Thursday, 2 April 2015

Historical Notice of the City of Dublin


The period of the foundation of our City is involved in as much obscurity as the etymology of its name. It may easily be supposed that men would congregate at such a convenient spot for fishing and commerce as the ridge of land that rose above the last place where the Liffey was fordable, before it joined the sea; and therefore it is very probable that such a position, presenting means of safety and support, of offence and defence, was very early seized on. The geographer Ptolemy places (A.D. 140,) a town exactly in the parallel of Dublin, and calls it "Civitas Eblana." Our city therefore has a just claim to an antiquity of seventeen centuries. But we are inclined to suppose that though the Greek cosmo-grapher had good reason to lay down such a place as "Civitas Eblana," yet it is to the Vikingar — pirates, or "Sea-Kings," of Scandinavia — that the settlement of Dublin, as a place of commerce, and as a fortified town, may be attributed.

These bold intelligent Ostmen, (as the Scandinavians were called by the Irish, because they came from a comparatively Eastern country,) saw that Dublin harbour was one of the best, and the river Liffey one of the most commodious, and the valley of Dublin one of the most fertile, in the island. They therefore selected this central position, and landed their troops, where, according to custom, they erected a fortified Rath; and on that ridge that hangs over the lowest ford of the Liffey, on the exact spot where the Cathedral of Christ's Church now stands, they excavated large vaults or crypts, in one of which St. Patrick, the apostle of Ireland, is said to have celebrated the sacred offices of his religion.1 Here they deposited the produce of their commerce and their plunder, and used to retreat to them on occasion of any sudden invasion of their enemies.

But very probably, it is to the sea-king, Avellanus, that we owe the establishment of our city as a place of military and commercial importance. He, with his brethren, Siterick and Yvorus, having heard from their roving countrymen of the fertility and capabilities of the green western isle, landed a fresh swarm from the Baltic, and proceeded to win, by their swords or their policy, a settlement in Ireland. Yvorus, who was doubtless the more cautious of the three, and had a good military eye, pitched on Limerick; Siterick, struck with the great commercial advantages that the junction of the Nore, the Suir, and the Barrow, presented, sailed up that fine estuary, and landed at Waterford; but Avellanus, with the eye of a king, saw at once that neither the waters of the Shannon or the Suir would answer his purpose; and so he selected that spot where the Awn-Liffey ceased to be navigable, and on the rising ground that rose from its southern bank, he planted himself, convinced that if ever Ireland was to come under the sway of one monarch, it would become the seat of the metropolis of the island. Stanihurst, on the authority of Giraldus Cambrensis, asserts that the city owes its name to this Avellanus, and with the license of an etymologist deduces it in this way:—
Avellana—Eblana—Dublana.
But this surely cannot be the derivation: for Ptolemy, upwards of six hundred years before, called it Eblana Civitas. Probably the author of the life of St. Kevin gives the best derivation. Speaking about St. Garban, he says, "he lived near Ath Cliath, which is also called by the Irish, Dubh Lein, signifying the dark bath." Now any one who observes the Liffey may see good reason why the ford over this unusually dark flowing stream might be called the black bathing place.2

Stanihurst, with his usual quaintness, in commenting on the wise choice of Avellanus, says, "The Dane did well — for our city is of all sides pleasant, comfortable, and wholesome: if you would traverse hills, they are not far off; if champaign ground, it lieth of all parts; if you be delighted with water, the famous river called the Liffey, named of Ptolemy Lybinum, runneth fast by; if you will take a view of the sea, it is at hand."

