ever now be said.
The hero continues to hum a street ballad which he “heard shortly after my landing”:
Oh! Dublin, sure, there is no doubtin',
Beats every city upon the say.
'Tis there you’ll see O’Connell spouting,
And Lady Morgan making "tay" […]
Once more, then, I found myself in the "most car-drivingest city", en route to join on the expiration of my leave. (p. 87)
Lady Morgan is present in the background of Lever’s novel. Thackeray described Dubliners as the "car-drivingest, tay-drinkingest, say-bathingest people in the world" (Paris Sketch Book, 1840, p. 204), but Lady Morgan herself used the expression “tay-drinkingest” in her novel Florence Macarthy, first published in the New Monthly Magazine of 1 January 1819, p. 532, and the longer expression is often cited both with and without reference to her elsewhere.
Julia Donovan observes that Owenson admired Lever:
Part of her admiration may have been because Lever’s first novel, The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer (1839) features Owenson [Lady Morgan] […] A few characters in Harry Lorrequer are conflations of Owenson, showing her to be an inspiration to a Victorian novelist who rivaled Dickens in popularity.20
But it would be dangerous to regard this as evidence that Lever believed that Lady Morgan was responsible for coining either “dear dirty Dublin” or the “car-drivingest” rigmarole, but rather that Lever’s popular novel succeeded in bringing together a number of expressions that were associated with her literary and social circle.
By now similar expressions are commonplace:
England may be envied for her wealth, her order, her industry, her peace, and her security – yet, dear, dirty Ireland! We must ever feel for you, pity you, and love you.
Mary Jane Leadbeater Fisher Letters from the Kingdom of Kerry, in the year 1845 (1847), p. 66
Some of the men are already gone, and I dare say about the time this reaches you they will be in "dear dirty Dublin".
Anglo-Celt (1848) 28 July
Ireland. The Queen’s Visit. – Notes of preparation are heard from all corners, and "dear dirty Dublin" already presents a gayer appearance than it has put on since the year of grace 1821, when George IV. Shook hands with the wives of citizens on the lawn of Leinster-house.
Derby Mercury (1849) 1 August
Ireland brings up the rear of the helter-skelter. "Dear, darling, dirty Dublin", is contributing her quota.
Belfast News-letter (1852) 18 August
There are too many references to “dear dirty Dublin” not ascribed to Lady Morgan in the early days of the expression to allow us to claim confidently that she was responsible for its coinage. This was a story that began to take hold after her death, as myth overtook reality, and the force of her popular legacy caused later writers to ascribe to her an expression that in all probability arose within her social class if not within her circle, but not from Lady Morgan herself.
Almost thirty years after her death she becomes, like Oscar Wilde, the source of a number of expressions which she did not create herself. The Preston Guardian of 1887 exemplifies this confusion nicely (and with a certain editorial distance):
A correspondent writes: "I was passing through Dublin at the end of last week, and saw a good deal of that dear dirty Dublin, the "treble D’s" of Lady Morgan’s novel, the “car-drivingest, tay-drinkingest, and the say-bathingest place, which flogs [i.e. outstrips] the world for diversion".21