Claimed as the largest such enclosed city space in Europe, Dublin’s Phoenix Park this year celebrates the 350th anniversary of its creation. The park’s name derives from an anglicisation of ‘fionn uisce’ meaning clear water, referring to a spa once located in the vicinity. In the Middle Ages, the 1,750 acres now surrounded by eleven miles of wall were owned by the Knights Hospitaller and following the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII the lands eventually reverted to the British Crown.
In 1662 Charles II’s representative in Ireland, James Butler, first Duke of Ormonde established a royal hunting ground on the site: descendants of the herd of fallow deer he introduced still roam the park today. One of its most attractive, if unsung, features is the location of the park. On raised ground to the north-west of the city centre, views to the south soar over urban sprawl and offer an unimpeded spectacle of the Dublin Mountains.
Just over a decade after being created by Ormonde the park was almost lost when the Charles II proposed to grant the land to his venal former mistress Barbara Villiers whose compliant husband had been given an Irish peerage; fortunately the country’s then-Viceroy Arthur Capel, Earl of Essex resisted this scheme’s implementation and ensured the Phoenix Park was not lost.
An equal debt is owed to a later Lord Lieutenant, Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, for allowing public access to the park for the first time; the principal east-west route continues to bear the name Chesterfield Avenue. The worldly Lord Chesterfield is probably best known today for the posthumously published volume of letters to his son which I remember reading with much pleasure over thirty years ago, despite (or perhaps because of) James Boswell’s stricture that they taught ‘the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing-master.’ But in Ireland, Lord Chesterfield’s memory should be cherished since during his brief viceregal tenure (from January 1745 to November 1746) he encouraged indigenous industry and ensured peace while Charles Stuart, the Young Pretender, was trying to inspire rebellion in neighbouring Scotland. It is said that on one occasion, an anxious supporter of the regime burst into his bedroom to report ‘the papists in Ireland are all up,’ to which Lord Chesterfield, with characteristic insouciance, responded, ‘I am not surprised at it’ before looking at his watch and adding, ‘why, it is ten o’clock, I should have been up too, had I not overslept myself.’
This was the man who decided the pleasures of the Phoenix Park should not be enjoyed only by the crown’s representative but by all citizens and accordingly opened its gates to the public. He also initiated a policy of tree planting and other landscape works, as well as erecting the fluted corinthinan Phoenix Column at the centre of the park. Its base features a carved inscription recording Chesterfield’s beneficence while the top is crowned with a fancifully rococo interpretation of the mythical phoenix.
Three of the park’s most significant structures are within a short distance of the Phoenix Column: Ashtown Castle, an early 17th century towerhouse, once part of a larger building that served as the Under-Secretary’s Lodge under the British regime and then Papal Nunciature post-Independence and is now a somewhat uninspiring visitors’ centre; Deerfield, the American Ambassador’s residence, originally the Chief Secretary’s Lodge, the core of which dates from the mid-1770s; and Áras an Uachtaráin, now the residence of the President of Ireland. Prior to this, it was the Vice-Regal Lodge, although originally built for himself c.1752-57 by the politician and amateur architect Nathaniel Clements after he had obtained the sinecure of Park Ranger. Five years after Clements’ death in 1777 his son sold the building to the government for use as residence for the Lord Lieutenant. It has been subject to periodic enlargements and improvements ever since, but overall remains an incoherent, unsatisfactory building.
Indeed, aside from the Phoenix Column, the only really sound piece of design in the park is the Wellington Testimonial (pace architectural historian Christine Casey who calls it ‘formidable and rather dreary’). Designed by Sir Robert Smirke and completed in 1820, this monument to the Irish-born Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon is 220 feet high and 120 feet square at the base. The pedestal bas-reliefs were added in the 1860s; one feels the obelisk would be purer – if perhaps even more formidable – without them. There was an attempt made by dissident republicans to blow up the obelisk, in the same way Nelson’s Pillar on O’Connell Street was destroyed by a bomb in 1966, but the structure’s sheer mass defeated their efforts. Ideologues rarely display good aesthetic judgement.
The Phoenix Park is today under the care of the Office of Public Works which does a competent job, with occasional slips: shame on whoever permitted uPVC window frames to be used in the 1830s Castleknock Gate lodge. And credit to Lords Ormonde and Chesterfield for their foresight.