The Ostmen, then, may be considered as the founders and colonizers of Dublin, as indeed they were of the most important towns in Ireland, such as Cork, Waterford, Limerick, &c. &c. for the same Stanihurst observes, that "until the arrival of the Danes, such means of strength the Irish had not, for until these days they knew no defence but woods, bogs, and strokes." The colonization of the Danes in Dublin and other maritime places had no doubt a great effect on the character of the Irish. Their commerce with the Ostmen in peace made them more acquainted with the wants of civilized life, and their contests in war made them more expert in the art of attack and defence. But nothing could effect a continued unity of purpose among the Irish chieftains. The Danish king, acting under the same wily policy as the English used long afterwards in India, at one time mediated between the contending chiefs, and at another time sided with the weakest, occasionally protected a usurper, or set himself up as the avenger of blood. Thus did he establish his influence, and strengthen his kingdom; and long after the Danish power was broken in the interior of the island, the Ostmen still remained firm in Dublin. In vain did the Airdrigh (Monarch) call together the Righbegs (petty kings) to unite in expelling the stranger from their shores. The Dubh Gael and the Fin Gael,3 (for so in these days were the Norwegians distinguished from the Dane) still kept possession of their strong hold, Dublin, and the surrounding territory; and not even the just vengeance of O'Melaghlin, king of Meath, nor the Munster confederacy, cemented by the talents and the military prowess of Brian Boro, could effect the purpose. It was reserved for those mailed warriors, the Normans, who had acquired by their settlement in France, and their achievements in Italy, all the arts of civilized warfare, and the discipline connected with chivalrous training, without losing any of their Scandinavian hardihood, to upset the Ostman power in Dublin.

During the period immediately preceding the Anglo-Norman conquest, the Danes or Ostmen of Cork, Limerick, and Waterford, more especially of Dublin, living-under a polity, civil, military and ecclesiastical, quite distinct from the Milesian kingdoms into which Ireland was divided, kept up an active and close correspondence with their kindred settlements in the Isle of Man, the Orkneys, and England. A barbarous and insulting murder first brought the Anglo-Normans to the Danish gates. Dermot M'Murrough, in revenge for the assassination of his father, (whom the citizens of Dublin had invited to a feast, and taking advantage of his security, not only slew him, but buried his body in a dunghill along with a dog,) joined with the Normans, commanded by the redoubtable Miles de Cogan, and marched to Dublin. O'Connor, the monarch of Ireland, saw that if the Normans were successful, they would keep the city, and thinking that old enemies were better than new ones, and not choosing to let them get the key of Ireland into their hands, marched with an immense force to protect the city, and at Clondalkin waited the approach of the enemy. But on the arrival of king Dermot of Leinster, with his allies, the appearance of the English warriors, steel-clad from head to foot, struck such terror into the undisciplined and disunited Irish, who were without defensive armour, that they did not stand the shock, but fled before their foes. Dublin did not share a better fate. While the citizens were parleying with a herald, and disputing about the terms of surrender, the fierce Miles de Cogan burst with his men over the city wall, and sacked the town. The Ostman king, Asculph M'Torcall, escaped with difficulty to his shipping in the bay — and thus Dublin changed its masters.

But it was too valuable a possession to be allowed to remain quietly in the hands of its new occupiers. The Norman adventurers, under their leader, Strongbow, had fallen under the jealous displeasure of king Henry II. of England, who ordered them to return home, and while they were hesitating what to do, O'Connor, the Irish monarch, entered into a confederacy with the ejected Ostman king of Dublin, who had gone amongst his Danish allies in the north to raise supplies, and having summoned the largest army ever before collected in Ireland, surrounded the city, and cut off its supplies. Lawrence O'Toole, the Archbishop of Dublin, true to the Milesian cause, and patriotically anxious to get rid of the English, did all he could to persuade Strongbow to surrender, who, seeing the difficulties he had to encounter, was inclined to take the advice: but unfortunately, the Irish, not knowing the enemy they had to deal with, insisted on such extravagant terms, that they were rejected; and Miles de Cogan, the bravest of these Anglo-Normans, advised a sudden and desperate sally upon the Irish. Accordingly five hundred men, led on by Cogan, supported by Strongbow, and Raymond le Gros, broke in upon the Irish lines at Finglas — and this handful of determined and desperate men actually routed the Irish host, and nearly took king O'Connor prisoner, who at the time was enjoying the luxury of a bath.

