Our Ancient Capital (12) - Legends, Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland

Many great names are associated with the attempt to write a history of Dublin. The work in all ages was laborious; there were no printed books to consult, and the records of Ireland, as Hooker complains three hundred years ago, "were verie slenderlie and disorderlie kept." Whitelaw's work, though it employed two editors ten hours a day for ten years, yet goes no farther than a description of the public buildings; but the object of Mr. Gilbert's history is distinct from all that precedes it. It is from the decaying streets and houses that he disentombs great memories, great fragments of past life. It is not a mere record of Ionic pillars, Corinthian capitals, or Doric pediments he gives us. Whitelaw has supplied whole catalogues of these; but records of the human life, that has throbbed through the ancient dwellings of our city century after century; of the vicissitudes of families, to be read in their ruined mansions; of the vast political events which in some room, in some house, on some particular night, branded the stigmata deeper on the country; or the tragedies of great hopes crushed, young blood shed, victims hopelessly sacrificed, which have made some street, some house, some chamber, for ever sacred.

The labours of such an undertaking are manifest; yet none can appreciate them fully who has not known what it is to spend days, weeks, months buried in decaying parchments, endless pipe-rolls, worm-eaten records, dusty deeds and leases, excavating some fact, or searching for some link necessary for the completion of a tale, or the elucidation of a truth.

Mr. Gilbert tells us that twelve hundred statutes and enactments of the Anglo-Irish Parliament still remain unpublished. From these and such-like decayed and decaying manuscripts, ancient records which have become almost hieroglyphics to the present age, he has gathered the life-history of an ancient city; he has made the stones to speak, and evoked the shadows of the past to fill up the outline of a great historical picture.

Fifty, even twenty years hence, the production of such a work would be impossible; the ancient records will probably have perished; the ancient houses, round which the curious may yet gather, will have fallen to the ground; and the ancient race, who cherished in their hearts the legends of the past with the fidelity of priests, and the fervour of bards, will have almost passed away.

Dublin is fortunate, therefore, in finding a historian endowed with the ability, the energetic literary industry, the untiring spirit of research, and the vast amount of antiquarian knowledge necessary for the production of so valuable a work, before records perish, mansions fall, or races vanish.

In a history illustrated by human lives and deeds, and localized in the weird old streets, once the proudest, now the meanest of our city, many a family will find an ancestral shadow starting suddenly to light, trailing long memories with it of departed fashion, grandeur, and magnificence.

Few amongst us who tread the Dublin of the present in all its beauty, think of the Dublin of the past in all its contrasted insignificance. True, the eternal features are the same; the landscape setting of the city is coeval with creation. Tyrian, Dane, and Norman have looked as we look, and with hearts as responsive to Nature's loveliness, upon the emerald plains, the winding rivers, the hills draperied in violet and gold, the mountain gorges, thunder-riven, half veiled by the foam of the waterfall, and the eternal ocean encircling all; scenes where God said a city should arise, and the mountain and the ocean are still, as of old, the magnificent heritage of beauty conferred on our metropolis.

But the early races, whether from southern sea or northern plain, did little to aid the beauty of nature with the products of human intellect. Dublin, under the Danish rule, consisted only of a fortress, a church, and one rude street. Under the rule of the Normans, those great civilizers of the western world, those grand energetic organizers, temple and tower builders, it rose-gradually into a beautiful capital, the chief city of Ireland, the second city of the empire. At first the rudamental metropolis gathered round the castle, as nebulae round a central sun, and from this point it radiated westward and southward; the O'Briens on the south, the O'Connors on the west, the O'Neils on the north, perpetually hovering on the borders, but never able to regain the city, never able to dislodge the brave Norman garrison who had planted their banners on the castle walls. In that castle, during the seven hundred years of its existence, no Irishman of the old race has ever held rule for a single hour.

And what a history it has of tragedies and splendours; crowned and discrowned monarchs flit across the scene, and tragic destinies, likewise, may be recorded of many a viceroy! Piers Gravestone, Lord-Lieutenant of King Edward, murdered; Roger Mortimer—"The Gentle Mortimer"—hanged at Tyburn; the Lord Deputy of King Richard II. murdered by the O'Briens; whereupon the King came over to avenge his death, just a year before he himself was so ruthlessly murdered at Pomfret Castle. Two viceroys died of the plague; how many more were plagued to death, history leaves unrecorded; one was beheaded at Drogheda; three were beheaded on Tower Hill. Amongst the names of illustrious Dublin rulers may be found those of Prince John, the boy Deputy of thirteen; Prince Lionel, son of Edward III., who claimed Clare in right of his wife, and assumed the title of Clarence from having conquered it from the O'Briens.