Although archeological evidence shows the Dublin area was previously inhabited by the Gaels, it was the Vikings that put the city on the map of Ireland in 841 when they established their first stronghold at the mouth of the River Liffey. As the Kingdom of Dublin grew, it became Ireland’s principal Norse settlement — until the 12th century Anglo-Norman invasion of the island. This watershed marked the beginning of more than 800 years of direct English involvement in the country’s history, and left an indelible stamp on what is today the vibrant, cosmopolitan capital of Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral
My exploration of Dublin’s historical sites begins with the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which from everything I have heard of its origins and evolution, seems a striking metaphor for the city’s past. First, a small wooden sanctuary, was constructed on the site in the 5th century AD, near the well where Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is believed to have baptized Irish converts. The church as it stands now was built as a Roman Catholic cathedral between 1191 and 1270. In 1311, the College of Dublin was founded here and the cathedral became a place of higher education as well as a place of worship.
In 1537 however, following the English Reformation, when the Church of England broke from the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Patrick became designated as an Anglican Church of Ireland and has remained a part of the Church of Ireland to this day. It is also considered one of the best examples of medieval architecture still standing in the Irish capital — Although it is fair to note that the structure went through massive reconstructions and alterations over time, including the addition of the tallest spire in the country in 1749, and a major rebuilding in the 1860’s.
Throughout its convoluted history, Saint Patrick’s accumulated a wealth of artefacts of artistic and historical significance, from marble statues, steles and relief portraits to stained glass. The best known are the tomb of Anglo-Irish writer and satirist Jonathan Swift, who was dean of the cathedral from 1713 to 1745, and the 17th century tomb of the Boyle family. The later, by far the most impressive, is a multi-tiered statuary family tree erected in 1632 at the west end of the Cathedral by Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, for himself, his wife and family. Smaller mementos are dedicated to Turlough O’Carolan (famous 18th century blind harpist and composer) and Douglas Hyde (first President of Ireland, 1938 to 1945).
Founded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth’s, or Trinity College for short, is the only college of the University of Dublin. It is to this day widely regarded as the finest university in the country. While its prestigious history makes it an impressive place to wander around and visit, its most popular attractions by far is the Old Library, also known as the Long Room.
Built between 1712 and 1732, the Long Room holds 200,000 of the library’s oldest books. Its stunning barrel ceiling was added in 1860 to allow space for more works when the existing shelves became full. Marble busts of famous philosophers and writers, created by sculptor Peter Schemakers beginning in 1743, line the central walkway of the nearly 200-foot-long room. Taking pride of place in the center aisle it the 15th century wooden harp which is the model for the emblem of Ireland.
The Book of Kells
By far the most famous holding of the library, however, is an extraordinary illuminated manuscript known as the Book of Kells. Decorated with lavish Celtic and Christian iconography, its distinctive designs have become rooted in Irish identity. It is considered one of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures, Thought to have been created around 800 AD by Christian monks on the Isle of Iona in Scotland, it is composed of the four gospels, hand-transcribed on vellum. It is named for the monastery at Kells, County Meath, where the monks took refuge after a Viking raid and which became the manuscript’s home for centuries before coming to Trinity College in 1661, for safekeeping after the Cromwellian raids on religious institutions. It has been on display here since the 19th century.
Dublin Castle is one of the most important buildings in Irish history. First founded by King John of England in 1204 to defend the city and administer the new territories in Ireland, it was completed by 1230.The fortress was of typical Norman design, with a central courtyard protected on all sides by tall defensive walls and a circular tower at each corner. It remained the seat of English rule in Ireland until 1922, serving as the residence of the British monarch’s representative, the Viceroy (a.k.a. Lord Lieutenant) of Ireland, and as a ceremonial and administrative center.
The castle evolved considerably throughout the centuries, and although parts of the original fortress still exist, most of the current complex dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, including the State Rooms, which are still used for official state engagements. In 1922, following Ireland’s independence, Dublin Castle was handed over to the new Irish government. It is now a major government complex and a key tourist attraction.
Beneath the northeast corner of the lower castle yard, excavations have uncovered parts of the structure of the medieval castle. These include remains of original Viking defenses, a section of which was integrated within the massive circular walls of the 13th century Powder Tower. Built around 1228 and used to store gun powder, the tower had an interior diameter of six meters (20 feet) surrounded by four meters (13 feet) thick limestone walls. Stone steps cut through the medieval stone wall to allow access to the Castle from the narrow moat that surrounded it, are also visible to visitors.
Designed by Francis Johnston (1760–1829), the foremost architect working in Ireland in the early 19th century, the chapel contains one of the finest Gothic revival interiors in the country. It served as the official Church of Ireland chapel of the Household of the Lord Lieutenant from 1814 until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, which terminated the office of Lord Lieutenant and ended British rule in most of Ireland. In 1943, the chapel was reconsecrated as a Catholic place of worship and rededicated as the Church of the Most Holy Trinity.
The stunning organ case was constructed in 1857 to house a new organ by William Telford of Dublin, which replaced an earlier instrument. Although the case was restored in 2008, the organ is no longer playable as the pipework and mechanisms have been removed.
The State Apartments were originally constructed as residential and public quarters for the Lord Lieutenant. As such, these elegant Georgian rooms were at the heart of the Anglo-Irish social life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today they are only used for major state occasions such as the inauguration of new Presidents, and during the Irish presidency of the European Union.
Saint Patrick’s Hall — One of the greatest ceremonial rooms in the country, it was created in the mid-18th century as the castle’s ballroom. Its exquisite ceilings painted in 1788 by Italian artist Vincenzo Waldré can still be admired today. The hall was for many years the meeting place of the Knights of St Patrick, Ireland’s chivalric order of knights whose flags still adorn its walls.
State Drawing Room — Created in 1838, it was used mainly by the Vicereine (wife of the Viceroy) as a formal sitting room, and for holding audiences with Irish courtiers. Today the room houses one of the most significant paintings in the Dublin Castle collection, a portrait by leading 17th century European portraitist, Sir Anthony Van Dyck. The room is still used by the President of Ireland for the reception of visiting dignitaries.
The Portrait Gallery —This room takes its name from the collection of portraits of Irish Viceroys that have hung on its walls since 1849. The room’s main function was as a dining room where State dinners were held. It continues to be used for State receptions by the Irish government today.
Good to Know
- Getting There —Dublin is easy to reach by plane, via regularly scheduled flights from around the world into Dublin Airport. It can also be reached via ferries from England, France, the Netherlands and Belgium.
- Getting Around — Central Dublin is fairly compact and is best explored by a combination of walking and public transportation. The city has a good public transports network which includes buses, trams and rail services (for going outside the city center).
- Visiting — Saint Patrick’s Cathedral , St Patrick Close, Dublin 8, is open to visitors year-round, Monday through Saturday from 9:30 to 17:00 and Sundays from 9:00 to 10:30 and 13:00 to 14:30. Trinity College Long Room and The Book of Kells, College Green, Dublin 2, is open April through September, Monday through Saturday from 8:30 to 17:00 and Sunday from, 9:30 to 17:00, and October through March, Monday through Saturday, 9:30 to 17:00 and Sunday from 12:00 to 16:30. Dublin Castle, Dame Street 2, Dublin 2, is open every day year-round from 9:45 to 17:45.