Eblana is the name of an ancient Irish settlement which appears in the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy), the Greek astronomer and cartographer, around the year 140 AD. It was traditionally believed by scholars to refer to the same site as the modern city of Dublin. For example, the 19th-century writer Louis Agassiz used Eblana as a Latin equivalent for Dublin. More recent scholarship however favours the north County Dublin seaside village of Loughshinny due to its proximity to Drumanagh, an important trading site with strong links to Roman Britain; it has even been described as a bridgehead of a possible Roman invasion. There is no definitive proof to tie Eblana with any location, however, so its exact identity is still a matter of speculation.
Eblana as Dublin
If the reference to a settlement in Ireland called Eblana is in fact the earliest reference to Dublin, this would seem to give Dublin a just claim to nearly two thousand years of antiquity, as the settlement must have existed a considerable time before Ptolemy became aware of it.
Early Irish antiquarians, such as Sir John Ware and Walter Harris believed that the name Eblana in Ptolemy's Geographia was in fact a corruption of Deblana, itself a version of the Gaelic name Dubh Linn (Black Pool), from which the modern English language name Dublin derives. This seems not to be the only instance where Ptolemy truncated the initial letters of place names. For example, instead of Pepiacum, and Pepidii (in Wales), Ptolemy writes Epiacum and Epidii; and for Dulcinium (now Ulcinj, in Montenegro), he has Ulcinium.
There are several problems with this theory:
- The earliest Gaelic settlement on the site of Dublin is referred to in local sources as Áth Cliath ("Ford of Hurdles"). Duiblinn first appears as the name of a Christian ecclesiastical settlement which could not possibly have existed before the 5th century.
- Ptolemy's description of Ireland shows no trace of either the Goidelic or Laginian occupations of the country, both of which probably took place some centuries before Ptolemy's time. O'Rahilly (1946) has concluded from this that his description is probably based on data collected in the 4th century BC by the early explorer Pytheas.
- Some early texts of Ptolemy's Geographia call the settlement in question Ebdana (the Greek uppercase letters lambda and delta are similar and easily confused: Λ and Δ). Considering the degree of corruption which Ptolemy's work is known to have suffered in transmission, it is impossible to tell which, if either, of these variants is the correct form.
- The co-ordinates Ptolemy's map indicates for Eblana places the settlement in the north of County Dublin, several kilometres from the site of the modern city of Dublin.
- Ptolemy's Eblana did not stand on a river. In the Geographia, Eblana occurs between the mouths of two rivers: the Buvinda (i.e. the River Boyne) and the Oboka. Because early antiquaries believed that Eblana was Dublin, they identified the Oboka with the river which enters the sea at Arklow in County Wicklow, which they consequently dubbed the Ovoca (now the River Avoca). In fact, Ptolemy's Oboka seems to be the River Liffey, and his Modonnos probably represents the Avoca. Eblana, thus, is located somewhere between the mouths of the Boyne and the Liffey.
Eblana as other sites
At the time when Ptolemy wrote the Geographia there were two significant areas of activity in north County Dublin. One was at the mouth of the river Delvin where two substantial groups of chamber tombs would have been clearly visible from the sea for several thousand years. As noted above Ptolemy often dropped the initial letters of names and a shift from " Ebhlana" to "Delvin" could be seen as a phonic shift possibility. The second area of international activity was based around the promontory fort of Drumanagh south of present-day Loughshinny, which was probably a trading post but may have been used as a potential bridgehead by Agricola. Thus it is only fair to say that the identity of Ptolemy's Eblana is as yet unknown, and identification with the city of Dublin is at best problematic and highly speculative.
- E.g. in Thomas Osmond Summers, ed. Dublin: an historical sketch of Ireland's metropolis, 1852, etc., and in Patrick Weston Joyce, The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, 2 vols. 1869 (vol. I:79 in the 7th ed., 1901).
- Agassiz, Bibliographia zoologiæ et geologiæ: A general catalogue of all books, tracts and memoirs on zoology and geology, 1848, vol.1:74.
- Darcy, R.; Flynn, William: "Ptolemy's map of Ireland: a modern decoding." Irish Geography 41/1 (March 2008), pp. 49-69
- O'Rahilly, T. F. (1946). Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin: Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. ISBN 1-874045-89-5.
- Harris, Walter (1736). The History and Antiquities of the City of Dublin. Dublin.
- Ryan, Phyllis (1996). The Company I kept. Dublin: Town House and Country House. ISBN 1-86059-028-4.