History, Modern, Travel

Would You Like to Go to Phoenix Park?

Thunder and lightning is no lark
When Dublin City is in the dark.
So if you have any money go up to the park
And view the zoological gardens.

“The Zoological Gardens”, lyrics by Dominic Behan

We’ve been in Dublin for a couple of weeks and one of the biggest surprises has been the massive green space close to the city, Phoenix Park (the name is an anglicization of fionn uisce, which means ‘clear water’). It’s a patch of land whose history mirrors that of Ireland itself, in the sense that it has passed from one ruling party to another and retains the scars of battle and souvenirs of different eras. Like a phoenix, it has repeatedly risen from the ashes.

Some idea of the size of the park

In the twelfth century, Anglo Normans started getting an eye for Irish real estate. This all started when the King of Leinster Diarmait Mac Murchada was dispossessed of his kingdom and called for some outside help. The one who answered the call was Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke (now popularly known as ‘Strongbow’). Together, they raised a large army and got the the kingdom back. Diarmat died shortly afterwards, probably of grief, and Strongbow lost no time in claiming the kingship for himself, much to the displeasure of both the Gaelic kings and Henry II. Henry invaded Ireland and brokered the Treaty of Windsor, which stated he would become overlord of all existing Norman territory within Ireland and Rory O’Connor would be High-King of all the rest. Unfortunately for Rory, and for the Gaels, the Normans interpreted this as a bit of a free for all, their territory expanded rapidly, and by the mid-thirteenth century, Ireland looked like this:

Stormin’ Normans. Map taken from here

So how does the Park come in? Well, after the invasion, the Norman knights who’d helped Henry received land and titles as a reward. Hugh Tyrell was one of these and he received land later known as Castleknock, gifting the area that is now Phoenix Park to the Knights Templar. They built the Abbey of St. Brigid’s on the ground and held it until 1308, when Edward II had the order condemned and suppressed (probably under the influence of his father-in-law Philip IV of France). The land and abbey subsequently passed to the Knights Hospitaller, who kept it until Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-sixteenth century. The land went the king’s representatives in Ireland.

James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, by William Wissing

When the Irish Rebellion of 1641 broke out, one James Butler was chosen as commander of the Royal Irish Army, charged with defending Dublin from local Catholics who wanted self-rule and an end to anti-Catholic discrimination. A staunch Royalist in the ensuing English Civil War and Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland, Butler lost his troops and went into exile with Charles II and lived with him and his retinue in Paris. After the Restoration, Butler was made Duke of Ormond in the Irish peerage and recovered his extensive estates in Ireland. In 1662, the Duke of Ormond established a royal hunting park, stuffing it full of deer and pheasants so that it required a wall to keep them in. Fallow deer are there to this day, wandering about, though I haven’t seen any pheasants.

Incidentally but entertainingly, in 1680 the Duke of Ormond was kidnapped by a bravo named Thomas Blood, the same ruffian who tried to steal the Crown jewels the following year. Ormonde escaped in the nick of time before being lynched. Blood, meanwhile, was inexplicably pardoned for both outrages. John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester, wrote a scurrilous poem about it:

Blood, that wears treason in his face,
Villain complete in parson's gown,
How much he is at court in grace
For stealing Ormond and the crown!
Since loyalty does no man good,
Let's steal the King, and outdo Blood!


The park was opened up to the public in 1745 by Lord Chesterfield (1699-1773), during his eight-month viceroyalty in Ireland. Chesterfield is probably best known as the author of Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774). These were collected and published by his son’s impoverished widow, Eugenia Stanhope, after Lord Chesterfield unkindly left her out of his will. Samuel Johnson was scathing on the subject of the letters, saying “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master.”

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Well, notwithstanding his dubious literary legacy, Chesterfield left a lasting memento of himself in the park itself and in the neo-classical monument of a Phoenix on top of a Corinthian column. This now stands in the middle of a roundabout in the road that runs through the park.

Decimus Burton

When the nineteenth century rolled around, the park was getting a little dishevelled. The man hired to give it a makeover was one Decimus Burton, famous as the architect of a large number of Victorian public projects including Hyde Park, Regent’s Park, St. James’s Park and the seaside resort of Queenstown. Not only did he redesign Phoenix Park, but he was also the architect of Dublin Zoo, which still stands today.

