Very little is known of Dublin’s earliest history. Scholars once believed it had been a settlement referred to by the Greek-Egyptian astronomer and cartographer, Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy), as Eblana in some of his writings, giving it a date prior to 140 CE. However, historical evidence has not backed up the claim, leaving researchers to believe the similarity in names was simply co-incidental.
Considering Ireland’s early Christian influence, historians now feel its initial origins were as a Christian ecclesiastic settlement, known as Duiblinn, from which Dyflin took its name. What is known is that between the ninth and tenth centuries, there were two settlements; Dyflin, from the Duiblinn, meaning “black pool”, which refers to a dark tidal pool where the River Poddle met the Liffey, and the Gaelic settlement of AthaCliath, “ford of hurdles”. To this day, Dublin is referred to in the Irish language as “BaileAthaCliath” and the name can be found on road signs.
Dublin began establishing its place in history with the invasion of the Vikings. Beginning at the end of the eighth century, the ferocious sweep of these Nordic warriors targeted primarily coastal villages, raiding the settlements and burning down churches. The hit-and-run tactics became more concentrated over the next few decades, attacking Irish monasteries and emptying them of all valuable items, but the wealth was not their greatest concern. The monasteries were rich in land, stock and provisions. In 837, a fleet of sixty ships appeared on the Boyne and a similar fleet appeared on the River Liffey. They wintered for the first time in Dublin in 841, with another large fleet moving in the following year.
What followed was a series of bloody battles between the Norsemen and the Irish inhabitants, with much of the concentration on Dublin. The king of Tara was killed in Dublin during a combined attack by the Irish in 919. For the next two decades, the Norse continued to establish their control over Ireland and establish their power over York, with their headquarters concentrated in Dublin and the hinterlands. The new king of Tara burned down Dublin in 936 and sacked the town in 944. The power of the Vikings declined considerably. In 1014, one of Ireland’s most significant leaders, Brian Boru of DálCais, attacked the Norse of Dublin, effectively ending the age of the Vikings in Ireland.
The battles at Dublin signified two things; the final break between Ireland and the Norse countries and an assimilation of the remaining Scandinavians with the native Irish population. Their language had become homogenous, with heterogeneity more a matter of demographics than linguistics. The coming of the Anglo-Normans at the end of the twelfth century initiated the long involvement of England with Ireland, and a change in the language. The early Normans who crossed over into Dublin brought with them the structure of the English language spoken today.
The area around medieval Dublin where the Norman warlords settled was referred to as “the pale”. The influence of the Normans was felt the greatest between the twelfth and fifteenth century. The English phrase, “beyond the pale” derives from the time period when the English population regarded anyone living “beyond the pale” as barbaric.
Most of the English brought over during that time period were actually servants to the ruling class that primarily spoke French. According to historians, King Henry II, who came to Dublin in 1171 and issued the Charter of Dublin that same year, could not speak English.
The Normans brought some of Ireland’s earliest medieval architecture, such as the Gowran Abbey in Co. Wexford, the St. Patrick Cathedral, and the Dublin Castle. The city was also the main seat of the Parliament of Ireland, beginning in 1297 and was composed of wealthy landowners and merchants.
Medieval Dublin was a small, closely-knit town with a population of no more than 5- 10,000 people. They were conscious of their unwelcome status beyond the pale and were brutally reminded when group of five hundred new settlers from Bristol were massacred by the O’Toole clan outside the city limits. Each year after that, the inhabitants of Dublin held a “Black Monday” memorial, in which the town’s people would march out to the spot of the massacre and plant a black flag in defiance of the Irish clans. This yearly activity was so dangerous that until the 17th century, the participants had to be guarded by the city militia and stockade.
Dublin did not thrive during this time period. There was much squalor in the city streets, housing was poor, and the people forced to pay tribute to the neighbouring clans to avoid raids on their settlement. In 1315, a Scottish army, led by Edward the Bruce, burned the city suburbs. As English interest in defending the town waned, its stability was left to Fitzgerald Earls of Kildare. This dynasty had its own agenda. The Fitzgerald’s occupied the city with the aid of troops from Burgundy, and proclaimed the Yorkist Lambert Simnel to be the King of England. In 1537, King Henry the VIII sent a large army to destroy the Fitzgerald’s and replace them with English administrators.
Poverty and the constant struggles for power were not Dublin’s only woes. As with much of Europe, the lethal Bubonic Plague ravaged much of Dublin, recurring repeatedly up until 1649, when the city witnessed its last major outbreak. The dead piled up into mass graves in an area that was known as the “Black Pits”. Although historians believed the name was in reference to the gravesite, evidence has shown that there had been a tanning pit within the area that stained the ground to a dark, deep colour and now speculate this was the origin of the name.
English rule brought a new prosperity to Dublin but it did not bring happiness to the Irish people. Much of the blame can be placed on a difference in religious ideologies. The people of Ireland were primarily Roman Catholic and rejected the Protestant Reform movement of the sixteenth century. When in 1592, Queen Elizabeth I established the Trinity College Dublin for the Irish gentry, most of the Dubliners rejected it, sending their students instead to universities in Europe. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, England had taken firm control over Dublin and imposed harsh penalties on the Irish Catholic population.
During the eighteenth century, it became a Georgian city, with a layout much like that of medieval Paris. It enjoyed an era of expansion and cultural enlightenment, with Handel’s “Messiah” first played on Fishamble Street. Despite its new-found affluence, it continued to be a city in revolt, with emancipation and the gradual right to vote in politics won only through struggle and bloodshed.
Much of Georgian Dublin was destroyed during the 1960's, with entire swaths of housing demolished to make way for utilitarian office blocks and government departments. Terrorist attacks continued through the 1970's, with bombings and continued destruction of medieval landmarks. Although in recent years, Dublin has realised the importance of preserving its heritage, it still struggles with its violent past. Drug addiction had become a major problem by 2006 and poverty, a familiar figure, was once again at its door. It is a city in slow recovery, with a population boom largely due to immigration from Eastern Europe. Its current economics are stable and Dublin is on the fast track to becoming one of the most attractive tourist centres in the world.
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