Peter Sirr writes: Sir John Perrott decides to make a circuit of the walls of the city. It is 1585, he is the lord deputy of Ireland and thought to be a son of Henry VIII. In seven years’ time he will die in the Tower of London, convicted of treason. Fifteen years earlier he had come to Ireland as lord president of Munster, landing at Waterford and conducting a ruthless campaign against the Geraldines, the heads of fifty of whom he fixed to the market cross in Kilmallock, pour encourager les autres. He hanged another eight hundred before he returned to England in 1573.
He took up the lord deputyship in 1584, and here he is now patrolling the walls with military thoroughness, working his way round clockwise via Pole Gate, Geneville’s Tower, Nicholas Gate, New Gate, Gormond’s Gate, Bridge Gate and Prickett’s Tower on the river side and up towards Isolde’s Tower and Dame’s Gate. You could rebuild the walls pretty efficiently from Perrott’s circuit. He gives us the exact distance between each gate and describes the shape and conditions of the towers, the ramparts and the ditches outside the walls, and where the towers are not in the ownership of the city he tells us who they belong to; so we learn of Mr Christopher Sedgrave’s tower, Sir Patrick Sarsfield’s tower, and ‘the tower in Mr Richard Fagan’s possession’. Some towers are both round and square, like Stanihurst’s, ‘round without the tower and square within’. He is thinking of the defensive capacity of the walls, so he gives us the thickness of walls and towers and gate-houses. He notes the ordnance available to the city, inspects the portcullis over New Gate, laments the absence of a portcullis and ‘murdering hole’ over the castle gate. You can see a visual representation of this walled Dublin in a wonderfully detailed drawing made by the architect and writer Leonard Strangway in 1904, the city running from the castle to Usher’s Island and from Patrick Street to the river, the castle a walled and gated citadel within the city, and watching over it. You can identify the streets and imagine their inhabitants and their traffic. You can see where the butchers operated from, where the fishmongers had their stalls, where the taverns were clustered and where food was offered for sale. You can see and comprehend an entire encapsulated urban island.
Perrott is a soldier looking to the defences of a garrison town, a town which mostly dislikes him, as it happens. He pokes around and notes down his details. Maybe action was taken, maybe tradesmen were summoned to insert a proper murdering hole above the castle gate. A woodcut from John Derrick’s View of Irelande, published in London four years earlier, shows Perrott’s predecessor, Sir Henry Sidney, father of the poet, riding out of the castle gate across the bridge over the Poddle which served as the castle’s moat, his army crowding Castle Street, on his way to impose as much as he can of the queen’s will on the Irish. Just behind him, impaled on spikes above the portcullis, are the heads of three rebels whose fate is commemorated by the following admonitory lines:
Their truncles heddes do playnly showe, eache rebeles fatall end,
And what a haynous crime it is, the Queene for to offend.
In the little museum under City Hall they have made a model of this scene, adding the homely touch of a couple of citizens going about their business outside in Castle Street, paying no attention to the clatter of soldiery beside them.
I go to see a stretch of the old wall. There isn’t much left of it but what there is is impressive enough, a stretch of thick grey stone wall with buttresses and battlements, running down Cook Street at the back of St Audoen’s Church, protecting the city from, among other things, the ovens of this street of food shops and bakers. Once the Liffey came as far as here, and everything below this line is built on reclaimed land. The wall is now the boundary of St Audoen’s Park, entered here in Cook Street through the last remaining city gate set in its impressive gate tower. You can see the steps into St Audoen’s behind, but the gate itself is bleakly padlocked. I think back to John Speed’s 1610 map; the tiny city on its hill enclosed by walls and entered by gates. Walled cities exercise a strong pull on the imagination. Antiquity is part of the lure; a wall is an image of the unreachable past, it implies glamour and danger. The walls of Jericho, Uruk, York, Avila, Babylon.
