Dublin Castle, located in the south city centre, has been the centre of the British occupation of Ireland since 1171 until 1921 (and even after that, some would say).The site offers one-hour guided tours to the public for much of the day, at approximately an hour apart, seven days a week and last year claimed a visitor total of nearly half a million. As a Dubliner interested in history and a walking tour guide, I was well overdue to take an official guided tour of the place, which I did recently.
Overall the State Rooms Tour was interesting and I did learn some things but I was also aware of many gaps. Was this unavoidable in a tour of one hour covering more than eleven hundred years (given that Viking Dublin was also covered) of history? Of course – but in the choices of what to leave out, was there an ideology at play, one that sought to diminish the repressive history of the institution and the struggle against it?
The first presentation to us by the tour guide was of Viking Dublin, the settlement of which took place in the 7th Century. The Vikings had a confrontational occupation of England but this had not been the case here, we were told – the Vikings settled amongst us, intermarried, introduced personal and family names, place-names, etc.
Well, somehow the tour spiel had ignored the many battles between the Vikings and the natives in Ireland even after the settlement in Dublin (and other areas), leading up the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014, fought on what is now the north side of Dublin city. The 12-hour battle was important enough to be recorded elsewhere in Europe and in a Viking saga. Yes, it had also been an inter-Irish battle, in particular between the King of Leinster and the High King of Ireland but Viking Dublin played an important part, as did Viking allies and mercenaries from Manx and the Orkneys – and its result had ended forever any possibility of a Viking takeover of Ireland.
A noticeable gap in Irish-Viking history of Dublin to omit it, one might say.
Nevertheless, the tour guide gave us interesting information about the Viking settlement and a map showed an artist’s impression of how it would have looked.
Down in the base of what had been the Powder Tower, it was interesting to see the stone work, to hear the guide talk about the foundation of the Viking wall below us and how the cement used to bind the stones was a mixture of sand, oxblood, horsehair and eggshells. To me it was also interesting to see the stone course lines of one pointed arch above a curved one but unsure what I was looking at — and we were a big group, the tour guide some distance away to ask.
Down below the walkway, where water lay on the ground a couple of inches deep, some green plant was growing in the lights illuminating the work. This was above the route of the Poddle, I supposed, which once fed the Linn Dubh (black pool) and which now runs underneath Castle and city before emptying into the Liffey.
“BEYOND THE PALE”
The Normans reached Dublin in 1171 after landing in Wexford in 1169, our guide informed us but we were not told that in the process they defeated Irish resistance and the Dublin Vikings and, most curiously, there was no mention of the Pale. That would have been an interesting explanation to visitors of the origin of the expression “beyond the Pale” and what it implied1.
The guide did tell us later in the St. Patrick’s Hall (the State banquet room) that the paintings on the ceiling were to demonstrate to the Irish that all the civilising influences had come from the English to the Irish savages, that if the Irish were now civilised, their ranking was definitely below the English.
That might have been an appropriate time to mention of the Statutes of Killkenny 1366, nearly two centuries after the Norman invasion and how the Irish Normans had, outside Dublin, adopted ‘uncivilised’ Gaelic tongue, custom and even law, so that their cousins in England were now calling them “the degenerate English” who had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.
If the English Reformation got a mention I must have missed it but certainly there was nothing said about the imposition of the new religion on Ireland, colonists and natives alike and the many wars that resulted. Anglicanism had become the religion of the English State, with its monarch at the head of the Church but none of the Irish natives and most of the colonists did not wish to adopt that religion. So it led to many uprisings, first notably from the Irish Normans (Gall-Ghael), then by the Irish and a number of major wars, including the Cromwellian and Williamite ones, also to the Penal Laws. That State religion was the reason that Elizabeth I had founded Trinity College, so that the sons of the colonists would be educated in the “true faith”. Religion had been used by the coloniser to try to undermine unity among the inhabitants of Ireland and had been employed to physically divide the island in 1922, which had also led to a much more recent war of nearly three decades.
The Reformation and its effects seemed a quite significant portion to leave out of Irish history in general and of Dublin history in particular.
