This is an unusual, but fascinating and very enjoyable book. It’s not really an academic book, though it is written by academics and is underpinned by several lifetimes of academic research. It’s not a history of medieval Dublin but it is full of Dublin’s history, including many insights and snippets that you wouldn’t get in a standard academic history.
The book consists of fourteen separate papers, or ‘tales’, which were originally delivered as lunchtime talks. Three series of such talks were organized by the Friends of Medieval Dublin and hosted by Dublin City Council in the Civic Offices at Wood Quay. (For those with long memories the irony of this combination is rich – but that’s a tale for another day.) The idea was that experts would present various aspects of Dublin’s medieval history and archaeology, but in an accessible, non-academic manner. This was achieved by presenting each talk as the ‘tale’ of some individual in Dublin’s medieval past. The advantages of such an approach were many: Most of us find it easier to identify with real people than with abstract concept and it also allowed the speakers extra latitude to embellish their stories with informed speculation than would normally be the case.
The bulk of these talks are now presented in print. There is great variety in the characters chosen, who really have little in common besides an association with medieval Dublin. Some are well-known historical figures; others are almost completely unknown, little more than names. One doesn’t even have a name (only a nickname given by the archaeologists who excavated his remains), while another has a name but may never have actually existed. There is a lot of variation, too, in the published tales themselves, both in terms of length and style (i.e. how successfully the authors have adapted to writing for non-academic readers). Overall, however, I would consider the book an undoubted success – enjoyable and relatively light reading for the academic but a stimulating introduction to the history of medieval Dublin for the lay reader. At the relatively cheap price of €24.95 in paperback (or €45 for the attractive hardback version), this is well worth a punt for anyone with the slightest interest in Dublin’s history.
Andrew Halpin is Assistant Keeper in the Irish Antiquities Division, National Museum of Ireland.