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Our Ancient Capital

The history of Dublin, so admirably narrated by Mr. Gilbert in his learned and. instructive volumes, [a] begins the modern period of Irish history when Ireland became indissolubly united with time British Empire--the greatest empire of the world--and legendary lore, like all the ancient usages and superstitions, began to fade and perish before advancing civilization, as the luxurious undergrowth of a primeval forest before advancing culture.
A sketch of the rise of the capital of Ireland, with all the changes produced in Irish life by the new modes of thought and action introduced by Norman influence, forms therefore a fitting close to the legendary and early-historic period, so full of poetry and charm for the imagination, with its splendour of kings and bards, its shadowy romance and mist-woven dreams, and its ideal fairy world of beauty and grace, of music and song; when the people lived the free, joyous life of the childhood of humanity under their native princes, and the terrible struggle of a crushed and oppressed nation against a foreign master had not yet begun; the struggle that has lasted for seven centuries, and still goes on with exhaustless force and fervour.
The history of cities is the history of nations--the most perfect index of the social altitude, mental development, physical perfection, and political freedom, which at any given period a people may have attained. Every stone within a city is a hieroglyphic of the century that saw it raised. By it we trace human progression through all its phases; from the first rude fisher's hut, the altar of the primitive priest, the mound of the first nomad warrior, the stone fortalice or simple fane of the early Christian race, up to the stately and beautiful temples and palaces which evidence the luxury and refinement of a people in its proudest excess, or human genius in its climax of manifestation.
Thus Babylon, Thebes, Rome, Jerusalem, are words that express nations. The ever-during interest of the world circles round them, for their ruins are true and eternal pages of human history. Every fallen column is a fragment of a past ritual, or a symbol of a dynasty. The very dust is vital with great memories, and a philosopher, like the comparative anatomist, might construct the entire life of a people--its religion, literature, and laws--from these fragments of extinct generations--these fossil paleographs of man.
Statue and column, mausoleum and shrine, are trophies of a nation's triumphs or its tragedies. The young children, as they gaze on them, learn the story of the native heroes, poets, saints, and martyrs, leaders and lawgivers, who have flung their own glory as a regal mantle over their country. Spirits of the past, from the phantom-land, dwell in the midst of them. We feel their presence, and hear their words of inspiration or warning, alike in the grandeur or decadence of an ancient city.
Modern capitals represent also, not only the history of the past, but the living concentrated will of the entire nation. Thus is it with London, Berlin, and Vienna, while Paris, the cité verbe, as Victor Hugo calls her, represents not only the tendencies of France, but of Europe.
Dublin, however, differs from all other capitals, past or present, in this wise--that by its history we trace, not the progress of the native race, but the triumphs of its enemies; and that the concentrated will of Dublin has always been in antagonism to the feelings of a large portion of the nation.
The truth is, that though our chief city of Ireland has an historical existence older than Christianity, yet this fair Ath-Cliath has no pretension to be called our ancient mother. From first to last, from a thousand years ago till now, Dublin has held the position of a foreign fortress within the kingdom; and its history has no other emblazonment beyond that of unceasing hostility or indifference to the native race.
"The inhabitants are mere English, though of Irish birth," wrote Hooker, three hundred years ago. "The citizens," says Holingshed, "have from time to time so galled the Irish, that even to this day the Irish fear a ragged and jagged black standard that the citizens have, though almost worn to the stumps." Up to Henry the Seventh's reign, an Englishman of Dublin was not punished for killing an Irishman, nor were Irishmen admitted to any office within the city that concerned the government either of the souls or bodies of the citizens. The Viceroys, the Archbishops, the Judges, the Mayors, the Corporations, were all and always English, down to the very guild of tailors, of whom it stands on record that they would allow no Irishman to be of their fraternity. As the American colonists treated the red man, as the Spaniards of Cortez treated the Mexicans, as the English colony of India treated the ancient Indian princes, tribes, and people, so the English race of Dublin treated the Irish nation. They were a people to be crushed, ruined, persecuted, tormented, extirpated; and the Irish race, it must be confessed, retorted the hatred with as bitter an animosity. The rising of 1641 was like all Irish attempts--a wild, helpless, disorganized effort at revenge; and seven years later we read that Owen Roe O'Neil burned the country about Dublin, so that from one steeple there two hundred fires could be seen at once.
This being the position of a country and its capital, it is evident that no effort for national independence could gain nourishment in Dublin. Our metropolis is associated with no glorious moment of a nation's career, while in all the dark tragedies of our gloomy history its name and influence predominate. Dublin is connected with Irish patriotism only by the scaffold and the gallows. Statue and column do indeed rise there, but not to honour the sons of the soil. The public idols are foreign potentates and foreign heroes. Macaulay says eloquently on this subject, "The Irish people are doomed to see in every place the monuments of their subjugation; before the senate-house, the statue of their conqueror--within, the walls tapestried with the defeats of their fathers."
