During the Middle Ages, the first thing conquerors did when they won a territory was to build a strong castle to defend their newly acquired land. From the late 12th century, when the Normans, and later the English, began their gradual annexation of Ireland they were no different. Castles, both large and small were thrown up all over Ireland with many still existing on the Irish landscape.
Dublin Castle was begun in 1204 on the orders of Prince John of England to house a strong garrison to protect (from the native Irish, it must be said) the English king’s newly conquered capital of Ireland and to provide an impregnable site for the storage of the taxes taken from an unwilling population. The castle was built as a square-walled enclosure with four circular corner towers and a strongly fortified gateway. The walls of the towers were over four and a half metres thick (which can still be ascertained from the one surviving south-east bastion, known as the Record Tower).
The first reaction that many visitors to Dublin Castle have today when they first enter through the gateway is a hint of puzzlement. After all, they came to see a castle so where is the castle? Well, if you are looking for a romantic medieval fortress you are nearly 340 years too late! You see, the original castle was substantially burnt to the ground after a near apocalyptic fire in 1684, I say a ‘near apocalyptic’ fire because, had it spread to the Gunpowder Tower, where it was rapidly heading, it would have not only shattered the whole castle but would have taken much of the old city with it. But instead, some quick-minded officials bravely removed part of the very gunpowder in the tower to demolish the structures connecting the tower with the burning sections of the castle and thus created a very effective fire break.
The day was saved but not the castle. When the fire was extinguished nearly half of the buildings lay in ruins. This was a period in Dublin’s history when urban regeneration was starting to take place to lift the city out of its cramped medieval past and so it was determined that a structure suitable for a noble viceroy and his staff would take the place of the former dank and dreary fortress. What they then constructed is the magnificent palace of today.
The purpose of the original castle and its 18th century successor was to provide accommodation for the Viceroy, also known as the Lord Lieutenant, the British monarch’s representative in Ireland and essentially this country’s ruler. So for over seven hundred years Ireland was governed on behalf of Britain from Dublin Castle. When the 26 counties of Ireland achieved independence in 1922 (the remaining 6 counties of the Province of Ulster becoming Northern Ireland) Dublin Castle was handed over to the new Irish Free State.
Now Dublin Castle is a State-run complex. When Ireland hosts the presidency of the European Union for six months (which currently happens every 14 years) the primary location for the ensuing EU meetings is Dublin Castle (you can see the 28 flagpoles, one for each EU nation in the Upper Courtyard).
If you have the time a guided visit around the castle is a must. You will see the State Apartments which were once the gloriously appointed 18th and 19th century rooms occupied by the Viceroy, his family, his staff and, indeed, sometimes by the reigning British monarch. You will be taken to the Throne Room, the Drawing and Dining Rooms, the bedrooms and St Patrick’s Hall, the outstanding ballroom. Today this room is used for the inauguration ceremony for every newly elected Irish President. Note that the carpet here is blue, which is the official state colour of Ireland, not green as most people imagine.
The guided tour also visits the Chapel Royal, once the church set aside for the household and staff of the castle. What comes as a surprise here is that the evident stone pillars and vaulted ceilings in the chapel, while appearing to be made of stone, are actually constructed from wood. This is to lessen the overall weight of the chapel as it stands over the culverted medieval moat of the castle. To cap the tour participants are taken underground to view uncovered parts of the ancient castle which lie about 6 to 7 metres below present surface levels. Revealed are the base of the Gunpowder Tower, a narrow postern gate, some of the original Viking wall and part of the stone City Wall which once crossed the moat. Water from the moat is allowed to enter part of this subterranean undercroft and the whole scene is highly atmospheric.
The circular gardens on the south side of the castle provide the helipad for the castle. But a thousand years ago this was a site for a small lake. Here the Vikings once parked their longboats. The lake in the Irish language was called the Dubh Linn or Dark Pool, which gave rise to the city’s modern name; Dublin!
Today, visitors can simply wander around the courtyards and gardens or take the official tour.