Through the past darkly

Dublin Castle was at the heart of British rule in Ireland for 800 years, but the natives are coming around, writes Eileen Battersby…

Dublin Castle was at the heart of British rule in Ireland for 800 years, but the natives are coming around, writes Eileen Battersby

On August 30th, 1204, King John of England issued the following mandate to his "trusty and well beloved" cousin and Chief Governor of Ireland, Justiciar Meiler FitzHenry: "You have given us to understand that you have no safe place for the custody of our treasure, and because for this reason and for many others, we are in need of a strong fortress in Dublin. We command you to erect a castle there, in such a competent place as you may consider to be suitable if need be for the defence of the city as well as to curb it, if occasion shall so require, making it as strong as you can with good fosses and strong walls. But you are first to build one tower, to which a castle and palace and other requirements may be conviently added: for all of these you have our authority."

So begins the story of the complex known as Dublin Castle, survivor of a disastrous fire in 1684, today host to the long running Moriarty Tribunal saga and home to the Revenue Commissioners, as well as the magnificent Chester Beatty Library. The castle's history parallels that of Ireland. The site it occupies, predating the 800-year-old castle, is the historic centre of Dublin, the one-time Viking settlement which took its name from Black Pool harbour, or Dubh Linn, the pool where the now-underground River Poddle joined the Liffey. Today the space is filled by the castle gardens.

For all the architectural splendour, graceful courtyards and atmospheric range of buildings - ranging from its medieval tower to the palatial 18th century State Apartments, to the beautiful Gothic Revival Chapel Royal designed by Francis Johnston - to its role in the inauguration of Irish presidents, Dublin Castle, always more a walled enclosure flanked by towers and gates than a specific building, retains its essential ambivalence.


In common with the Tower of London, Dublin Castle has a legacy darker than that of spies and tax inspectors. It is, as Michael Collins once remarked, Ireland's Bastille, and populated by ghosts, most of whom were very unhappy, such as a mother imprisoned by her son for the crime of attending Mass. Severed heads were regularly spiked above Castle Gate. Fíach MacHugh O'Beirne, who challenged Lord Deputy Arthur Grey De Wilton whose rule in Ireland was "marked by merciless severity and massacres that spared neither woman nor child", and burned down the southern suburbs of Dublin, paid the price in 1597.

It was from Dublin Castle that the dying James Connolly was taken to face execution by firing squad. Centuries before that, from December 1679, the then Archbishop Oliver Plunkett was held in a "costly and expensive apartment" for which he, the prisoner, was ordered to pay £1 per week, until being transferred to England where he was savagely executed in Tyburn High Street in July 1681. Somewhat less sensationally, poet Edmund Spenser, began his epic The Faerie Queen, during his nine-year stint at the castle serving as Secretary to the Lord Deputies.

Red Hugh O'Donnell made a dramatic escape in 1591, aged 18, from the castle by lowering himself from Castle Gate, the town entrance which also housed the prison. He lowered himself on to the drawbridge and fled to Wicklow. O'Donnell, in the company of Hugh Neill and with the aid of Spanish support were defeated by Mountjoy's army at the Battle of Kinsale and so died the hopes of Gaelic Ireland.

Travel even further back in time, and it is known that Asculf MacThorkil, the 25th and last Viking King of Dublin, was taken as prisoner to the Norman Headquarters at the "Castle of Divelin" (sic).

Castle tour guide Catherine Ryan (26) is from Dublin and admits that, prior to working at the castle: "I knew nothing about it. For me it was a symbol of what the English had done to the Irish." This awareness may well explain why the majority of visitors to the castle are tourists from abroad. Irish people, it appears, may be more wary of, than indifferent to, Dublin Castle. "Even when I am guiding a tour, and the visitors are impressed with the beautiful rooms and the historic buildings, I really feel I should be showing it to them in the context of Irish history." But as she says, it could prove a rather sombre outing.

