The Beautiful and Surprising Phoenix Park, Dublin
Dublin's Phoenix Park
Phoenix Park is one of Dublin's oldest and best-loved amenities. It encompasses attractions such as Dublin Zoo, the People's Garden, sporting facilities (including a race course), cultural attractions like the remains of an historic castle and, as a political statement, Aras an Uachtarain, the official residence of the Irish president. It also has the kudos of being the largest enclosed urban park in Europe. This article outlines a number of these attractions.
The President's Residence: Aras an Uachtaran
At the heart of the Park, both metaphorically and in reality, is Aras an Uachtarain, the official residence of the Irish head of state—or president—and it is an impressive building. Designed by amateur architect Nathaniel Clements and completed in 1751, it is situated on the Park’s Chesterfield Avenue.
For many decades, it served the purpose of Viceregal Lodge, the official residence of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In 1922, the Irish Free State took possession of it and in 1937, Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde, took up residence there.
Many people have remarked on its resemblance to the US White House and indeed, the impressive facade at 1600 Pennsylvania avenue with its elegant, 4-column portico was designed by Irish-born architect, James Hoban. But, in contrast to the more than 150 rooms of its US counterpart, the Aras boasts a mere 95 rooms.
Even so, it has received many important people over the decades, the Aras being a state reception area as well as a private residence. Queen Victoria stayed there as did, in modern times, John F Kennedy and Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II, her consort Prince Phillip and their son, Prince Charles.
Despite this grandeur, the Aras has a delightful air of informality about it, epitomised by the current president, Michael D. O’Higgins. Every so often, O’Higgins throws a party and invites naturalised Irish citizens to it, to welcome them to Ireland.
The People's Gardens
Very near the Parkgate Street (west Dublin) entrance to the park are the People’s Gardens, a 9-hectare expanse of formal cultivation. Opened in 1864, the Gardens were laid out to demonstrate Victorian prowess in garden design. In addition, the Dublin Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin were heaving with plant species brought back from Europe and the tropics by Victorian botanists, and the sheltered Gardens provided the ideal place for experimental cultivation.
Nearly 150 years later, many Dubliners are grateful for this piece of planning; many a summer’s afternoon spent in the colourful and interesting surroundings twinkle among our fondest memories. In addition to the beds of plants that add interest to the grassy walkways are playing fountains, and an ornamental lake and island that many ducks, swans, geese and other species have colonised. The Gardens are open from daybreak to dusk, and are a must-see for all visitors to Phoenix Park.
In 1830, on an eastern flank of Phoenix Park, Decimus Barton established Dublin Zoo. In September 1831, it opened with 28 species of birds and mammals, all donated by London Zoo. To make it accessible to the majority of people, the entrance charge for Sunday was one penny. To the right of the new entrance building is the original, thatched-roof cottage-style entrance hut.
Today, the Zoo houses more than 700 species, and it is divided into areas such as the African Plains, the South American House, the Orangutan Forest, a Family Farm, and many more areas, all laid out around the large, ornamental lake. A long-running television series, The Zoo, which began in 2010, is filmed there.
The Wellington Monument
The largest obelisk in Europe, the Wellington Monument, stands a proud 62 metres high near the eastern extremity of the Park. Notable architect Robert Smirke, who designed the British Museum, Somerset House, and Kings College in London, designed the Monument to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo. The brass plaques in place about its base depict scenes from the life of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who was born in Ireland in 1769.
For the majority of today’s visitors to the Monument, the only “Waterloo” is the challenge of climbing the stepped pediment to actually reach the base. From a distance, it looks easy, but the steps are actually slanted and the less-than-sure-footed person can find him or herself slipping backwards. More precarious still is descending the steps. Move too quickly and miss your footing and you will descend the pediment on another, softer part of your anatomy. Reader, I speak from experience. But if you get an opportunity, do sit down upon one of the steps and enjoy the enhanced and elevated view of the Park.
Phoenix Park Montage
The Furry Glen
If you fell asleep on the journey from wherever to the Furry Glen and awoke suddenly on arriving there, you would possibly imagine yourself in a remote and lovely part of the Irish countryside. In reality, you would have been driven to a secluded hollow in the south-western area of the Park. The central feature of the Furry Glen is a small lake that is surrounded by reeds and other vegetation where wild bird species nest and breed.
Motorists can access the roadway that leads to the lake, while interesting walks weave through the forested area behind it.
The Royal Hibernian Military Hospital and St Mary’s Hospital
In 1769, King George III granted a group of buildings in the Phoenix Park a Charter of Incorporation to serve the education of orphaned boys and girls. In 1814, Thomas Le Fanu, father of writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, was appointed chaplain of the school in Dublin's Phoenix Park, and the family moved there to live. By now, the children numbered over 600. The girls were eventually moved to another school, and the boys trained primarily for the military.
Eventually, the Irish army turned the school into a military hospital and in 1948, the Dublin Health Authority took over the building. Today, the hospital is primarily a centre for older patients. The mount upon which it is situated affords a view of the nearby village of Chapelizod, the River Liffey and the Wicklow Mountains.
There is much, much more to Phoenix Park, of course, not the least of which is the vast expanse of uncultivated ground used for sporting events and rock concerts, and the more secluded and wooded areas where fallow deer can be seen all the year around. Tributaries of the River Liffey add interest to the area, and visitors to the north of the Park can enjoy the newly-restored Ashtown Castle, a fifteenth-century medieval townhouse, which incorporates the Phoenix Park Visitor's Centre.
Directions and Admission Information
Buses that go to the Park entrances from various Dublin locations include the 4, 11, 17, 25, 25a, 26, 46a, 66, 67 and 114. The Luas tram stops near the Parkgate Street entrance and nearby, across Heuston Bridge, is Heuston mainline train station, a hub for trains from all over Ireland.
Admission to the Park is free, but Dublin Zoo does require an entrance charge. The Parkgate Street and Castleknock entrances are open twenty-four hours every day, while the other gates open at 7am and close at 10.45pm. Other attractions, including the People's Garden, have varying opening/closing times throughout the year.
© 2019 Mary Phelan