There is the absolute definition of what is within, the pure zone snug behind the walls that can’t be adulterated by sprawl. There’s no need to ask where the city is, or the centre: it is unarguably here. No buses trundling from the suburbs with the mysterious, mythical destination An Lár blazoned on the front. And then there is the theatre of exit and entrance, the restrictions and tolls, the gates and gate-towers. A walled and many-gated city is a serious place, a place of prestige and danger. The walls of Dublin protected the inhabitants from the ravages of the Irish who occasionally descended from the mountains to exact their own bloody toll. Later, they become a statement of civic power and achievement: the city is that which is enclosed. It has its own charter, its own laws, its own exclusive systems and work practices, its rigid social demarcations, its closed-shop guilds and privileged merchants, its underclass of the unenfranchised and despised. There is within and there is without. The first suburbs are much more than suburbs, they are an alternative urban jurisdiction, the liberties, liberated from the writ of the city: anti-cities, in fact.
Back inside the walls the laws multiply, thought up by the municipality or shipped in from England in cargoes of parchment, written in Latin, French or English. Don’t put your dung outside the door. Cattle shall not be eviscerated beside the river. Hides not to be salted in the city. A miller who steals fourpence worth of corn shall be hanged from the beam of his own mill. Pigs are forbidden within the city walls. Even so, they continue to rampage through the archives until the end of the eighteenth century, destroying gardens, fouling streets, even, in 1601, devouring an infant. (Ian Cantwell, ‘Anthropozoological Relationships in Late Medieval Dublin’, Dublin Historical Record, Vol 13, No 3/4, , pp 79-93)
The pig-warden, whose job it is to round up illegal pigs, is also responsible for clearing beggars from the city. In 1579 this is Barnaby Rathe, bellman, master and beadle of the beggars. His main problem is less the pigs and beggars than the slippery citizens who are supposed to be paying him fourpence per house per year for his labours. After a couple of years, he asks to be relieved of the job, claiming that he can’t collect his stipend. He asks instead for a room in St John’s, the poorhouse, but the aldermen are too canny for that. He’s either very good at his job or beadles and pig-killers are hard to come by. They come back with a counter-offer: you can have the room but you have to keep the job. But it’s no use, and even the constables assigned from the various wards to help him in the execution of his duty can’t extract the necessary funds, and he eventually secures his retirement. (See TK Moylan, ‘Vagabonds and sturdy beggars: poverty, pigs and pestilence in Medieval Dublin” in Howard Clarke, ed, Medieval Dublin: The Living City, Irish Academic Press, 1990. Also, John T Gilbert, Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin, Dublin, 1907, Vol 2 pp 127, 142, 154/155). Unringed pigs snort in the records for centuries after.
You realise what a tiny place is enclosed by these walls. Many of the citizens are known by their first names: William the Clerk, Robert the Moneychanger, or by the place they originally came from: John of Notyngham, Wulfran of Bristol. Even the city charters are small, not the vast scrolls unrolled ceremoniously by heralds that you might imagine, but tiny micro-documents you could slip into a jacket pocket. Dublin’s earliest charter, issued by Henry II in 1172, was a mere 6½ inches long by 4¾ inches broad. Tiny, self-contained, rigidly hierarchical – a typical medieval town.
Apart from the cathedral, a length of wall off High Street, and the longer section behind St Audoen’s, and of course St Audoen’s itself, and the older parts of the castle and its walls, there’s not a shred of any of this left. The roads and the names, but the epicentre of the medieval city is the yellow box junction between the top of Patrick Street and Christchurch, with its constant north and southbound traffic. It’s something of a leap to banish the frenetic rush of cars and step back into the different din of the earlier city, picking your way down High Street through the mess and rubbish and the marauding pigs.
Where would someone, descended from the distant future to make a survey of Dublin’s boundaries today, begin and end? The walled city is beautifully simple; the city and its liberties and the northern stretches across the river are easily comprehensible. The later city, with its centre shifted eastward, and its broad streets and squares, is still a compact place. As is the city of Joyce. Suburbs have grown up in the nineteenth century but these themselves are distinct, satellite townships connected to but separate from the core city. But as time goes on and the car becomes the dominant form of transport and the dominant feature in the minds of planners, the core is increasingly dug out and its inhabitants deposited in newly created functional suburbs. Today, the greater city area stretches north into Meath and Kildare and south as far as Wexford in an expansion driven by developers and property values that forced people ever farther from the old boundaries. These are cyclical events, money pushing and pulling the boundaries, dispersing and collecting populations.