Always the symbol of English colonial rule in Ireland, the castle expressed its military and political presence. In time it became the centre of the ruling elite's social life. As the city expanded, the 18th century Dublin poor gathered in the streets to watch - and often jeer - the rich and powerful making their way by carriage to Castle functions.

The 1798 Rebellion collapsed in Dublin. Many of the insurgents who had been hung from bridges and barrack gallows across the city, were later displayed on the cobble stones of the Upper Castle Yard.

At the height of the Great Famine in 1849, the then young Queen Victoria made the first of her four state visits to Ireland. Although in a letter to her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium she wrote, "You see more ragged and wretched people here that I ever saw anywhere else". She made no reference to the Famine, but mentioned that "900 ladies are to be presented".

On July 6th, 1907, just four days before the state visit of another British monarch, King Edward, the theft from Dublin Castle of the Irish Crown Jewels was discovered. Loud was the righteous indignation of The Irish Times of the day, which in a decidedly opinionated piece of reporting blustered "the safe had been opened in a regular manner and how anyone could, unobserved, burglariously (sic) enter the Office of Arms . . . passes all ordinary comprehension." Despite such prose and the £1,000 reward, the crime remains unsolved.

An exhibition, Dublin Castle 800, based on Denis McCarthy's excellent book, Dublin Castle - At the Heart of Irish History, is currently running until April 24th in the Erin Room at Dublin Castle. As a history book, his text would give most professional historians more than a run for their money. McCarthy heads the Facilities Management Services at the castle. For him "this is a working building". Obviously pleased with the exhibition which is elegantly designed and informative, he stresses that the castle for all the symbolism, "is about people". It is interesting that the exhibition with its eclectic displays including finds such as a wig-curler, pipes and stone wine jars, discovered during the archaeological excavations carried out in the 1980s has succeeded in achieving something that the castle itself, for all its history, never managed. It has attracted Irish viewers.

Castle tours take place daily, all year round and concentrate on the State Apartments, which are accessed through the Upper Court Yard. Battleaxe Landing leads to the James Connolly room and on to the Granard Room dominated by its Hibernia ceiling and its Van Dyck portrait c.1640-41, of the Countess of Southampton, through the King's bedroom to the Arts and Sciences room, named after the graceful "Arts and Sciences" ceiling created by Bartholomew Cramillon, who also decorated the chapel of the Rotunda Hospital. This ceiling was moved here from Mespil House. The Queen's bedroom leads into the State Corridor. The Apollo Room is so named because its ceiling plasterwork, by an unknown artist, depicts the god Apollo and dates to 1746. The Drawing Room is a reconstruction of the one destroyed by fire in 1941.

Hanging above the Throne Room is a chandelier dating from the Act of Union 1801. The Picture Gallery includes portraits of the various Viceroys who served here. Through the Wedgewood Room used for billiards and on to the Bermingham Tower Room, the 1777 version of the original tower damaged by a gunpowder explosion in 1775, the tour culminates at St Patrick's Hall. With its ceiling paintings and array of crests, helmets and banners, it is an impressive sight. However after all the regal pomp and symbols of royal presence, it is exciting to explore what appears tobe the enclosing curtain wall of the earlier Norman castle. This was uncovered during excavations uncovering the base of the Powder Tower. It is like standing under the city. To walk up those stone steps, cut deep into the thick wall, is to step back to Viking Dublin.

Layers of history and a sense of Ireland evolving through the centuries are there to be experienced. If, from an Irish perspective, there is much to lament and resent about the presence of Dublin Castle, there is a high note of celebration. When Michael Collins arrived at the castle on January 16th, 1922, to receive the handover on behalf of the new Irish government, he was not warmly welcomed. Viceroy FitzAlan-Howard is believed to have grumbled: "You are seven minutes late, Mr Collins." The Irish leader did not apologise: "We've been waiting over 700 years," he replied. "You can have the extra seven minutes."

Dublin Castle 800 continues in the Erin Room until April 24th.

Dublin Castle by Denis McCarthy is published by the Stationery Office and is available from Government Publications.