Escapee elephant in Phoenix Park, 2002

Part of the spruce up involved putting a honking great obelisk on the grounds, a testimonial to the achievements of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, particularly his achievement in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. At 62 meters high, it is the tallest obelisk in Europe and was funded by public subscription. This is kind of ironic because although Wellington was born in Dublin, he considered himself British and despised the Irish.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, by Goya (1812–14). This painting was stolen from the National Gallery in London in 1961. Five years later, elderly pensioner Kempton Bunton confessed to the crime.

The mid-nineteenth century was pretty busy for Ireland. Great Britain’s laissez-faire, not to say brutally callous, attitude to the Great Famine of 1845-49 increased Irish desire for Home Rule and calls for an end to the vampirical system in which absentee landlords profited from the labor of tenant farmers. When these farmers, who often lived at subsistence level, could not afford to pay rent, they were generally evicted. One of the most effective advocates for land reform and Home Rule was Charles Stewart Parnell. In 1879, at a time when popular anger was growing, Parnell was elected president of the Irish National Land League. Over the next year both evictions and retaliatory violence against landlords and enforcers increased. On October 13 1881, Parnell and his colleagues were arrested and imprisoned in Kilmainham jail in Dublin under ‘reasonable suspicion’ for inciting violence. Together they issued the No Rent Manifesto, a fiery call to tenant farmers “to pay no rents under any circumstances to their landlords until Government relinquishes the existing system of terrorism and restores the constitutional rights of the people”. He was released on May 6, 1882 after signing the Kilmainham Treaty, in which he agreed to withdraw the manifesto and discourage agrarian crime provided that the Government would allow 100,000 tenants to appeal for fair rent before the land courts.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Only four days after Parnell’s release, there was a politically motivated fatal stabbing at Phoenix Park. The victims were Chief Secretary of Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and Permanent Undersecretary Thomas Henry Burke. Parnell was shocked. He offered to resign his position as MP and made a speech condemning the murders. As it turned out the killers were Joe Brady and Tim Kelly, members of the Irish National Invincibles, a militant breakaway movement. They got away in a cab driven by James Fitzharris, nicknamed Skin-the-Goat, and subsequently fled to the US. In the end, the incident allowed Parnell to make a break from more radical elements in the Land League and so to increase his political influence.

Memorial to the victims in Phoenix Park

Another feature of this park is the magazine store, a military fort built in 1735, when the country was quite poor, which prompted Jonathan Swift to write a satirical ditty about it:

Now’s here’s a proof of Irish sense,
Here Irish wit is seen,
When nothing’s left that’s worth defence,
We build a Magazine.

This fort was kept in use for 250 years and was raided twice. The first time was during the Easter Rising in 1916, when members of Fianna Éirann unsuccessfully tried to blow it up. The second was on December 23, 1939, when IRA members took weapons and more than one million rounds of ammunition. The materiel was recovered shortly afterwards. Since 1988 it has been owned by the Office of Public Works.

The fort from a path

Probably the most notable thing to have happened at the park in the last fifty years is the visit of Pope John Paul II in September 1979, the first ever visit to Ireland by any Pope. He helicoptered in to Phoenix Park and celebrated mass with 1,250,000 people–one third of the country’s population at the time. His visit came at the height of the Troubles and he had wanted to visit Armagh but they were having a particularly violent year of it. Such was the importance of the occasion, that nine months later the country had a baby boom–people born around July 1980 are still called the Pope’s Children.

A crowd gathers in Phoenix Park to celebrate mass under Pope John Paul II

The Papal Cross erected for the mass still stands in the park. The simple white cross stands 116 feet high. Something about the scene, with the graceful deer and trees and mist (and cars). I found it quite affecting, it reminded me of old poems like “The Dream of the Rood:

Many years have gone–yet still I have it in remembrance–since I was felled upon a forest’s edge and wakened from my slumbers. Strange foes seized hold on me and wrought me to a pageant and bade me lift aloft their wretched men. Men bore me on their shoulders, till that they set me on a hill; enough of foes, forsooth, fastened me there. Then I beheld the Lord of men hasting with mighty, steadfast heart, for He would fain ascend upon me. Yet might I not bow down nor break, against the world of God, what time I saw the compass of the earth tremble and shake. All those foes might I lay low; yet firm I stood.

I had a few more things I was going to say but it’s soo late so here are just a few more pictures.