Saturday, April 26, 2014

Isolde of Dublin

The modern Dublin suburb of Chapelizod hardly gives any indication to any ancient link to one of Europe’s most famous love tales Tristan and Isolde. Many, including the Dubliners themselves, are unaware that the place name has nothing to do with lizards and the heroine of the Europe’s most tragic love tales was a Dubliner. I have followed the tales for years and my interest in it was first awoken while doing a seminar on Tristan and Isolde at the University of Vienna many years ago. It was there that I first became familiar with the Celtic roots of the story, which tied into my research on Irish legends. Chapelizod is said to be the burialplace of the Viking princess, though no known grave is known to survive.
Her name has several spelling variations as Iseult and Yseult. We have no proof that she ever existed. According to the popular legend Isolde was a Viking princess from Dublin and the daughter of an Irish king, King Aonghus who is supposed to have lived before the Vikings established the settlement of Dublin in 988 where the Dublin City Municipal Building now stands. Nobody knows for sure just how old the tale is, but the more ancient elements probably have Pictish roots.
The version of the tale I am most familiar is probably also the most complete and was written by Gottfried von Strassburg around 1215. It was this version that Richard Wagner used when he composed his famous opera Tristan and Isolde. It is essentially a mishmash of various Celtic legends and time. For example Isolde is obviously a Viking name, yet French is according to Gottfried the language spoken in Dublin. Earlier versions were composed by Thomas of Britain around 1160 and the 12th century Norman poet Béroul. A film version, albeit one very loosely based on the original tale, was made in 2006 with Sophia Myles playing Isolde.
The tale is something of a ménage à trois between the elderly King Mark of Cornwall, his nephew Tristan of Brittany and Isolde. Isolde is depicted as having fairy like beauty and both she and her mother, also called Isolde, have healing powers. After Tristan does battle with Morholt and beheads him, with echoes of the immram, he wanders adrift in a boat eventually reaching the Irish coast, where he is healed by Isolde. Mark wants to marry Isolde and sends his nephew to woo her on his behalf. There are parallels here with Diarmaid and Gráinne and Deirdre and Naoise. Indeed, Ireland of the 10th century had a wealth of love stories, many of which have long been forgotten. Brangaine, Isoldes’s lady-in-waiting is given a love potion which will make Isolde fall in love with the elderly king. Tristan and Isolde en route to Mark drink the love potion by mistake and fall for each other. They try to hide their love but find it impossible. Mark is furious and banishes his beloved nephew. The two lovers go on the run and are pursued by the jealous Mark and the tale inevitably ends in tragedy.

To give an indication of how old the tale could be a 9th century tower in the present Temple Bar area, called Isolde’s Tower, later rebuilt by the Normans formed part of the Dublin city wall. The river Poodle flowed by its walls. The Poodle itself, part of Dublin’s medieval heritage was forced underground as the city modernised. It rises in the Cookstown area of Tallaght and flows underground through a culvert where it enters the Liffey at Wellington Quay. The tower was demolished when the city walls were removed. Its remains were rediscovered when building work was been carried out between 1993-1997. The modern development was named duly Isolde’s Tower, but the actual remains were hidden away once more behind an iron grill. The developers were supposed to leave access to the Tower but the gate is always locked and a cultural aspect dating from the foundation of the settlement of Dublin itself has been pushed aside. The street leading up to where the tower once stood, Upper Exchange Street, was until recently, in a nod towards the past, called Sráid Iosóilde Uacht. (Isolde’s Street Upper). In a further blow to the city’s cultural heritage reference to Isolde has been recently removed from signage.

Ó Conghaile, Secret Dublin an Unusual Guide

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