As the Castle had briefly been acknowledged as being, among other things, a prison, it seemed strange to omit the escape after four years of captivity of Red Hugh O’Donnel and two O’Neill brothers in 1592 — particularly so since the whole experience had left O’Donnell with a seething hatred of the English occupation which only ended years later in a poisoned death in Spain at the hands of an English agent. Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill, as he was known then to most of Ireland (and Scotland), fought the English occupation from 1591 to 1602. Apart from being an important part of the Castle’s history one would have thought it would make an exciting and interesting story for tourists.
However, the story was omitted – but then so were the tortures carried out in the Castle, the severed heads erected on spikes on Castle walls and, although it was said that it took the English 400 years to conquer the rest of Ireland, this was apparently because “there were no roads and there were lots of bogs”!
Commenting on later medieval Dublin city, the guide told us about the many diseases that were endemic, due to lack of sanitation in the city, along with blood-letting being the major medical treatment. It was strange that she did not mention the effects of the Black Death or Bubonic Plaque, which travelled through Ireland in 1634. The plague, carried by fleas on the black rat, affecting almost alone the city populations, almost wiped out the English colony in Ireland.
IRISH WOOD, FAKE STONE COLUMNS
In the Chapel, the guide pointed out the names and coats of arms on each side as being those of Lord Lieutenants of Ireland, i.e the representatives of the English monarch in governing Ireland. There were of course no native Irish names among them and few even of the Gall-Ghael.
One that took my attention, near the doorway, was that of Cornwallis, dated 1798. Lord Cornwallis (“Cornwall’” in the traditional ballad The Croppy Boy) was in charge of the suppression of the United Irishmen uprising in 1798, at which he was successful but less so in the Thirteen Colonies of North America, which he lost to rebellious colonists, some of whom were relatives and friends of the beaten republicans in Ireland.
In response to an enquiry as to whether there were any questions, I asked who were represented by the sculpted heads along the chapel wall on the outside. Some represented Christian saints and some kings, such as Brian Boru2, she replied. Is there a list available of who they all are? No, I was told, only of some of them and I could consult that later.
Amazingly, only the floor and walls in the chapel were stone. The columns, she told us, were Irish oak plastered over to look like stone.
MONARCHS AND PRESIDENTS
In her introduction to the tour, our guide had informed us that Lords, Kings, Queens and Presidents had visited the Castle. The creation of the role of President in the 1937 Constitution, she told us later, had been to replace that of the English Monarch. I had not been aware of that. She told us that he commanded the Army, which was news to me too (or I had forgotten) and it turns out to be true, though more so in form than in substance for, as she informed us, real power is vested in the Taoiseach (Prime Minister).
In the Throne Room we were told that Queen Victoria had visited Ireland 1n 1849 and had to be lifted up to the Throne, as she was so small (bit of a deflater for the lines in the “Monto” song!3).
In her visit to Ireland the guide told us, the Monarch had been shocked by the scenes of hunger during the “Famine” (the Great Hunger) and that aid to the starving improved after her visit. Well, perhaps but the effects of the Great Hunger were covered in newspapers and appeals long before 1849 and the worst of the holocaust was over before then, the statistics of which the guide gave us; in our folk history Victoria is referred to as “the Famine Queen”.
The guide made much of the fact that Queen Elizabeth II (who might be known in a republic as: “Ms. Elizabeth Windsor”), had visited the Castle, had spoken in Irish at the reception banquet and how this was the first time an English monarch had spoken English at a State occasion, though Elizabeth I she told us knew a few Irish phrases.4 The guide attached no little importance to Elizabeth I’s gesture and to the whole visit as an act of reconciliation and we know that no less than the Irish President at the time, Mary Mac Aleese, had looked around mouthing “Wow!” when the monarch spoke five words in Irish: “A Uachtaráin agus a chairde … (“President and friends” …).
