One tale not told in the crypt

One tale not told in the crypt
Mainly about books
by the books editor


Under the City Hall of Dublin at the top of Dame Street – right in the heart of Dublin – one of the rooms of the basement crypt has been converted into a charming little café, the rest of the vaults to a museum devoted to unrolling the history of the city in a long series of illustrated panels.

Both visitors and curious citizens will find it very informative, giving in one place an overview of the city’s development, social changes and politics over the many centuries.

But there is a problem, and it is one which affects much of what is written for popular consumption about the city. It only begins with the “foundation” of the city by the Norse in the 840s.

The ancient Irish sources had no doubts about the origins of the city. The Dinnseanchas provides what every city has to have: a foundation legend. London has King Lud, Rome Romulus and Remus. Dublin had “ the druidess and prophet Dub, daughter of Rodub son of Cass son of Glas Gamna”.

She was married to Enna, son of Nos. He had another wife, Aide, of whom Dub became jealous. She went along the sea shore to the house where Aide lived. There she cast a spell so that all in that house were drowned. But she was overlooked by one of the servants, who turned against her and (in the words of the Dinnseachas, “made a skillfull cast of his sling at her, so he struck her off her path, and shattered her, and she fell into the pool (linn). Whence ‘Dub-linn’ is said.”

This was the “dark river pool” of the Poddle, which once lay behind Dublin Castle, where the formal garden is now. The legend can be found in Ancient Irish Tales, edited by Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover. Unusual executions and ritual drownings are quite enough to alert an anthropologist that a legend has a very ancient source.

But the view today seems to be that Dublin was “founded” by the Norse after a series of raids.


One might ask why a place which was known to the Greek geographer Ptolemy in far away Alexandria in 150AD, was attacked if there was nothing there. The Norse did not waste their time: they settled in places that were already rich, or provided port facilities for their ships. Both of these Dublin had long before they seized the city. Indeed they seized the city because of these features.

There is no room in a short essay to survey Dublin’s long prehistory – for all of which there is ample evidence of a large settled population. Let’s just look at Early Christian Dublin.

Archaeology is telling one story, an increasingly complete one. Written records are fragmentary. The first reference to a Dublin clan is in 280AD, that is followed by the first mention of Dublin in the Annals of the Four Masters at 291AD.

St Patrick was said to have visited Dublin in 448, and to have converted the local ruler, Alphin Mac Eochaid, to Christianity. Scholars disputed this because “there was no Dublin then” – despite clear evidence that there was – so strong is the Norse myth.

Between 450 and 600 the original settlement developed into a Christian centre with numerous establishments, and a local population dependent on them. Some eight local churches were in existence, mostly in areas between Cook Street and Dame Street and other institutions in the surrounding area.

The original settlement developed into a Christian centre with numerous establishments”

The road system of ancient Ireland was focused on Dublin as an entrepôt – roads in Wales and Britain can be seen as a continuation of these to carry Irish trade to southern England

In 660 St Wiro was created first bishop of Dublin, an indication of its status as an important centre. In 770 an army from Ulster attacked Dublin – a sign that there were things valuable enough to carry away. Finally around 841 the Norse finally seized hold of Dublin: an indication of an important place.

Dublin’s long prehistory and its growth in the centuries of early Christian Ireland are important to the development of the city. They should not be neglected. There is space enough in the City Hall crypt to add the needed panels.