The Danish Vikings who founded and settled Dublin built an artificial hill. The Thingmote was a considerable feature, some forty foot high, situated outside the city walls. Today its location is marked by the Ulster Bank at the junction of Suffolk Street and St Andrew Street. A ‘thing’ is an assembly of Viking freemen and their leaders. The Danish parliament today is called the Folketing. The Althing is Iceland’s national parliament, the oldest continuous assembly in the world founded originally around 930 AD. A mote or motte is a raised area of land, (the motte and bailey was a fortified hill and field used by Normans), hence Thingmote.
The Thingmote was the centre of Viking political, judicial, and ceremonial life in Dublin. The king of the Vikings sat on top and in ranks below him his sons and nobles. This assembly decided matters political and judicial. Prisoners of war were ceremonially killed here, sacrifices to Viking gods like Odin and Thor, their god of war. Games and archery contests were held on the flat land beneath it, as Peter Somerville-Large notes in his wonderfully vivid history, Dublin.
When Henry II came to Ireland in 1171 to seek the submission of his own Norman lords who had just seized Leinster and its three Viking cities of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, he set up a temporary royal palace beside the Thingmote. There he lavishly entertained the Gaelic Kings over Christmas as he sought their submission too, successfully it turned out. While Henry had brought a large army with him, it was mainly for show and he didn’t attempt a complete invasion of the country. While he left Leinster to Strongbow, Henry took control of the cities as royal domains. He granted a royal charter to the Dublin to encourage immigrants from Bristol, which had played a key role in the Norman invasion and had had a long trading history with Dublin. The city would remain the key to the survival of the colony, Dublin Castle never taken.
Meanwhile, as the Normans settled in, the Vikings, or as they were known the Ostmen (men from the east), moved out of the city to Oxmantown. Oxmantown was their suburb on the north bank of the Liffey. They left their Thingmote behind and gradually faded from the history of the city they had founded.
The Thingmote endured as a very visible feature between the city and the developing campus that would become Trinity College. It remained undisturbed as Dublin developed as a Medieval City. However, the Dublin we know today really only began to take shape during the Restoration period when James Butler, the fabulous Duke of Ormonde, returned to Dublin in 1662. As Charles II’s new viceroy, Ormonde saw to the development of the city as trade and migration generated an unprecedented era prosperity. Ireland’s interests were sponsored and defended by Ireland’s parliament which itself became a key to Dublin’s development as one of the leading cities of Europe. Dublin never really recovered from the abolition of this native, albeit Protestant, parliament that had traced its roots back to 1297.
Sir William Davies came to own the land around College Green and in the 1680s began the levelling of the Thingmote, carting its bulk to raise what is now Nassau Street as that area had been prone to flooding. Somerville-Large: “Now it was raised by eight or ten feet, a plateau still to be seen if the height of Nassau Street is compared to College Park.”
So when you walk along Nassau Street you tread on the remains of the Viking Thingmote, literally and figuratively Dublin’s very foundations.