Isolde’s Tower

Adi Vildorf, Campbell Martin, Andi Ismail, Mina El Attar, Eric Armenta

While Dubliners may have built Isolde’s Tower in the thirteenth century, the structures namesake precedes it by half a century by some estimates (O’Hagan, 1993). Tristan and Isolde have a few stories together, but the best known one concerns love potions and a ship’s sails. Isolde, though in love with the knight Tristan, was promised to King Mark. Isolde’s mother prepared a love potion for both the King and his fiance, so that both would fall in love with the other. However, as Tristan and Isolde made their way to King Mark’s kingdom of Cornwall, they drank the potion, mistaking it for wine. Although Tristan tried starting a new life by fighting wars in foreign lands, he kept thinking about Isolde. During battle, he was wounded by a poisoned spear and only Isolde could heal him. Tristan sent his friend and knight Kaedin to sail to find Isolde and bring her to him. Tristan sent Kaedin with Isolde’s ring to prove the truth of the mission, a favor she had given him when they had first fallen in love. Tristan instructed Kaedin that upon his return he should sail with a white sail if Isolde was with him and a black sail if not. Kaedin found Isolde, who, upon seeing the ring, returned with Kaedin to where Tristan was bedridden. As the ship, while sails aloft, came into the harbor, Tristan asked his wife whether Kaedin’s ship had black or white sails. The wife, suspicious of Tristan and Isolde’s relationship, lied to him and said they were black. Upon hearing that news Tristan died. Isolde the Fair came to Tristan’s room and upon seeing his dead body, also died from heartbreak (Ashliman, 2013).

            This myth about true love has inspired art throughout the centuries. The most famous of these is Wagner’s Opera Tristan and Isolde. The work is famous for its enormous scope and scale, as is a characteristic of many of Wagner’s operas (Lynch, 2012). While the myth of Tristan and Isolde has multiple twelfth and thirteenth century sources, Wagner’s opera draws not from an Irish source, but a German copy, authored by Gottfried von Strasburg, a twelfth century writer (Lynch, 2012). It was in the same era when Strasburg produced his version of the tale that the Dubliners constructed the tower itself.

             Built in the thirteenth century, the first and primary purpose of Isolde’s Tower was protecting Norman Dublin against invaders attempting to enter through the River Liffey (O’Hagan, 1993). The tower has gone through several excavations, ever since it was first demolished in the seventeenth century, There is evidence of a battery on the western side of the tower and it formed a part of the city’s defense system which dates back to 1260. As a mural tower, also called wall towers, Isolde’s Tower would have been used as a palace from which crossbows and other projectile weapons could be fired by soldiers. The tower was a part of a defense system which served as an extension of the city walls, and surrounded reclaimed Irish land, reaching to the banks of the Liffey (Simpson, 1993). After no longer being needed for protection the tower was torn down and houses were built in its place. In the early to mid-1990’s, those houses were demolished and further excavations revealed the remains of the tower. The original tower spanned much of medieval Dublin, with its remains now being found in several different places near and around the river.

            The Tower’s proximity to the River Liffey as well as Dublin Bay would have marked it as an especially important feature of Dublin’s walls. Isolde’s Tower was connected by its walls to Dame’s Gate, an entrance to the city near the now underground River Poddle, and to a quay running south and sitting nine feet above the River Liffey. The wall’s outer portion would vary in height from seventeen feet near Dame’s Gate to twenty-two feet near Isolde’s Tower, a difference which can be attributed to the sloping shoreline upon which Dublin sat (Burke, 1974). Soil near the River Liffey is composed largely of gravel, making it unsuitable for supporting large buildings without something to stabilize the foundation. In order to resolve this, the original builders utilized a stone plinth to support the building (Simpson, 2021). However, among this gravel and soil, archeologists found man-made oddments.

The excavation of the tower revealed a number of otherwise lost elements of the site. Isolde’s Tower has an internal diameter of 4.5 meters and may have had walls that were almost 4 meters thick. The tower is built out of coursed limestone blocks internally and externally with mortared rubble core (Simpson, 2021). Using a seventeenth century reconstruction program which gathered gravel and silt that had built up over time against the wall of the tower, archeologists were able to determine that there were no medieval deposits in the western side of the tower. However, when utilizing the same process to examine the silts and gravel found on the eastern side of the tower, shards of pottery dating from the Anglo-Norman era, as well as bits of skulls were found. Further down from the city wall, a severed head was also found, and is believed that this skull is evidence of the medieval practice of displaying heads on the city wall to intimidate invaders (“Spiked Skull”).

Despite archeological discoveries, today, Isolde’s Tower remains an unappreciated and eclipsed feature of Dublin’s culture. The remains of the tower lay in crumbles behind a gate with little access to the outside world. While the tower’s name may stem from a compelling story about love and war, the actuality of the remains leaves little to be imagined and can be underwhelming for many of its visitors. It is still considered to be a historical landmark that can be made into a destination visit for history lovers, however, most people would need a creative imagination to restore the magic that the tower once held. While the tower holds some significance in the cultural sphere of Dublin, there is greater cultural connection to the mythological story of Tristan and Isolde. The name Isolde can be heard ringing in poems, songs, and, literature all throughout Ireland.

Works Cited

Ashliman, D. L. Tristan and Isolde, University of Pittsburg, 13 Jan. 2013, Acessed 27 May, 2021.

Burke, Nuala. “Dublin’s North-Eastern City Wall: Early Reclamation and Development at

the Poddle-Liffey Confluence.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, vol. 74, 1974, pp. 113–132. JSTOR,

Lynch, Susanne. The Irish Times. “High Notes and Love Songs.” The Irish Times, 29 Sept. 2012, Accessed

27 May 2021.

O’Hagan, Una. “Isoldes Tower Dublin.” RTÉ Archives, Raidió Teilifís Éireann, 17 July 2018, Accessed 27 May, 2021.

Simpson, Linzi. “1993:070 – Exchange Street Lower Dublin, Dublin.” Database of Irish

Excavation Reports, Wordwell, 2021, Accessed 27 May, 2021.

“Spiked Skull.” History of Ireland, Early Modern History (1500-1700) Autumn, 1995 1-3 Accessed 27 May, 2021. 

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