No public statue of an illustrious Irishman until recently ever graced the Irish capital. No monument exists to which the gaze of the young Irish children can be directed, while their fathers tell them, "This was to the glory of your countrymen." Even the lustre Dublin borrowed from her great Norman colonists has passed away. her nobility are remembered only as we note the desecration of their palaces; the most beautiful of all our metropolitan buildings but reminds us that there the last remnant of political independence was sold: the stately Custom-mouse, that Dublin has no trade; the regal pile of Dublin Castle, that it was reared by foreign hands to "curb and awe the city."
It is in truth a gloomy task to awaken the memories of Dublin, even of this century. There, in that obscure house of Thomas Street, visions rise of a ghastly night-scene, where the young, passionate-hearted Geraldine was struggling vainly in death-agony with his betrayers and captors. Pass on through the same street, and chose by St. Catherine's Church you can trace the spot where the gallows was erected for Robert Emmet. Before that sombre prison pile two young brothers, handsome, educated, and well-born, and many a fair young form after them, expiated by death their fatal aspirations for Irish freedom. Look at that magnificent portal, leading now to the tables of the money-changers; through it, not a century ago, men, entrusted with the nation's rights, entered to sell them, and came forth, not branded traitors, but decorated, enriched, and rewarded with titles, pensions, and honours.
Yet the anomalous relation between our country and its capital springs naturally from the antecedents of both. Dublin was neither built by the Irish nor peopled by the Irish; it is a Scandinavian settlement in the midst of a southern nation. Long even before the Norman invasion two races existed in Ireland, as different as the lines of migration by which each had reached it; and though ages have rolled away since Scythian and Southern first met in this distant land, yet the elemental distinctions have never been lost: the races have never blended into one homogeneous nationality. Other nations, like the English, have blended with their conquerors, and progression and a higher civilization have been the result. Roman, Saxon, Dane, and Norman, each left their impress on the primitive Briton; and from Roman courage, Saxon thrift, and Norman pride has been evolved the strong, wise, proud island-nation that rules the world--the Ocean-Rome. A similar blending of opposite elements, but in different proportions, has produced Scotch national character--grave, wise, learned, provident, industrious, and unconquerably independent. But the Irish race remains distinct from all others, as Jew or Zincali. It has no elective affinities, enters into no new combinations, forms no new results, attracts to itself no Scythian qualities of stern self-reliance and the indomitable pride of independence, but still retains all the old virtues and vices of their semi-oriental nature, which make the history of Ireland so sad a record of mere passionate impulses ending mostly in failure and despair. The English, slow in speech and repellent in manner, are yet able not only to rule themselves well and ably, but to rule the world; while the Irish, so fascinating, eloquent, brave, and gifted, have never yet achieved a distinctive place in the political system of Europe. We had even the advantage of an earlier education; we taught England her letters, Christianized her people, sheltered her saints, educated her princes; we give her the best generals, the best statesmen, the best armies; yet, withal, we have never yet found the strength to govern our own kingdom. Ethnologists will tell you this comes of race. It may be so. Let us then sail on the stream of time to Ararat, and try to find our ancestry amongst the children of the eight primal gods, as the ancients termed them, who there stepped forth from their ocean prison to people the newly baptized world.
A very clever German advises all reviewers to begin from the Deluge, so that by no possibility can a single fact, direct or collateral, escape notice connected with the matter in hand. When treating of Ireland this rule becomes a necessity. Our nation dates from the dispersion, and our faults and failings, our features and our speech, have an authentic hereditary descent of four thousand years. Other primitive nations have been lost by migration, annihilated by war, swallowed up in empires, overwhelmed by barbarians: thus it was that the old kingdoms of Europe changed masters, and that the old nations and tongues passed away. Here only, in this island prison of the Atlantic, can the old race of primitive Europe be still found existing as a nation, speaking the same tongue as the early tribes that first wandered westward, when Europe itself was an unpeopled wilderness.
We learn from sacred record that the first migrations of the human family, with "one language and one speech," were from the East; and every successive wave of population has still flowed from the rising towards the setting sun. The progression of intellect and science is ever westward. The march of humanity is opposed to the path of the planet. Life moves contrary to matter. A. metaphor, it may be, of our spirit exile--this travelling "daily further from the East;" yet, when at the farthest limit, we are but approaching the glory of the East again.
Gradually, along the waters of the Mediterranean, the beautiful islands on its bosom serving as resting-places for the wanderers, or bridges for the tribes to pass over, the primal families of the Japhetian race reached in succession the three great Peninsulas of the Great Sea, in each leaving the germ of a mighty nation.. Still onward, led by the providence of God, they passed the portals of the Atlantic, coasted the shores of the vine-clad France, and so reached at length the "Isles of the Setting Sun," upon the very verge of Western Europe.
