Dublin Castle stands on the spot where it all began. Towards the middle of the fifth century, a longboat of Viking raiders found the confluence of the Liffey with its tributary the Poddle, sailed up that to beach their boat on the shore of a large, dark pool. A low ridge extended to the west and here was established the Danish settlement, taking its name from the Gaelic for the pool, Dubh Linn. There had been other settlements hereabout, of course. St. Patrick establishing a church where his designated cathedral now stands. Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, noted the importance of Eblana in the first century, though its size and exact location are disputed. For the Danes, and possibly their Celtic predecessors, the area now occupied by Dublin Castle seemed a logical spot, hard by the tidal harbour of the Pool, the higher aspect of the south bank affording dominance over the surrounding landscape.
The Danes were to dominate the East and South coast for a century and a half. We read at school that Brian Boru ‘drove the Danes into the sea’ at the Battle of Clontarf. This is true of the forces on the day, a day of carnage; but the Danish leader, Sitric Silkenbeard, survived, Brian did not. The Danes were not expelled and survived another century and a half before the Norman invasion. It was Sitric, overtaken with piety in his later years, who established Christchurch Cathedral at the height of the ridge in 1028. The Danish city was already walled.
To the Norman though, goes the credit for establishing Dublin as a city of stone. The Castle was constructed by order of King John in 1202 at the south east corner of the city wall. The Pool lay to the south while the Poddle was harnessed to form a moat to the north and west. This rejoined the river at the north east corner of the Castle’s Lower Yard, flowing north into the Liffey near where the Clarence Hotel now stands. The Normans reconstructed the walls enclosing the growing city as far as the Liffey and westwards to St Audeon’s at Cornmarket. The extent of this walled enclosure was little amended over the centuries, until they were dismantled in the eighteenth century.
The Castle remains, itself greatly amended in the eighteenth century. For eight hundred years it was the centre and symbol of foreign power, first Norman, then English. It has never aspired to the romantic or picturesque. From the outset is was a functional, rectilinear structure comprising four stubby towers linked by curtain walls. There was no decoration, unless one counts the grisly occasions when rebel princes had their heads mounted on spikes at the gate. My own namesake, Shane O’Neill was to suffer this fate.
Unpopular with host and guest alike, detested by the Irish, the Castle nevertheless fulfilled its function. Edward the Bruce’s invasion of 1315 failed to rattle it. Silken Thomas’s revolt in 1534 went close, but no cigar. His first attack from within the City Walls got no further than punching a hole in the wall. The citizens expelled the attackers who attempted two more attacks. In a last, audacious onslaught the attackers gutted the buildings on Thomas Street to use as a covered ramp to breach the defenses. The garrison, facing the real prospect of defeat, made a great show of pretending that reinforcements had arrived and, rushing to meet the attackers head on, managed to see them off.
Robert Emmet’s fiasco came to naught, degenerating into a bloody riot on Thomas Street. In 1916 there was an attempt by rebels to seize it and the adjacent City Hall. Their forces weren’t up to it. They were responsible for the first death of the Rising when they shot the policeman guarding the gates. The Rebels briefly held the Upper Yard but were driven back by the garrison, though the battle raged about the Castle precincts for the rest of the day. The most significant breach of the fortress occurred during the War of Independence in the early twenties. Michael Collins, Ireland’s most wanted man, strolled into the Castle and pilfered details of Britain’s undercover network, with desperate ramifications for them. With the greatest guile and intelligence Collins effected revolution where centuries of armed assault had failed. In January 1922, Collins accepted the surrender of the Castle to the new Irish Nation.
The Castle today is quite different to the original thirteenth century structure. That had fallen into ruin by the middle of the seventeenth century. Within the walls at that time was the Irish parliament building, decaying and further degraded by Cromwell’s marauding troops. When a fire broke out in 1684, the Lord Deputy, the Earl of Allen, took extreme measures to prevent its spreading to the more valuable towers, by blowing up connecting buildings. A blessing in disguise, Allen having described the place as the ‘worst castle in Christendom’.
Rebuilding started immediately and the south-eastern building was completed within four years. The colonnaded ground floor indicates the architectural style of the Jacobean period. The remainder of the refurbished Castle is in the Georgian style, typical of the explosion in development in Dublin throughout the eighteenth century. The main entrance is overlooked by the Bedford Tower. Built in 1761, this elegant neoclassical tower is the most imposing in the Castle complex. To each side are identical portals, it’s the easternmost that acts as the main gate. Atop this is a statue of Justice, pointedly turning her back on the city outside.
At the southeast corner of the yard stands the only remaining visible structure from Medieval times, the Records Tower. This was the main prison of the Castle up to the nineteenth century, and it is from here that the young Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped in Elizabethan times. The battlements were added in the nineteenth century at the same time the Chapel Royal, now the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, was built in the Lower Yard. The Church is built in the neo-Gothic style, then replacing the Georgian in the affections of Dublin.
Shortly after surrender, the Castle was occupied by the Civic Guard, later the Garda Siochana, the national police force. So, much of its original function as the focus of law and order persists. For a time the Castle was also used ad hoc for emergent government departments of the new state. The Revenue Commissioners remain on its eastern side, Bord Telecom on the Ship Street side. As a young man in the 70s, my first fulltime job was with the P&T, the telephone company, and I was posted here for training. With my urban hippy chique, all hair and patchouli oil, I was not best clad for a trip past the Drug Squad HQ every morning. The Castle felt like an old, forgotten outpost then. The satellites were sodden pubs, the rained-on cobbles of an empty Temple Bar.
Older now it may be, but the Castle itself has been rejuvenated as a venue for civil and state occasions and a major tourist attraction. The State Apartments along the south wall have been lavishly refurbished. There’s a garden on the site of the old Dubh Linn, overlooked by the Chester Beatty Library. Rehoused here at the turn of the century, this holds the collection of the American mining millionaire, a priceless treasure of Oriental manuscripts, art and artifacts.
Standing at the entrance beneath the Bedford Tower, you stand very much at the crossroads of Dublin. The ancient settlement is a palimpsest here, overwritten by Norman Gothic, Jacobean, Georgian, Victorian and Modern, it is still a story contiguous with scattered settlements of Celts and Danes by a dark pool. Looking north, Parliament Street makes a straight line with Capel Street to disappear into the distance. This is the axis that bisects Dublin, the dividing line between the old, downmarket westside, and the new, more salubrious eastside. The divide is evident still