The Ancient History of Dublin

J. Stirling Coyne & N. P. Willis
c. 1841
Volume I, Chapter VI-3 | Start of chapter

Before entering upon a description of the city of Dublin, let us take a glance at its ancient history. The earliest authentic mention we have of Dublin is by Ptolemy, who flourished in the second century after Christ, and who notices it under the name of Eblana. By the ancient Irish it was called Ath-cliath, or 'the Ford of the Hurdles,' and Bally-ath-cliath, or 'the Town of the Ford of Hurdles.' Stanihurst, on the authority of Giraldus Cambrensis, asserts that the present name of the city is derived from Avellanus, a Danish sea-king, who at an early period established himself on the spot where it now stands; and he draws his etymological conclusion thus: Avellana—Eblana—Dublana. "But this cannot be the derivation," observes a writer in the Dublin Penny Journal, "for Ptolemy, upwards of six hundred years before, gave it the title of Eblana Civitas." After all, perhaps, the most simple and obvious etymology of the name will be found in the Irish Dubh-linn, signifying 'Black-water,' by which designation the ford upon the Liffey at this place was known to the inhabitants. We have unquestionable historical evidence to show that it was the Ostmen, or Danes, who first fortified Dublin, and who, in the words of Harris the historian, "rendered it fit for defence and security soon after they possessed it, which seems to have been about the year 838."

It is certain that although these barbarous intruders were opposed by the Irish, they were enabled to maintain the settlement" they had made in Dublin and the contiguous districts, until the year 1014, when a number of Irish chieftains united in a patriotic league under the renowned monarch, Brian Boroimhe, for the purpose of extirpating these unwelcome intruders. The Danish king Sitrig, collected a large army to oppose him, and the adverse forces met at Clontarf, near the city, on the 23rd April, when was fought one of the most memorable battles in which the Irish were ever engaged with a foreign enemy upon their own shores. This sanguinary action terminated in the defeat of the Danes, but the brave Brian was slain in his tent by a straggling party of the enemy while in the act of returning thanks to heaven for his victory. But though the power of the Ostmen was much reduced in Ireland after their defeat at Clontarf, they still maintained possession of Dublin for many succeeding years. When the Anglo-Normans obtained a footing in the country, the lordship of Dublin was bestowed on Earl Strongbow, who appointed Milo de Cogan as his deputy.

In 1171, Dublin was invested by a large army under the command of Asculph the Dane, but the brave Milo de Cogan succeeded in repulsing the enemy with great slaughter; and the fierce Asculph having been taken prisoner, his head was struck off, and placed upon a spike on the castle-gate. Thus terminated the sway of the sea-kings in Ireland, for this was the last attempt made by the Danes to regain possession of the city. "Many of them," writes Harris, "had before incorporated with the Irish, and now upon this great revolution, such as remained in the city or neighbourhood became quiet subjects of the English, and by degrees one people with them." The visit of Henry II. to Ireland, in 1172, was productive of the most important consequences. On his arrival in Dublin, he summoned all the Irish kings to attend and do him homage as their liege lord. He was obeyed by the greater number of these petty dynasts; and in a spacious pavilion, constructed of smooth wattles plastered with clay, Henry kept his Christmas with as much pomp and ceremony as were practicable under the circumstances. Here, surrounded by the mail-clad chivalry of England, he entertained the Irish princes, and confirmed them in the opinion of his wealth and power. Having established courts of justice, held a parliament, and exercised other prerogatives of the sovereign, he returned to England, distributing his new and easily acquired kingdom amongst those leaders who had first invaded the island. From this date a new era commences in the history of Dublin. To use the words of a writer on the subject, "We have hitherto viewed the city as the abode of a rude colony, whose territory was limited to the district immediately contiguous. We are now to consider Dublin ascending progressively in the scale of cities: first, as the capital of the English pale, and afterwards as the metropolis of the whole kingdom."

The history of Dublin for the five succeeding centuries, until the Revolution which placed William III. on the throne of these kingdoms, though not deficient in interest, is principally occupied with the bloody struggles which were obstinately maintained between the English and Irish interests. Subsequent to the Revolution, the annals of the metropolis are of a more peaceable character, and during that favourable period the city assumed a new aspect, and so rapidly did it improve in appearance, that at the commencement of the present century no European city of similar extent could vie with it in the magnificence of its streets, squares, and public buildings.