Yet in some respects people’s experience of the urban centre isn’t that far removed from the medieval city. They journey to the core for work or for shopping. The latter tends to be confined to Grafton Street, Henry Street and their surrounding areas, a tiny geographical area whose boundaries don’t really shift much. It’s a peculiar feature of Dublin life that no matter how much the greater urban area sprawls across the map, the area properly recognised as the city or ‘town’ stubbornly refuses to expand. There’s a kind of mental or psychic wall running from Stephen’s Green north to Parnell Street, bounded to the west by George’s Street and Capel Street and to the east by O’Connell St.
This is the area into which visitors, shoppers, suburban Dubliners pour in great numbers every day, giving it the flavour of an intense, carnival village. This is where the shops, cinemas, coffee bars, pubs and big department stores are. This is the area illuminated by lights at Christmas. This is the mysterious and semi-mystical An Lár, at which all incoming transport aims, and an area that can only effectively be traversed by foot. The limits of this city are also the limits of the pedestrian impulse. I remember how much of a challenge it was, when I worked in a cultural institution in Parnell Square, to lure people that far north for an event, yet Parnell Square lies at the top of the city’s largest thoroughfare, O’Connell Street. It was as if the Gate Theatre, on Cavendish Row, represented the limits of the tolerable city after seven o’clock and a portcullis snapped shut outside the Rotunda, prohibiting any further northward progress. There was a certain amount of class prejudice embedded in that, but it’s hard to imagine the equivalent distances in any other city generating the same unease.
People who live in big cities think nothing of traversing them constantly for work or play, but they have the subway, the Métro, the underground, the subte, to do it with. But Dublin is still a medieval town at heart, it doesn’t really matter how big it gets, how far it sprawls, it still vests its sense of itself in the same historic core, the locus of its informal as well as its ceremonial life, the stage on which it acts out the drama of itself. Those whose families were exiled from the centre during the slum clearances of the last century still retain strong ties with the city areas their families moved from. The centre, and the districts to the east and west of it, are now full of new apartment buildings, and new generations of city dwellers will develop a strong relationship with the area between the canals. The suburbs are awash with shopping centres, coffee shops, restaurants, offering increasing competition to the centre, but they can never be really self-contained. The core of a lot of newer suburbs is a shopping mall, safe, secure, soulless. Nothing that we have built in a century has managed to house the urban soul, which is why we hunger for the centre, why we take the bus into town, looking for the point at which the buildings and the accelerated life of the streets tell us we have arrived.
Perrott is busy making himself enemies. A man of violent temper, enmity comes easily to him, and he has a habit of attacking his associates. He decides that he wants to get his hands on the funds of St Patrick’s Cathedral to endow a couple of colleges, earning the undying hostility of the archbishop, Adam Loftus. Drink didn’t help. On one occasion, in the council chamber, he struck Sir Nicholas Bagenal, the elderly knight marshal. Eventually he is replaced, and when he gets back to England his many enemies there are waiting to plot against him and ensure his ruin. The account of the circuit of the walls seems too calm, too disinterested a work to come from the hand of this rash and impulsive man. How likely is it that he did it? He would certainly have conceived and ordered it, but maybe it was some minion who actually walked around and took down the details.