The Irish army were scarcely dispersed, when M'Torcall appeared with his Ostman shipping and forces in the river. These were so numerous, that he had full expectation of recovering his lost city; and had he arrived in time, and joined in the attack with the Irish monarch, there is every reason to suppose that the Norman-English would have been driven out of the country. But the fortune of war was otherwise. There is a great deal of romantic interest attached to this last struggle of the Danes with the Anglo-Normans. As Strongbow had his brave and valiant knight, the indomitable Miles de Cogan, so M'Torcall was attended by a Scandinavian, named John le Dane, or John the Mad. Maurice Regan reports that this northern Hector was of such enormous prowess, that with one blow of his battle-axe he could cut the thigh bones of the horsemen like cheese, and their legs would fall off like so many cabbage-stalks to the ground. Thus these two fierce knights were matched together, and dreadful must have been the struggle as they met
"Foot to foot and hand to hand."
But this is not the only romantic circumstance attending this celebrated engagement. A petty king of the name of Gille Mo Holmock, of Ostman descent, but who had adopted the manners, dress, and habits of the Irish, and who governed a district not far from Dublin, came and offered the English his assistance. "No," says Miles de Cogan, in the pride of his knighthood, "we won't have your help!" (perhaps he distrusted him,) "all we want you to do is this: if we beat the Danes, cut off their retreat to their ships, and help us to kill them; and if we he defeated, and are forced to fly, why, fall on us, and cut our throats, sooner than let us he taken prisoners by these pirates."

The performance of these conditions Gille Mo Holmock swore to observe, and he stood aloof while the Ostmen marched to assault Dublin. The assault was made at Dame Gate, and the furious onset was headed by-John le Dane, but Miles de Cogan stood there to oppose him, just where the entrance to the Lower Castle Yard now is. But in the meantime, the Norman knights, who had learned in the battle fields of Italy and France the military arts and stratagems by which superior numbers may he matched and overpowered, made, under the command of Richard de Cogan, a sally from the postern then called Pole Gate, at the foot of Ship-street, and taking a circuit through the fields whereon now stand Stephens-street and Georges-street, John le Dane was attacked both in flank and front. This decided the day. John le Dane was slain by Miles de Cogan, and M'Torcall was taken prisoner by Richard de Cogan, and hanged the next morning; while Gille Mo Holmock, true to his promise, fell upon the retreating Danes, and cut them to pieces, so that few escaped to their ships in the Liffey.

Thus ended the dominion of the Sea-Kings in Ireland. Henceforward the history of Ireland is connected with the Anglo-Normans or English; but as our space is limited, we must suspend our continuation of the History of Dublin, till our next Number; and after we have concluded it, we will take up the history of all the great towns and cities in Ireland, presenting a short but clear account of Irish customs, manners, fortunes, and adventures.



[1] Over one of these early Danish vaults or fornices, or crypts, sanctified, as tradition says, by the consecration of St. Patrick, Sictricus, son of Avellanus, king of the Ostmen of Dublin, built Christ's Church. There are still many of these under ground Danish depositories in Ireland, of which we may very probably give some account in our Journal. In the county Antrim we have seen them, where they are called Picts' holes. Within six miles of Dublin, and adjoining the beautiful village of Lucan, there is a fine and commanding Danish Rath, in the centre of which there is one of those artificial caves spoken of above. About twenty years ago, the author of this article was shown a very large and double circular cave in the side of the hill between Rathcoole and Naas, a few hundred yards from the ten-mile stone in that line of road.

[2] The other and more ancient name Bally Ath Cliath, the town of the ford of hurdles, arose from a common practice of the Irish who used to make muddy rivers, such as the Liffey was, near its junction with the sea, and near bogs and marshes, fordable by means of hurdles or kishes laid down where they desired to pass. It was a rude substitute for a bridge, and did more mischief than perhaps those who laid them down thought of — for the course of rivers was impeded, bogs formed, and swamps established.

[3] The Fin Gael were settled in that broad and fertile plain that stretched north of the Liffey, until it meets the high lands that hang over the Boyne. The inhabitants of this district form a distinct race to this day, and evince a marked difference from the natives of Meath and Louth, not only in their habits of industry, but also in their personal appearance. The Dubh Gael were settled In those parts south and west ot Dublin, joining Wicklow and Kildare.


From The Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jun. 30, 1832)

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