What lies beneath the city streets

Dublin, like other populous ports, has long attracted immigrants. Some arrived as conquerors and plunderers and were hardly welcome. Others have enlivened and enriched the city. One relatively recent arrival, Howard Clarke, the medieval historian trained in Birmingham, belongs firmly to the latter group.

Bringing the perspective of an outsider, familiar with urban development in continental Europe, he has applied his skills to uncovering the fabric and elucidating the societies and economy of Dublin before the seventeenth century. With little other than the two cathedrals of St Patrick’s and Christ Church visible, any reconstruction depends on piecing together the archaeological finds and interpreting abstruse documents. Professor Clarke mapped and published his findings, most splendidly in an atlas in the series produced by the Irish Historic Towns project. This work accompanies a career of inspirational teaching at University College Dublin. Most recently as the secretary of the Royal Irish Academy, he has not only cherished but invented traditions. Moreover, he has taken his discoveries to a wider audience via the Dublinia project in the former Synod Hall beside Christ Church cathedral.

Colleagues, friends and former pupils, almost all from Ireland, have decided not to garland him with laurels as of old, but to resort to that more modern tribute: the festschrift . Such volumes of essays can be off-puttingly miscellaneous in their contents. Not so with the huge battalion that has been marshalled to write in Clarke’s honour. It is his own career that gives coherence to a hefty book of nearly 600 pages. The writers focus intently on the city. All, directly or indirectly, are indebted to his pioneering work in recovering and detailing the lay-out and development of the now largely vanished city. Besides the cathedrals, only fragments of the chapter house of St Mary’s survive, although the toy fort towers of Dublin Castle may mask medieval donjons.

The Irish Times