Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2023), Reviews, Volume 31


National Monuments Service
ISBN 9781446880715

Reviewed by John Gibney

No Caption Available

Dublin Castle is arguably the most symbolic building, or complex of buildings, on the island of Ireland. For many nationalists and republicans in the early years of the twentieth century, however, that symbolism was of a particular kind. Eamon Broy of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, who provided information to the IRA during the War of Independence, later summed it up bluntly: ‘Dublin Castle’, he recalled, was ‘believed by the people to be the centre and focus of all that was evil and secret and sinister’.

Broy was referring to the fact that since its foundation in the Middle Ages Dublin Castle had been the home of the English/British administrations that governed Ireland. It has nestled at the heart of Dublin City since the twelfth century, though there may have been a stronghold of some kind on or near the site from the Norse era onwards. Soon after the first English conquest, a fortification was built on the site of the current castle in the 1170s, on elevated ground alongside the feature that gave Dublin its name: the Dubh Linn, or black pool, formed by the meeting of the rivers Liffey and Poddle. In 1204 King John, as ‘lord of Ireland’, ordered the construction of what became Dublin Castle to secure control of the largest and most important settlement on the island of Ireland. It was physically transformed from the seventeenth century onwards, following a devastating fire in 1684 during which parts of the structure were deliberately blown up to avoid greater destruction. This prompted the Earl of Arran (the acting viceroy) to note that King Charles II had lost little more than ‘six barrels of gunpowder, and the worst castle in the worst situation in Christendom’. In the following decades Dublin Castle changed beyond recognition, and that physical transformation is the subject of this large and lavish volume, the first instalment in a projected three-volume set.

Relatively little of the medieval fabric remains visible above ground today, but Dublin Castle was always a relatively modest affair when compared to other buildings in Britain or across the (former) British Empire that exemplified imperial power. Some visitors in later centuries were certainly underwhelmed by its appearance. In 1909 the nationalist journalist and historian Richard Barry O’Brien wrote that ‘physically it is not a castle at all … In fact, the thing is more like a barrack than a castle’. One might say that he got the point. British rule in Ireland rested on conquest and Dublin Castle, relatively modest as it was, encapsulated British political and military power in Ireland; it was a castle, after all. In the first meaningful depiction of it, in one of the famous woodcuts found in John Derricke’s The image of Ireland (1580), the Tudor viceroy Sir Henry Sidney rides out of the castle at the head of an army (with a few severed heads adorning the gate behind him). The castle housed a garrison throughout its history and was used to imprison enemies of the British regimes over the centuries, perhaps most famously Aodh Ruadh Ó Domhnaill (Red Hugh O’Donnell), who escaped from captivity there in December 1591. In the aftermath of the 1798 rising Jonah Barrington described ‘a new, disgusting and horrid scene’, as the ‘mutilated carcasses’ of prisoners executed following the suppression of the United Irishmen’s rebellion were laid out in the castle yard. Rebellions and insurgencies from 1641 onwards—including the Easter Rising of 1916—often came with an unsuccessful subplot that involved an attempt to capture Dublin Castle, and even during the War of Independence it was fortified once again, becoming a claustrophobic citadel under de facto siege. On another level, the castle had played a role at the centre of élite social life in Ireland, with the round of balls and entertainments that revolved around the viceregal court from the early modern period onward.

Above all, however, Dublin Castle was an administrative centre. The complex was largely hidden from view behind the surrounding streetscape within a bustling area that had been built up on what was once the edge of the old city. But Dublin Castle was important because political, security and financial policies evolved there, and the decisions that followed on from them were made there. At some point, as Broy noted, its name became shorthand for those decisions, though this was not necessarily a compliment. In 1907 even Augustine Birrell, the recently appointed chief secretary for Ireland, spoke in Westminster of a ‘system’ of government ‘which is called, more conveniently than accurately, Dublin Castle’. It was, as he realised, a synonym for British rule in Ireland—or, as many would see it, British misrule. Having been described by the Irish Independent in 1922 as a ‘hotbed of bureaucracy, tyranny, reaction’, Dublin Castle soon came into the possession of the new Irish state and its administrative, if not governmental, functions continue into the present, along with an adapted version of its traditional ceremonial role; as pointed out by former taoiseach Micheál Martin in his foreword, the castle remains a key venue for the state, and continues to house myriad official and civil functions—EU presidencies and tribunals of inquiry come to mind—which, in a way, give rise to this series in more ways than one. Thanks to this ongoing significance, Dublin Castle is now, in publishing terms, getting the royal treatment.

