Notes on Dublin

Anton Howes
Sep 15 · 3 min read

I’m just back from a week-long trip to Dublin — my first time in Ireland. A few things I learned, one for each place I visited:

  • From the National Museum of Ireland’s archaeology section: in the Bronze Age, it seems that a way of swearing fealty to a king was to ritually suck their nipples. Some bodies found preserved in bogs had their nipples deeply cut, suggesting that they were perhaps deposed kings or rejected heirs to the throne.
  • From the Book of Kells exhibit in Trinity College Dublin: the word “miniature” apparently comes from the dye used to colour them, not their size. It’s derived from the Latin word for the pigment, red lead, which is minium.
  • From St Michan’s Church: the bodies and tomb effigies of crusading knights are said to have their legs crossed. (Upon getting home, however, further research reveals that this is probably a myth, though an old one. It was commonly believed as early as the late sixteenth century).
  • Sorrento Point, in Killiney just south of Dublin, is said to have “the finest view west of Naples” — apparently attributed to H.G. Wells, though I can’t seem to find the actual quotation. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to disagree.
“The finest view west of Naples”
  • From the museum Dublinia: the name Dublin means black pool. So there’s effectively a Blackpool on both sides of the Irish Sea!
  • From Christ Church Cathedral: there’s are fascinatingly well-preserved remains of a cat and a rat, which were found in the organ in the nineteenth century. The theory goes that the air of the organ pipes must have helped preserve them.
Organs apparently do wonders for the skin.
  • From St Patrick’s Cathedral: it has the remains of Friedrich Hermann von Schönberg, a famous mercenary of the seventeenth century. Over his extremely long career he served the Dutch, Swedes, French, Portuguese, Prussian, and English armies. In fact, he was often put in charge of them! His life would make quite a TV series. He died at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, while commanding William III’s forces in Ireland against the recently-deposed James II. By that stage he had been awarded the title Duke of Schomberg. I especially liked his epitaph, written by Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who was dean of the cathedral. It turns out that Swift desperately wanted a monument to Schomberg’s memory, but that the family were totally uninterested. And so, it reads: “The fame of his valour had more influence among strangers than the relationships of blood did among his own”.
  • From the National Museum of Ireland’s building in Collins Barracks: in the seventeenth century the aristocratic cavalrymen often wore helmets under their tricorn hats called “secrets”. Presumably they wanted to maintain the impression of cavalier disregard for their own safety, while still having some guard against sword cuts. Or perhaps it was about preserving style.
A “secret”, to go under a cavalryman’s dashing hat.
  • From the same museum: it turns out that in 1866 a group of Irish veterans of the American Civil War decided to invade Canada! The raids, as they really were, did not have the intended effect of putting pressure on the English to free Ireland. But according to some historians they did, apparently, help draw Canadians together in opposition. Without them, perhaps Canada would have turned out to be a group of separate countries rather than one. The “invasion” potentially helped consolidate Canadian nationhood, but with comparatively little bloodshed.
  • Dublin Castle: Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, worked as a civil servant in one of its buildings. He also wrote non-fiction, including The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland (1879). In our imaginations, famous writers must just have been writers, presumably gallivanting about for inspiration. I like the fact that the reality was often rather drier.

Anton Howes

Written by

Historian of innovation. Historian-in-residence at the Royal Society of Arts. Previously an economic history lecturer at King’s College London.

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