The ‘lost city’ of Eblana

The ‘lost city’ of Eblana St Patrick's Well
Mainly About Books
by the books editor


The publication in late 2016 of Pat Wallace’s Viking Dublin (Irish Academic Press, €60.00), was a summation of decades of work by two generations of archaeologists from the National Museum and others, to define the city’s beginnings.

However, the book has nothing really to say about pre-Viking Dublin. That was not Wallace’s remit.

The idea that Dublin was ‘founded by the Vikings’ in the 9th Century – around 841 – is now so well established that it is almost never questioned The truth is that there certainly was a settlement at Dublin from far earlier times, and it was not a mere village at a river crossing.

This place might be called ‘the lost city’ of Eblana.

Many ancient cities were unwalled. They grew up around a market place outside the citadel”

That name, the oldest known for Dublin, comes down to us from the Greek geographer Claudius Ptolemy who lived in Alexandria. His geography was a major record of the known world at the beginning of the Christian era, written before 150 AD.

Though ‘Eblana’ echoes the name Dublin, we are now told this was not a real city, and may refer to a different place altogether.

Actually what Ptolemy referred to, as he wrote in Greek, was a place he calls Εβλανα πολις [Eblana civitas in Later Latin].

For the Greek world the idea of a polis meant something exact, for Greek is a very definitive language. A polis was a place with an organised community, a ruling elite, and a central citadel. A village would have been called a χωριό [chorió]. The words polis and civitas imply both an organised town and a large body of people – they would not be applied to a mere village. Ptolemy tells us as directly as possible that there was a city at the mouth of the Liffey.


Much of his information derived from Marinus of Tyre (fl. 110c), who had access to Phoenician sources, though Roman sources must have also been utilised by Ptolemy. But as the trade in copper, tin and gold brought Mediterranean traders to the coasts of these islands for thousands of years before that, going back to the Bronze Age.

The evidence of that trade is there in the archaeology; hence the knowledge of the traders has to be factored in. That date 150 AD is the end of a period, not the beginning of one.

Many ancient cities were unwalled. They grew up around a market place outside the citadel, that is to say in Dublin’s case, west of Dublin Castle along High Street and Thomas Street. Here the ancient system of roads covering Ireland converged – and made connection across the sea with Chester and other parts of England.

But what gave this settlement its real substance were the ecclesiastical establishments. This place was an early Christian site. Palladius we are told was sent to Ireland in 429 by Pope Celestine to the Irish “believing in Christ”. The legendary date, 448, of ‘St Patrick’s’ visit to Dublin when he is said to have baptised the local ruler to Christianity may actually be derived from an act of Palladius, later attributed by Jocelyn to Patrick.

We are now told that ‘Eblana’ was not a real city…”

Between 450-600 development of the original settlement into a Christian centre continued, with numerous establishments, and a local population dependent on them.

Some eight local churches were early in existence mostly in the area between Cook Street and Dame Street; and other institutions stood in the surrounding district.

Irish monasteries attracted many students and refugees from Britain and Europe, and many would have passed through Dublin to take advantage of the road system.

To ignore the pre-Viking settlement is to quite ignore the Christian roots of the city. It is means passing over in silence some 800 years or more of Dublin’s earlier history.

No; I think the search for this “lost city of Eblana” should be pursued with serious intent, if only because in represents an important aspect of the very early history of our capital.