The views of O’Brien and Broy lie outside the chronological range of this volume, which is the first in a series of three being published under the auspices of the National Monuments Services and under the overall editorship of Ann Lynch and Conleth Manning. The second and third volumes will focus respectively on the Viking and medieval/post-medieval archaeological heritage of the castle, as revealed in multiple excavations between the 1960s and 1980s arising from the necessity to renovate the castle into a State building fit for purpose. This first volume is intended to provide a historical overview and backdrop to these and extends from the Middle Ages to 1850, when the castle as it exists today had largely taken shape, and presumably will be the one that is of most interest to a general audience. It is a very serious and scholarly publication with exceptional production values, written with authority, lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced. At the outset it is admitted that political, social and cultural history—all of which is of great relevance to the history of the castle—will play second fiddle to architectural history, especially in the later stages of the book. Does this mean that the book is too specialised for its own good? Perhaps, but there is a place for the specialised study, and this is a very accessible and attractive example of one.

There are three chapters. The first, by Seán Duffy, brings the story from the origins of Dublin up to the end of the sixteenth century. Despite the warning about the preponderance of architectural history, Duffy’s assured narrative covers far more than just the construction of the castle, beginning with an overview of the physical, social and political origins of Dublin and the activities of various warring ‘heathens’ and other invaders. This chapter is perhaps more of a history of Dublin than of the castle and is all the better for it. It reveals a great deal about political and social life in medieval Dublin, through a meticulous and insightful interrogation of written and archaeological sources. The tone and approach are quite distinct from what follows, perhaps because the evidential basis is different—visual sources are relatively scanty when compared to the later chapters—and because of its reliance on archaeological evidence, which, by its nature, is focused on what did not survive above ground.

The subsequent chapters do not have to worry about this, and as a result are more lavishly illustrated—and the illustrations throughout the text, many of them unfamiliar, are obviously the work of much research, selected judiciously and reproduced superbly—and take a more thematic approach. John Montague’s detailed account of the period up to 1684 tackles the history of the castle in terms of specified categories of buildings and structures. In doing so he sheds a great deal of light on aspects of life in and around Dublin Castle, from entertainment to imprisonment and defence, which by extension offers a window into life in early modern Dublin and Ireland. All three chapters offer exemplary close readings of archaeological, written and visual evidence; they are masterful expositions of the practical use of such evidence and are worth reading for that alone (and the book also serves as a testament to the many obscure figures who shaped this iconic set of buildings, such as Sir William Robinson and Thomas Eyre). 

The terminal date for Montague is 1684, which is the key date in the history of the castle owing to the fire which destroyed much of the ‘worst castle … in Christendom’. There may have been a touch of hyperbole here; the book comes with a very useful appendix of various contemporary accounts of the castle, one of which is by Robert Ware, who in 1678 contradicted what Arran claimed six years later by describing the castle as a ‘citadel well fortified against all emergencies being as commodious for its own defence as it is convenient to succour the city’. Mutterings about the construction of a brand-new castle after the destruction of 1684 came to naught, though the rebuilding that did take place was overshadowed by contemporary buildings such as the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham. The protracted reconstruction that came after 1684 is the subject of the third, longest and most richly illustrated chapter, by Kevin Mulligan and Michael O’Neill. This also takes a thematic approach for the most part, demarcated by individual structures and buildings, and covers the era in which Dublin Castle as we know it today took shape.

Given that the castle does not resemble what one might expect a traditional fortified castle to look like, it is notable that in the early 1700s it was to retain a military dimension, while after Robert Emmet’s rebellion in 1803 security was beefed up again (notably with the creation of the ‘Castle Steps’ between Castle Street and Ship Street), though the Gothic extravagance of the Chapel Royal overshadows the security features that date from the same era. In this third chapter more ‘general’ history has been squeezed out by the necessity to do justice to the history of the complex itself; the administrative, social, cultural and political history is perhaps less evident than in the earlier chapters, though perhaps the subsequent volumes can address this from a different angle.

It would be unfortunate for the rest of the series, with its focus on archaeology, to adopt an overly specialised and technical approach; time will tell. In the meantime, this is an accessible and illuminating account of the development of Dublin Castle that can be read intensively or dipped into as required and should appeal to a wide audience.

John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy project and author of Best of Dublin: a guide to city and county (O’Brien Press, 2023).


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