Ireland day 0258. Monday 13 June 2022- Dublinia
I hate to think of Val and I as tourists in ireland – because after all we have been living here for almost nine months, and Val has a proper job for goodness sake. But nevertheless, sometimes we do look in our guidebook and do “touristy” things. Most guidebooks have a list of the “top ten” things you are supposed to “do” when you visit Dublin and as of this morning we had “done” (and I do hate that expression) all but one of them. The one remaining must-see, according to our book, was Christchurch Cathedral and the associated Dublinia exhibition.
So today, as Val had a day off, we decided that we would take ourselves into Dublin, to see what these twin tourist magnets had to offer. And actually we thought the visit was excellent – and the exhibitions usefully filled some of the gaps in our understanding of how Dublin came to be in its current form.
First up was “Dublinia”. This is a relatively new exhibition established in the old Synod Hall of Christchurch Cathedral. It was good – though at €42 for the two of us it was almost as expensive of our whole year’s membership of the OPW (and the exhibition couldn’t quite match the OPW standard of excellence). But nevertheless it was very good – though I have to admit on arriving we skipped the whole exhibition and headed straight to the café for essential refreshments before starting our visit.
There was a lot to see and remember so I won’t try and regurgitate it all, If you want to know more, you’ll just have to go yourself! But some features did struck me as noteworthy.
Particularly, the early history of Dublin. It’s impossible to say Ireland is a “Celtic” or a “Viking” or even an “Anglo Norman” island, or anything else because no matter how far back in time you go, you always find that there was some race or group or tribe living there before the one you were looking at. So when the Vikings first arrived in Ireland around 837AD, there was already a well established society on the island, and the Vikings it seems were mostly unwelcome invaders. But they certainly had a profound impact when they did make footfall.
The Vikings came from Scandinavia and it seems there were three main varieties. The Danish Vikings mostly headed for the eastern shores of what is now Great Britain. The Swedish variety headed off into Russia, and it was their Norwegian cousins who rounded the north of Scotland to invade the Outer Hebrides, Isle of Man, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland (yes, they made it across the Atlantic well before Columbus) and of course Ireland. Although primarily farmers, the hard Scandinavian winters made it a meagre life and the rich pickings in the monasteries and settlements of their neighbours were tempting targets to supplement incomes generated from their own land.
The Vikings, it seems, were enthusiastic traders so the goods they picked up through raiding and pillaging ended up being exchanged for treasures as far away as the middle east. They were also, it has to be said, not averse to slave trading and the first Viking arrivals in Ireland actually brought slaves captured in England and Wales over with them. An objectionable activity and not one, it seems, that was – in Europe at least – solely restricted to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Vikings soon found the annual raiding voyages to and from Scandinavia tedious and established a permanent Irish settlement on a promontory on the south bank of the Liffey, near an already-existing ford made of wooden hurdle-work across the river. In Irish, the word for “ford is “Átha” and for “wooden hurdles” is “Cliath“. If you add to this the Irish for “town”, which is “Baile“, you get “Baile Átha Cliath” or “Town by the ford of the wooden hurdles”, which is the Irish name for Dublin. And nearby, a second Viking settlement was established by a black (“Dubh“) pool (“Linn“) in the Liffey – which came known as Dubhlinn – and you can easily see how the Anglicised name of Dublin – meaning “black pool” came into being.
As a matter of interest, the original promontory has been subsumed by land reclamation and the small river Poddle, which protected the southern side of the promontory, has now disappeared underground and is channelled into the Liffey via a series of tunnels and underground passageways.
The Vikings steadily increased their presence in Ireland until 1014 when semi-legend has it that the Irish King Brian Ború finally vanquished Sitric Silkenbeard’s Viking army at the Battle of Clontarf and reasserted Irish control of the island. The reality is probably a lot more complex than that – especially as Sitric Silkenbeard was actually both the stepson and son in law of Brian Ború (work that one out if you can), and although Brian was proclaimed victor at Clontarf, he was actually killed in the battle, whereas Sitric was the loser, he retained control of Dublin and lived for many more years and apparently prospered.
But life didn’t seem to get any easier once the threat of Viking raids receded. Although Dublin thrived and grew in the 1100’s, by 1170 a local king – Diarmait Mac Murchada – was becoming disaffected as his kingdom had been appropriated by the High King of Ireland. So Diarmait contacted Henry II of England for military support in regaining his kingdom. Henry conceded to his wishes and despatched a Welsh Anglo-Norman lord, Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare – known as Strongbow – to lead a campaign in Ireland. Strongbow agreed to this and demanded Diarmait’s daughter’s hand in marriage in return.
The campaign by all accounts went all too well and Strongbow’s Anglo-Norman troops proved difficult to dislodge once the campaign had been successfully prosecuted. Some historians have viewed Diarmait’s action in reaching out to Henry for help as treacherous, as it is said to have ushered in 800 years of uncomfortable English hegemony in the island.
But as Ireland was wrestling with these political and military difficulties, Dublin was also living with the consequences of more practical issues – mainly poor sanitation which led to an outbreak of the Black Death in 1348-9 which killed an estimated 50% of the then population of about 28,000.
Dublinia goes on to chart the city’s fortunes up until the mid sixteenth century, including the fascinating story of a Dublin boy named Lambert Simnell who was taken under the wing of a priest called Richard Simon. Simon thought that the boy – who was probably an Irish baker’s son – bore a strong resemblance to the late Edward IV of England, so he proclaimed that the boy was in fact Edward’s son, the long lost Richard, Duke of York. As such, in 1487 Simon had him crowned in Christchurch Cathedral as the rightful King of England, rather than Henry VII who was on the throne at the time. Lambert became the figurehead of a doomed Yorkist rebellion against Henry and when the rebellion was duly quashed, Lambert, who was only ten or eleven at the time, was spared the gallows and instead sent to work in the royal sculleries. It’s said that while he was working there he invented a cake which went on to be known as a “Simnell cake” – though personally I think that might be stretching it a bit.
Anyway by this stage we had finished off Dublinia so headed over a stone bridge and into the Christchurch Cathedral. The cathedral is one of Dublin’s two protestant cathedrals (the other being St Patricks – there is no “proper” Catholic cathedral in Dublin, bizarrely) and was originally established by none other than Sitric Silkenbeard, the Viking, around 1028AD (some 14 years after he had survived Clontarf). It’s a fascinating place and houses numerous fascinating relics including the grave of Richard fitz Gilbert de Clare aka Strongbow. What I found particularly interesting is that the cathedral is built on shaky foundations in peat, so partially collapsed in 1562 and it wasn’t properly repaired until some 300 years later. If you look carefully, you can see that the north wall of the cathedral isn’t in fact quite vertical – it leans outwards towards the top.
I could go on at great length here and regurgitate more facts and figures about Christchurch but quite frankly I’m tired of writing now and this is supposed to be a blog not a history lesson. But nevertheless, it was a fascinating day out and I hope you have enjoyed reading about Dublin’s fascinating history as much as I did learning about it.
I’ll be back tomorrow, with something a bit less heavyweight I think.
Today’s photos (click to enlarge)
(No map today)