Much is made of Dublin’s medieval history but what is left of that medieval city today? In this post I have gone in search of the remains of medieval Dublin in the modern city.

Often the buildings and structures we associate with the medieval city are far more recent than we imagine.  Dublin castle for example is almost entirely a post-medieval structure – the medieval castle was destroyed in the 17th century while the walls beneath St Audeon’s church on Cooke Street are a modern reconstruction. So if these are not medieval where is medieval Dublin?

Medieval Dublin

The walled city of medieval Dublin was very small – less than one square mile. Its extents were between Dublin castle in the east to Bridge street  in the west and the river Liffey at its northern extreme to the Ross road in the South. The city had two major suburbs – in the Thomas street area which was heavily damaged in the siege of 1317 and Oxmantown which was situated in the Stoneybatter area of Dublin on the north side of the river. There were also three major religious foundations in close proximity to the city. These were St Mary’s Abbey situated in the vicinity of Mary street / Capel street area, the Augustinian monastery of All Hallows which stood where Trinity College is situated today and finally the Knights Hospitallar had a major foundation in Kilmainham. While the city’s geographical size may not have been much bigger than a large village today in the late 13th century the population exceeded 10,000 (some argue it may have been as high as 25,000).

However the vast majority of Dublin’s inhabitants have disappeared without a trace remaining. Their houses have been built over numerous times and their lives are only revealed in archaeological excavations. The remains of the medieval city that survive the test of time are invariably stone structures and tend to be in use constantly or by luck have been encased in later structures. Here are the ones I came across surviving in the modern city that are accessible today. If I have missed any I would love to hear.

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St Mary’s Abbey.

St Mary’s Abbey was among the biggest and wealthiest institutions in medieval Dublin. It was situated between roughly in the Capel street area on the northern bank of the river Liffey. Walking around the streets today there is little sign of its medieval past save the street names of Mary’s street and St Mary’s Abbey. However encased in this modern building (below) lies the remains of the abbey’s chapter house

The Chapterhouse of St Mary’s Cistercian abbey

The only other accessible surviving remains from the Abbey is the Slype which provided access to the cloister.

If you want to visit St Mary’s Abbey you can find more details here http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/Dublin/StMarysAbbeyDublin/

Christchurch Cathedral

Across the river within the space once enclosed by the walls, Christchurch cathedral dominates the skyline. Christchurch Cathedral dates from the early 11th century. The original stone building was built in the 12th century but was heavily altered in the 19th century.

Inside much of the original structure remains.

The tomb of Strongbow, (Richard de Clare) leader of the Norman invasion of Ireland is in Christchurch Cathedral today. The vaults underneath are the oldest surviving structure in the cathedral.

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St Patrick’s Cathedral

Heading south outside the city walls, St Patrick’s Cathedral is situated on the aptly named Patricks street Dublin. Built in the 12th century, the exterior of the cathedral has been altered over the centuries.

As at Christchurch cathedral, the original medieval structure remains relatively intact inside.

The tomb of Fulk de Sandford an archbishop who died in 1271.

Crossing back into the medieval city brings you close to the last surviving section of the medieval walls above ground on Lamb Alley. These walls once ringed the entire city. The section of city walls above stood close to the Newgate beyond which lay the suburb of St Thomas. Inside the gate was the cornmarket which is overlooked by Dublin’s oldest parish church – St Audeon’s.

Dublin Castle
The original Dublin castle was built under orders from King John in the early 13th century. That structure was more or less completely destroyed in the 17th century. The last remaining medieval tower is the Record tower in the south-east corner.

The Record tower

The Powder tower once stood in the north-east corner. This has been completely destroyed. However beneath this building (below) lies substantial remains of medieval moat and walls

The Powder tower.

Accessible on the tour of Dublin castle, you can see the foundation of the original Powder tower.

This view is from what was the moat separating the castle from the city. The curved wall in the foreground is the wall of the Powder tower.

This is where the Powder tower met the east wall of the city.

Dublin castle was situated within the city walls. It was defended by the river poddle on its eastern and southern sides. On the western and northern sides a man-made ditch separated the castle from the city. This arch allowed the water in the ditch through the wall and into the poddle. The arch was evidently lowered before it was eventually entirely blocked up.

This is the remains of the postern gate in the northern wall of Dublin castle. Postern gates were alternative mechanism for entering the castle. The postern at Dublin castle would have been situated at the top of these steps which lead into the moat between the castle and the city.

Isolde’s Tower

During excavations in Templebar substantial remains of the base of  tower which protected the city walls in the north-west corner were found. It was preserved in situ and is visible to the public although not necessarily easily photographed as you will see below!

The base of Isolde’s Tower.

Much more of the medieval city remains encase or underneath modern structures. If you have come across any medieval remains please let me know.

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6 comments on “In search of medieval Dublin in the modern city

  1. Susan on

    Great work, Fin! I really enjoy the posts, photos, and videos. It’s all part of Ireland’s plan to get us all back across the ocean for a visit, isn’t it? It’s working, just so you know. ; )

    Reply
  2. arranqhenderson on

    What about Saint Audoen’s itself? You mention it as, correctly, the oldest parish church in Dublin but don’t commentate on it or go inside. Audoen’s is definitely medieval. an early Norman foundation (itself almost certainly built on top of an even earlier, Celtic church), St Audoen’s has two side chapels, both also medieval, the Mary’s Guild Chapel and the Portlester Chapel. The former is now a museum, the later a ruin, open to the sky, but with walls and arches still standing. The bell tower dates from the same period I believe, and survived the Great Dublin explosion in late Elizabethan times (1597?) during the 9-Year War, with O’Neill. There’s also an earlier (medieval again) superb reclining statue of the Baron Portlester and his wife. http://arranqhenderson.com/2012/05/04/the-portlester-tomb-saint-audoens-church-dublin/
    This sculpture is now in the Bell Tower, it was moved there, from the eponymous Portlester chapel, which was of course endowed by the Baron, when the roof came off, to protect the sculpture. The same bell tower also now accommodates the famous Lucky Stone, which used to stand by a fountain just outside, and be touched by traders, merchants and packmen for luck. Very good piece above though. I always enjoy your posts, very clear, informative and well researched. Thank you.

    Reply

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