But many centuries may have elapsed during the slow progression of these maritime colonies, who have left their names indelibly stamped on the earth's surface, from lonia to the Tartessus of Spain; and Miriam may have chanted the death-song of Pharaoh, and Moses led forth the people of God, before the descendants of the first navigators landed amidst the verdant solitudes of Ireland.
The earliest tribes that reached our island, though removed so far from the centre of light and wisdom, must still have been familiar with all science necessary to preserve existence, and to organize a new country into a human habitation. They cleared the forests, worked the mines, built chambers for the dead, after the manner of their kindred left in Tyre and Greece, wrought arms, defensive and offensive, such as the heroes of Marathon used against the long-haired Persians; they raised altars and. pillar-stones, still standing amongst us, mysterious and eternal symbols of a simple primitive creed; they had bards, priests, and lawgivers, the old tongue of Shinar, the dress of Nineveh, and the ancient faith whose ritual was prayer and sacrifice.
The kindred races who remained stationary, built cities and temples, still a world's wonder, and arts flourished amongst them impossible to the nomads of the plains, or the wanderers by the ocean islands; but the destiny of dispersion was still on the race, and from these central points of civilization, tribes and families constantly went forth to achieve new conquests over the yet untamed earth.
Whatever wisdom the early island colonizers had brought with them, would have died out for want of nourishment, had not these new tribes, from countries where civilization had become developed and permanent, constantly given fresh impulses to progress. With stronger and more powerful arts and arms, they, in succession, gained dominion over their weaker predecessors, and by commerce, laws, arts, and learning, they organized families into nations, enlightening while they subjugated.
The conquest of Canaan gave the second great impetus to the human tides ever flowing westward. Irish tradition has even, in a confused manner, preserved the names of two amongst the leaders of the Sidonian fugitives who landed in Ireland. Partholan, with his wife Elga, and Gadelius, with his wife Scota.
"This Gadelius," say the legends, "was a noble gentleman, right wise, valiant, and well spoken, who, after Pharaoh was drowned, sailed for Spain, and from thence to Ireland, with a colony of Greeks arid Egyptians, and iris wife Scota, a daughter of Pharaoh's; and he taught letters to the Irish, and warlike feats after the Greek and Egyptian manner."
These later tribes brought with them the Syrian arts and civilization, such as dyeing and weaving, working in gold, silver, and brass, besides the written characters, the same that Cadmus afterwards gave to Greece, and which remained in use amongst the Irish, it is said, until modified by Saint Patrick into their present form, to assimilate them to the Latin.
Continued intercourse with their Syrian kindred soon filled Ireland with the refinement of a luxurious civilization. From various sources, we learn that in those ancient times, the native dress was costly and picturesque, and the habits and modes of living of the chiefs and kings splendid and Oriental. The highborn and the wealthy wore tunics of fine linen of immense width, girdled with gold and with flowing sleeves after the Eastern fashion. The fringed cloak, or cuchula, with a hood, after the Arab mode, was clasped on the shoulders with a golden brooch. Golden circlets, of beautiful and classic form, confined their long, flowing hair, and, crowned with their diadems, the chiefs sat at the banquet, or went forth to war. Sandals upon the feet, and bracelets and signet rings, of rich and curious workmanship, completed the costume. The ladies wore the silken robes and flowing veils of Persia, or rolls of linen wound round the head like the Egyptian Isis, the hair curiously plaited down the back and fastened with gold or silver bodkins, while the neck and arms were profusely covered with jewels. [b]
For successive centuries, this race, half Tyrian and half Greek, held undisputed possession of Ireland, maintaining, it is said, constant intercourse with the parent state, and, when Tyre fell, commercial relations were continued with Carthage. Communication between such distant lands was nothing to Phoenician enterprise. Phoenicians in the service of an Egyptian king had sailed round Africa and doubled the Cape of Good Hope two thousand years before the Portuguese. The same people built the navy of King Solomon a thousand years before Christ; and led the fleet to India for the gold necessary for the Temple.
[a] "The History of Dublin." 3 vols. By J. T. Gilbert, M.R.LA. Dublin.
[b] These relics of a civilization three thousand years old, may still be gazed upon by modern eyes in the splendid and unrivalled antiquarian collection of the Royal Irish Academy. The golden circlets, the fibulas, torques, bracelets, rings, &c., worn by the ancient race, are not only costly in value, but often so singularly beautiful in the working out of minute artistic details, that modern art is not merely unable to equal them, but unable even to comprehend how the ancient workers in metals could accomplish works of such delicate, almost microscopic minuteness of finish.