City of Spectacle

Through the thousand years and more of Dublin’s history as a grand theatre of power - from Viking to Norman to English colony - what brought ordinary folk onto the streets to cheer, jeer, celebrate, commiserate, hinder or help their own?

No doubt they ran down to the muddy Liffey banks to greet returning Viking warriors, awed by the great number of longboats - often 200 or more - spilling over with booty from daring raids along the English and Scottish coasts. Not for them would be the jewellery, furs or slaves but perhaps some titbit of a tasty foreign delicacy in return for freshly greasing the sails with rancid horse fat.

And, with the Liffey’s only bridge between them and the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, the womenfolk crowded the riverbank, cheering and fearing until daggers, swords and knives no longer glinted in the sun, the colourful standards flew no more, the battlefield fires died and the living returned. Then the wives and mothers scoured the bloody scene for their dead or dying sons and husbands. 

In Norman times there was much pleasure to be had in the burgeoning taverns - there was always a winner to be cheered or a loser to be consoled after the bull teasing or bear baiting on Oxmanstown Green. Those who transgressed provided somewhat sublime entertainment. Adulterers, draped in white cloth, stood all through the day at the city’s high cross sporting a paper hat with ‘For Adultery’ written on it. Common criminals - like John Burke - were whipped through the streets, while others merited more unusual punishments, such as the villain who, caught stealing from a ship’s captain, became a target for rotten fruit when tied to the mast. And Mrs Jones, an ale keeper, stood, branded, at the market cross in punishment for harbouring some Trinity students who preferred a life of drinking, gambling and carousing to study.

There were times when folk knew that staying indoors was the wisest counsel - as when a servant accidently pitched hay upon a soldier causing the troops to riot or when King James marched three battalions of French soldiers into the city and gave them the run of it to the sad detriment of many young women. After a spate of street robberies in the 1700s, the city was scoured for the criminals, the streets empty until the seven bowsies were caught and hung by torchlight. 

Not even the night brought relief from community cares. Fires, the greatest fear of all in a city still much woven with thatch and littered with combustible dung heaps, saw the townsfolk swing into action - the long hooks for pulling down the burning thatch were fetched from the churches while men and women ran to and fro filling leather buckets with Liffey water. The city acquired its first purpose built waterspout in 1638.

Public humiliation at the pillory amused rich and poor alike until the mid 18th century while public hangings and beheadings brought on a more sombre mood, not lightened until the rotted bodies were cut from the gibbets. Cheering and jeering still accompanied public whippings even into the 19th century, as when a chimney sweep was whipped from Newgate prison to the Royal Exchange for cruelty to his apprentice.

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 02nd September 2013