Our Ancient Capital

The history of Dublin, so admirably narrated by Mr. Gilbert in his learned and instructive volumes,* begins the modern period of Irish history when Ireland became indissolubly united with the British Empire—the greatest empire of the world—and legendary lore, like all the ancient usages and superstitions, began to fade and perish before advancing civilization, as the luxurious undergrowth of a primeval forest before advancing culture.

A sketch of the rise of the capital of Ireland, with all the changes produced in Irish life by the new modes of thought and action introduced by Norman influence, forms therefore a fitting close to the legendary and early-historic period, so full of poetry and charm for the imagination, with its splendour of kings and bards, its shadowy romance and mist-woven dreams, and its ideal fairy world of beauty and grace, of music and song; when the people lived the free, joyous life of the childhood of humanity under their native princes, and the terrible struggle of a crushed and oppressed nation against a foreign master had not yet begun; the struggle that has lasted for seven centuries, and still goes on with exhaustless force and fervour.

The history of cities is the history of nations—the most perfect index of the social altitude, mental development, physical perfection, and political freedom, which at any given period a people may have attained. Every stone within a city is a hieroglyphic of the century that saw it raised. By it we trace human progression through all its phases; from the first rude fisher's hut, the altar of the primitive priest, the mound of the first nomad warrior, the stone fortalice or simple fane of the early Christian race, up to the stately and beautiful temples and palaces which evidence the luxury and refinement of a people in its proudest excess, or human genius in its climax of manifestation.

Thus Babylon, Thebes, Rome, Jerusalem, are words that express nations. The ever-during interest of the world circles round them, for their ruins are true and eternal pages of human history. Every fallen column is a fragment of a past ritual, or a symbol of a dynasty. The very dust is vital with great memories, and a philosopher, like the comparative anatomist, might construct the entire life of a people—its religion, literature, and laws—from these fragments of extinct generations—these fossil paleographs of man.

Statue and column, mausoleum and shrine, are trophies of a nation's triumphs or its tragedies. The young children, as they gaze on them, learn the story of the native heroes, poets, saints, and martyrs, leaders and lawgivers, who have flung their own glory as a regal mantle over their country. Spirits of the past, from the phantom-land, dwell in the midst of them. We feel their presence, and hear their words of inspiration or warning, alike in the grandeur or decadence of an ancient city.

Modern capitals represent also, not only the history of the past, but the living concentrated will of the entire nation. Thus is it with London, Berlin, and Vienna, while Paris, the cité verbe, as Victor Hugo calls her, represents not only the tendencies of France, but of Europe.

Dublin, however, differs from all other capitals, past or present, in this wise—that by its history we trace, not the progress of the native race, but the triumphs of its enemies; and that the concentrated will of Dublin has always been in antagonism to the feelings of a large portion of the nation.

The truth is, that though our chief city of Ireland has an historical existence older than Christianity, yet this fair Ath-Cliath has no pretension to be called our ancient mother. From first to last, from a thousand years ago till now, Dublin has held the position of a foreign fortress within the kingdom; and its history has no other emblazonment beyond that of unceasing hostility or indifference to the native race.

"The inhabitants are mere English, though of Irish birth," wrote Hooker, three hundred years ago. "The citizens," says Holingshed, "have from time to time so galled the Irish, that even to this day the Irish fear a ragged and jagged black standard that the citizens have, though almost worn to the stumps." Up to Henry the Seventh's reign, an Englishman of Dublin was not punished for killing an Irishman, nor were Irishmen admitted to any office within the city that concerned the government either of the souls or bodies of the citizens. The Viceroys, the Archbishops, the Judges, the Mayors, the Corporations, were all and always English, down to the very guild of tailors, of whom it stands on record that they would allow no Irishman to be of their fraternity. As the American colonists treated the red man, as the Spaniards of Cortez treated the Mexicans, as the English colony of India treated the ancient Indian princes, tribes, and people, so the English race of Dublin treated the Irish nation. They were a people to be crushed, ruined, persecuted, tormented, extirpated; and the Irish race, it must be confessed, retorted the hatred with as bitter an animosity. The rising of 1641 was like all Irish attempts—a wild, helpless, disorganized effort at revenge; and seven years later we read that Owen Roe O'Neil burned the country about Dublin, so that from one steeple there two hundred fires could be seen at once.

This being the position of a country and its capital, it is evident that no effort for national independence could gain nourishment in Dublin. Our metropolis is associated with no glorious moment of a nation's career, while in all the dark tragedies of our gloomy history its name and influence predominate. Dublin is connected with Irish patriotism only by the scaffold and the gallows. Statue and column do indeed rise there, but not to honour the sons of the soil. The public idols are foreign potentates and foreign heroes. Macaulay says eloquently on this subject, "The Irish people are doomed to see in every place the monuments of their subjugation; before the senate-house, the statue of their conqueror—within, the walls tapestried with the defeats of their fathers."


* "The History of Dublin." 3 vols. By J. T. Gilbert, M.R.I.A. Dublin.