Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The ford of the hurdles

OK, I'll 'fess up. I slept through history at school. I've a rough idea about Dublin before the nineteenth century, but Dublin before the ninth century (i.e. before the Vikings)? A vague blur.

Dublin would have hardly been a town back then, more a pair of proto-towns or settlements on the south bank of the Liffey. By the early seventh century these two settlements were well established:

  • Duiblinn or Dubhlinn or Duibhlinn (Irish for "black pool"). This was an enclosed ecclesiastical settlement, still less than two centuries old but ideally situated at a confluence of the Liffey and Poddle rivers and a small lake or basin.
  • Áth Cliath ("ford of hurdles"). A much earlier Gaelic settlement, about half a kilometre further inland. Hence the city's modern name in Irish: Baile Átha Cliath, the town of the hurdled ford. 

Very much a southside affair: Brendan K Ward's map of early ninth-century Dublin (click to enlarge)
Before any permanent bridges were built, the ford would have been an essential transport link. Even then it was centuries old, and the Áth Cliath settlement had evolved around this river crossing.

The ford's exact location is a mystery today. Possibly somewhere near Usher's Island (when it still was an island), maybe a hundred yards west of what is now the Father Mathew Bridge, near St Paul's Church.

I'm trying to picture all this. Trying to strip away all the buildings along the quays, trying to subtract the streams of traffic and the modern quays themselves. What's left? The river itself, for a start.

Surely the Liffey would have been far wider in those days - especially at its mouth, which had long-running silting problems.

Eventually in the Victorian era they would try to put manners on the sands by building the (North) Bull Wall. But even then Nature refused to be entirely tamed, and one consequence of the new sea walls was the emergence of an entire new island in the bay: Bull Island (check out Kieran McNally's recent book The Island Imagined by the Sea for its fascinating story).

Back in what was to become the city centre, as the quay walls rose up the river became narrower and deeper. Yet even today, with a suitable combination of low tide and dry weather the Liffey can still be surprisingly shallow in places - especially around the Séan Heuston Bridge next to Heuston railway station.

Looking eastwards from the Séan Heuston Bridge

At times like these, on one side of the bridge the mud flats begin to appear (and the trolleys and traffic cones). On the other side the river turns into a gentle stream over the pebbles, sometimes even shallow enough to wade across without getting your knees wet, if you dare.

Even so, back in those pre-Viking times the river and sea would have been a formidable challenge for most times of the day and most of the year. Nothing exists today of the shallow "ford of hurdles", but if this were a TV history show the picture would now fade to a slightly synthetic-looking CGI representation of this flimsy construction...

It was mainly rods of willow or hazel, an interwoven latticework laid flat on the riverbed and somehow weighed down with stones, and possibly kept in place within a corridor of log piles driven deep into the mud.

We take bridges for granted. The river crossing must have been a virtual causeway, disappearing under the waters, then reappearing at low tide again. Must have required almost continuous repair too - as river, tide and traffic (people, cattle, carts) took their heavy toll on its fragile structure.

So the future town and eventual city grew around this river settlement with its fragile ford, and around the Christian settlement at the "black pool" basin further downstream.

Ancient highways

As well as the ford, one other transport system would shape the future city. On the Liffey's north bank, two of the country's five major ancient roads converged at the hurdles, roads dating back to the Iron Age:

  • The Slige Midluachra or Slí Mhidhluachra, aka the High Kings Road from Tara; and
  • The road through what is now Stoneybatter.

Stoneybatter's name in Irish is Bothar-na-gCloch (literally the road of the stones, the stoney bothar), the original rocky road to Dublin, and it was possibly the start of the Slighe Cualann. Like I said, I dozed through most of this bit in class. I guess my Moss Reid character would have done too.

Anyway, when the Vikings arrived in large numbers, the "black pool" of Duiblinn was perfect for mooring Viking longboats. And at the ford of the hurdles, the two ancient highways assumed further significance too.

Much as the Reichsautobahn system in Nazi Germany and the Interstate Highway System in the US were built with rapid troop deployment in mind, these ancient highways would have served a military purpose: they were ideal for marauding bands of Vikings, heavily clad and armed, as they plundered deeper and deeper inland.

The Vikings. Now that's another story...