Sunday, 30 September 2012

In search of Isolde and her lost tower

Upper Exchange Street ... is it Upper Isolde Street or Upper Exchange Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

I spent most of today in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, first at the Cathedral Eucharist this morning, and at the ordination of two priests, the Revd Yvonne Ginnelly for Monkstown Parish and the Revd Martin O’Connor for Saint Anne’s and Saint Stephen’s, in the afternoon.

In between, I had lunch in Beirut Express in Dame Street, and took a stroll through Temple Bar book hunting in the barrows and the second hand stalls.

For less than €10, I came away with three treasures, including an edition of George Herbert’s poems to add to a growing collection.

But on my way from Parliament Street through Essex Street to the cathedral, I was taken aback yet again by the ways in which English-language street names can rendered in Irish by the Temple Bar and city council authorities.

At the corner of Essex Street, Upper Exchange Street has been rendered in Irish as Sráid an Mhalartáin Uachtarach, or Street of the Upper Exchange – did no-one know how to translate it into Upper Street of the Exchange, or did they think there were two exchanges?

At the corner of Lord Edward Street, opposite the former Royal Exchange, which became the City Hall in 1852, and the entrance to Dublin Castle, the same people have translated Upper Exchange Street as Sráid Iosóilde Uacht or Upper Isolde Street.

One English name and two Irish names for one short, narrow street is some achievement. And this one small, narrow street even has two postal districts. If you approach it from the south end it is in Dublin 8, but if you approach it from the north end it is in Dublin 2. Perhaps it was an old ruse to confuse the Vikings. But then, I suppose, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

A choice between the historicity of the Royal Exchange and the legendary royal princess Isolde may be difficult to argue about in a week when Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde, is being staged in Dublin tonight [Sunday 30 September 2012], on Wednesday and on Saturday.

Wagner’s opera is based on the Nordic legend of Iseult or Isolde, an Irish princess who had been promised in marriage to King Mark of Cornwall. However, she drank a love potion and fell in love with the king’s nephew, the Cornish knight Tristan who was charged with her safe passage across the Irish Sea.

Legend says that when she could not fulfil her love for Tristan, Isolde took a death potion. The whole affair was hardly a good career move for Tristan. Realising his faux pas, he too drank a death potion.

The legend gave its name to Isolde’s Tower, a 13th century mediaeval tower that was part of the old city walls in Dublin. The tower was the first part of the city’s defences facing any sea-borne attack. Originally, the River Poddle ran around the eastern side of the tower, and the city wall continued from two sides of the tower, which rose to a height of three storeys and had walls that were four metres thick.

But even before the end of the Middle Ages, much of the Poddle was culverted. By the late Middle Ages it had fallen into disuse and it was partly demolished at the same time as Buttevant Tower – mentioned by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake – at the corner of Upper Exchange Street and Essex Street, made way for Essex Gate.

The tower was rediscovered in the 17th century, but most of it was destroyed and covered in soon after. The hidden remains were yet again discovered in 1993-1997 during building work.

Having discovered “Upper Isolde Street,” I spent a few minutes before returning to the cathedral in search of the remains of Isolde’s Tower. But they were not to be seen this afternoon. Instead, the surviving remains of the tower are hidden behind an iron grille, about midway on the river side of Lower Exchange Street, which links Fishamble Street and Essex Street West and near Dublin’s Viking Adventure.

The developers were supposed to have provided public access to Isolde’s Tower but the gate was locked, and it appears it always it. Isolde’s Tower is one of Dublin’s treasures, but how long is it going to remain hidden and disguised?

This could be a major tourist attraction, given its location close to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin Castle, Temple Bar and the site associated with the first public performance of Handel’s Messiah. A conservation plan is being prepared to upgrade the presentation of the tower to include lighting, an historical explanation, maintenance and cleaning. Now, I think, that deserves more attention than providing double and inconsistent translations of the city’s street names and confusing the postal deliveries.