Dublin’s Verdant Treasure
Dublin’s verdant treasure, the Phoenix Park, occasioned one of history’s more amusing conversations. King Charles ll, besotted with the beautiful and demanding Countess of Castlemaine, thought to please her by gifting her the Phoenix Park, which then swept down the northern banks of the Liffey and up again on the south, and the mansion therein. James, Duke of Ormonde, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and champion of Dublin, persuaded Charles otherwise. The foul tempered Countess threatened Ormonde that she ‘wished to see him hanged’. Coolly, he informed her, that he would merely like ‘to live long enough to see her grow old.’ And thus, her ladyship thwarted, the park in time, came down to the people.
Elizabeth l first conceived the idea of a large deer park outside the city of Dublin. But it was Ormonde who first seriously undertook its development, spending £10,000 in the course of his career. Initially for the nobility to hunt, the park was opened mid-eighteenth century to the public who visited to amble alongside the miniature lakes, explore the romantic glens and, in springtime, stroll the scented hawthorne groves.
Parts of the vast parkland were put to more utilitarian uses:
- Phoenix House or the King’s House, on St. Thomas’ Hill, bought by the crown in 1618, and grown dilapidated, was turned to use as an arms and explosives repository for the Dublin regiments. In 1766, construction began of the Royal Hibernian Military School for children of soldiers.
- Luke Gardiner, Keeper of the Park, relinquished his home for the Mountjoy Cavalry Barracks in 1725.
- The Royal Military Infirmary was constructed in 1786.
- The Salute Battery with canons poised for firing on Royal and other occasions, stood where now the Wellington Testimonial stands.
A popular recreation around 1800 was to visit the Phoenix spa in the glen, near the grand entrance to the vice regal lodge. It is from this spring water, or fionn uisce, that the name Phoenix derives. In 1813, Charlotte, Duchess of Richmond had a rustic dome built in which to sit while sipping the waters. More than 1,000 visitors a week paid 5 shillings while the less fortunate could have a tumbler of the therapeutic waters for a penny.
Perhaps as early as 1747, or later in Lord Whitworth’s time, a marble pillar, thirty feet high, topped with an enormous phoenix was erected in the ‘centre of the ring in the Deer-park near Dublin’, most likely near the spa. The popularity of the park grew as Dublin lost its green fields to the development of the north banks of the Liffey and of the South Circular Road, which opened in 1780.
The military offered particular entertainment - one could simply stroll through the camps to see and be seen. Military reviews offered spectacle and excitement - at times the exercises spilled down on to the Liffey banks as soldiers engaged in mock battle from Island Bridge to Lucan. There were duels at dawn upon the fifteen acres and by day occasional pedestrian and equestrian hurdle races in the nineteenth century. The Zoological Gardens opened in 1831 and in 1851 exhibited a Zulu chief, his Amaponda woman, their new baby and an accompanying Kaffir tribesman. People flocked to marvel at the ‘magnificent creatures’. Protesters also used the park: 1890 saw a demonstration in support of men locked out by the coal merchants and in 1883 the bricklayers, builders and labourers gathered over a wage dispute.
In the Phoenix Park today, history’s mirror reflects cars not carriages, joggers and battling boot camp warriors rather than soldiers, amblers of all and every culture and a Presidential host at the King’s House.