Such is the sycophancy of the Castle Irish mentality, that five words in the native language of a country being visited by a head of a foreign state should evoke such wonder and gratitude in their hearts. Forgetting that the very colonial regime of that state had for centuries worked to stamp out that language, barring it from all public arenas and educational institutions. One must wonder that a monarch whose armed forces are in occupation of one-sixth of the nation’s territory should be so honoured by the head of this state and other dignitaries from the areas of politics and visual, written and performing arts!5
I could have commented that during the Monarch’s visit, huge areas of the city centre had been barred to traffic by the police force of this “republic” in a huge negation of civil liberties; that police had been taking down posters against the visit and ripping even Irish tricololour flags from the hands of protester to stuff them in rubbish bins and truck; that Dublin City Council workmen had been removing anti-Royal graffiti while workers’ housing estates had been waiting for years for a cleanup service.
Guiding a small Latin American tour through the Castle grounds a few days before the scheduled banquet-reception, we were accosted by secret police who required us to state and prove our identities, state our reasons for being there (!) and the tour group to hand over their cameras for the agents to scroll through their histories. And the agents seemed surprised when I failed to agree with them that their actions had been reasonable.
I could have said that during Elizabeth Windsor’s reception banquet I had been with others in Thomas Street protesting her Castle reception and that at the corner with Patrick Street, we had been prevented by lines of riot Gardai from proceeding any further – not out of concern for her security but so that Her Majesty should not even hear any sound or see anything to disturb the serenity of her visit.
I did not say any of that – I still had a tour to finish and, besides, no doubt this is the Castle Tour Discourse, not to be blamed on one guide.
We were shown too the two banquet halls, the original and the one for state visits nowadays as the original was “too small”.6 And the sights of hunger outside the Castle walls in 1849 had not seemed to intrude on the guests enjoying the five-course meal served at Victoria’s welcoming banquet.
Seeming somewhat out of place, there was also an exhibition of Irish painting of the modernist school.
Portraits of the Presidents of the Irish State lined the corridor through which we passed to St. Patrick’s Hall (also the Irish State banquet room) and I could not help but contemplate that of the nine Presidents to date, one had been a founder of an organisation banned by the British occupation, another two had been soldiers against the British occupation but had since taken part in the suppression of their erstwhile comrades.
Another was the son of an Englishman who became an Irish Republican and was executed by the Irish state and another had resigned after being insulted in the Dáil by a Minister of the Government.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, nothing was said about any of that, either.
NO CASTLE CATHOLICS OR COPS?
Coming into more modern times, the I916 Rising got a reference, unsurprisingly as a detachment of the Irish Citizen Army had besieged the Castle for a couple of days, mostly from the nearby City Hall; the ICA’s leader, ironically, had been brought a wounded prisoner from Moore Street and treated in the Castle too. That was James Connolly and he was mentioned — though the ICA was not, nor were we informed that he was a revolutionary socialist. We were told we could visit the room named after him in which he had been held and treated on a bed there. After the end of the guided tour I went there and although it was an experience to enter the room of course the actual display was disappointingly sparse.
As headquarters of the British occupation of Ireland and necessarily of repression of resistance, the Castle always had soldiers stationed or passing through there. But it also held a police force, the secret service of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Usually unarmed with more than a truncheon up until 1916, the uniformed DMP maintained order and bourgeois public morality in Dublin but also repressed public resistance to the British occupation. Not only sex workers and drunks were arrested but so were singers of patriotic ballads, protesters and public speakers. During times of Fenian activity, the DMP also worked to counter the influence of Irish patriots in the city and the plain-clothes G Division was created in 1874 to recruit informers and hunt down active Fenians.
A section of the Fenians were however prepared to counter this with assassinations of informers, some DMP and attempts on the lives of senior DMP officials in the city7 during the mid 19th Century. In the early years of the 20th Century it was G Division which also spied on activists in the trade union and labour movement, nationalists, republicans, the Irish language movement and suffragettes and it was they who identified Irish insurgent prisoners captured by the British Army in 1916, ensuring the death sentence for many (though 14 were eventually executed in Dublin).