From Cook Street the walls would have continued through what are now the bunkers of Dublin City Council on Wood Quay. The wall was in fact discovered during excavations when the offices were being built, after widespread protests against the destruction of an important Viking site. The original plan was to demolish the wall and store it somewhere else but in the end it was left on the site. The wall is now part of the new Wood Quay Venue but I discover when I go to see it that it has been incorporated into a private space for hire. There is a viewing platform on the upper level, part of a multimedia exhibition on the city, but when I go to that the blinds have been drawn as a meeting is in progress in the room with the wall. It is only available to view when there are no meetings and the security guards are unable to tell me when that is likely to be. The only way to get a close view of the wall with its stones numbered in preparation for the cancelled demolition, is to hire the room. Unless you have a purpose and a Powerpoint presentation, the wall is off limits. The guardians of the city, having built the wall to repel intruders and then smothered this part of it with its colossal bunkers, now exacts a toll from any of its citizens who want to examine it. I shake my head at the polite Eastern European guards, leave the museum, and continue on my circuit of the mostly vanished walls.
When I lived in the area I always felt a psychic connection with its past; I was excited by the sense of the multiple layers of the streets, and by the various excavations that were being conducted at the time. The simple physical experience of walking through these streets was a link with everyone else who had walked them down the centuries. I felt somehow brushed by that past, implicated in it. It’s hard to explain, exactly, but it seems to me that this constant murmuring from the past is one of the gifts of old cities. Dublin’s past is, like that of many cities, complicated and cantankerous; many cities are embedded in it, many prejudices and factions, many exclusions. Perrott’s circuit of the walls, whether personal or virtual, is a small reminder that for centuries it was a bastion of colonial privilege, designed to keep the natives out. Another city has long since arrived at the gates of the old and completely submerged it. Yet all the stages of the city require our attention. Living in a city is a relationship with what’s not there as well as what is, with the demolished and buried as well as the brightly flourishing.
Now and again, the citizens come out to assert their rights to their past. One of the most spectacular examples was the struggle over Wood Quay, which brought more than twenty thousand to the streets. It might seem astonishing, given the level of the protests, that the Corporation nonetheless went ahead and built the Civic Offices on the prime site of Viking Dublin, but the civic bureaucracy moved, like all bureaucracies, with unstoppable force, impervious to argument. The historical geographer Anngret Simms remembers giving guided tours of Wood Quay during the summer of 1977, ‘when thousands of people walked on the medieval stone wall and glimpsed for the first time the physical origins of their city. . . as a settlement along the waterfront’. Her worst memory of the site was October 1980, when she walked with some students up Fishamble Street and found that ‘the medieval stone wall was being dismantled by a group of building workers, and bulldozers were moving on ground that, a short time before, had held the fabric of the first streets and houses of Dublin. The anger of the students was intense, probably because they instinctively realised that in a democratic society the preservation or neglect of historical monuments reflects fairly closely the cultural consciousness of that society.’
Thousands of people had come, unexpectedly, to find out about the origins of their city. No one had anticipated the level of public interest in the archaeology of Wood Quay, or the strength of the opposition to the city’s intent to build its tower blocks on the site. Anngret Simms felt strongly that ‘the national monument in the core of medieval Dublin should have been preserved as a symbol of the continuity of human purpose in the city’. That seems to me to be the key, the human continuity of the city. In all sorts of surprising ways, people discover that the past, even, or especially, the remote past, is important to them.
This is the case even, or especially, when the past seems to have vanished. I was standing outside the apartment building in Christchurch Place recently, about to visit friends, when a tourist asked me the way to ‘the Viking Quarter’. The visitor, to whom the past is most energetically marketed, expects it to be visible. The Vikings and their quarter have long vanished beneath the city and all I can do is make a sweeping gesture with my hands to indicate the geographical area where the disappeared past took place, and, of course, direct the tourist to where it is recreated as a consumer ‘experience’, to the Civic Museum or ‘Dublinia’ with its ghoulish exhibits and kitsch concoctions. In a city which has outlived its past and carelessly swept it aside, the past has to be kitsch, has to be a virtual product peddled for small change. For the citizens, though, the past is internalised, it lies quiescent somewhere in the back of the brain like a hidden map or an unused language until it’s pulled to the front by an unexpected event or a threat of extinction; we know, and are, maybe, vaguely comforted by the fact that there’s more beneath our feet than the pavement of the present.
This blog was first published in October 2019. Peter Sirr’s stimulating reflections on Dublin’s history was published as a book, Intimate City (Gallery), in 2021.