The DMP, mostly the uniformed officers, could in fact be credited with being the inspiration to form the Irish Citizen Army: the vicious and sometimes murderous attacks of the DMP on workers’ assemblies during the 1913 Dublin Lockout had decided James Connolly and Jim Larkin to call for the creation of the workers’ militia. During the Rising, it seems that three DMP were shot dead, all by members of the ICA, one of them being at the Dublin Castle entrance.
On Bloody Sunday 1920, during the War of Independence, two IRA officers and an Irish language enthusiast prisoners were tortured and killed in Dublin Castle by police, including the specially-recruited terrorists of the Auxiliary Division. In order to cover up their actions, the police staged photos which they claimed depicted the prisoners not properly guarded and then jumping their guards to seize their weapons, which is how they came by their deaths, according to the cover story.
Soon after that, G Division detectives were being killed in various parts of the city by Collins’ Squad and the Dublin IRA. In fact, a number of the officers and of British Army spies took up residence in the Castle itself, for protection.
After the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, the independence movement split and in the following Civil War (1922-1923) the repression of the continuing resistance was mostly the work of the Irish National Army. However, when the Irish police force was established, the Gardaí Síochána, their Special Branch detectives were again based in Dublin Castle,8 though they are based elsewhere now.
Since there was no mention of any this on our tour, a significant part of Castle history was being omitted.
CASTLE CATHOLIC IDEOLOGY?
There existed during the British occupation a social group — or perhaps more than one — that in the commentary of most Irish, perhaps, were referred to as “Castle Catholics”. This was not a reference to Catholics who owned a castle but to those of the native and Norman-Irish stock, i.e nearly all Catholics who, while maintaining their religion, bowed to the English occupation in everything else. And particularly the more elevated echelons among that group, for whom attendance at functions in the Castle were the high point of their social calendars and indeed their lives. Ag sodar i ndiaidh na n-uaisle9, as the Irish have it in their native tongue.
With some exceptions, I thought the tour and commentary, although interesting and of course catering to the expectations of foreign tourists, had more than a little of “Castle Catholic” or, better said, “Castle Irish” to it.
And it therefore lost a lot in the telling.
1Effectively an English anti-Irish racist term: “The Pale” referred at first to the areas enclosed by the Normans by an earthworks surmounted by a wooden palisade, i.e the area of colonist control. “Beyond the Pale” were the areas still under control of the Irish clans, uncivilised in the viewpoint of the colonists and the expression survives in English today to describe something as being a horror.
2A missed opportunity to mention the Battle of Clontarf and the defeat of the Dublin Viking and Irish Leinster forces!
3“The Queen she came to call on us,
She wanted to see all of us;
I’m glad she didn’t fall on us,
She’s eighteen stone! ….”
4Apparently Elizabeth I had a fair bit of linguistic ability, being fluent in English, Latin and French. It is believed by some that she knew more than a few phrases of Irish, having been taught by a tutor she recruited.
5Among them were the musicians The Chieftains and the poet laureate Heaney who had, some decades earlier written that “no glass was ever raised in our house to an English King or Queen”!
6There were 172 dinner guests at the banquet to welcome Elizabeth I of the UK.
7For a good atmospheric account of the struggle between the two forces, see The Shadow of the Brotherhood – the Temple Bar shootings by Barry Kennerc, Mercer (2010)
8An Irish Republican ballad of the early 1970s based on an earlier song had it thus:
“Oh the Special Branch in Dublin,
They’re something for to see:
They crawl out from the Castle
To inform on you and me.
But the day is coming soon me boys
And the rifles they will bark –
And the only snakes in Dublin
Will be up in Phoenix Park!”
(i.e in Dublin Zoo(
9“Trotting after the nobles.”
REFERENCES AND LINKS:
Dublin Castle OPW: http://www.dublincastle.ie/
Tour times and prices: http://www.dublincastle.ie/tickets-and-times/
What the British Queen said: https://www.thejournal.ie/%E2%80%9Ca-uachtarain-agus-a-chairde%E2%80%9D-%E2%80%93-queen-offers-%E2%80%9Csincere-sympathy%E2%80%9D-to-victims-of-anglo-irish-conflict-139244-May2011/