Dublin’s Phoenix Park, the largest enclosed park within any European capital city, celebrates its 350th anniversary this year.
Due to its size (1,752 acres -- five times
that of London’s Hyde Park), the Irish government is lobbying the United Nations to classify the park
as a Unesco World Heritage Site. But the vast cosmopolitan oasis also serves as
a unique portal to a fascinating past.
Park was established in 1662 as hunting grounds for visiting British
royalty by the Duke of Ormonde. He stocked the park with deer and erected a wall along its
perimeter, keeping the animals in and the commoners out. The park was
finally opened to the public in 1745 by the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, Lord
Lieutenant of Ireland.
According to the book Phoenix Park: A
History and Guidebook, written by Brendan Nolan, the park’s name comes from a nearby
spring. The Irish for clear spring water is fionn uisce, which
eventually turned into “phoenix”.
Today, hundreds of deer still live in the park,
descendents from the Duke of Ormonde’s herds. Other major attractions include the
Phoenix Monument (built when the park first became public), the Dublin
Zoo, Áras an Uachtaráin (the current residence
of the President of Ireland), the Papal Cross (marking the Pope’s visit to Dublin
in 1979) and the Victorian
People’s Flower Garden.
Remnants from Dublin’s earliest
settlement, founded around 5,500
years ago, have been found in Phoenix Park. In 1838, on the south side of the
park, archaeologists excavated
artefacts including a necklace and
dating back to the Neolithic Age. Around the same time, archaeologists also
discovered two prehistoric
one on the Hill of
Knockmary, a hill west of St Mary’s Hospital, and one in the zoological
Phoenix Park is home to the largest Viking
cemetery outside of Scandinavia.
According to Ireland’s Office of Public Works, more than 40 Viking graves were
uncovered during the 19th and 20th Centuries. The burial grounds can be visited at Islandbridge and
Kilmainham, sites on the south
side of the park on the banks of the River Liffey (which runs along
Phoenix’s southern border).
On the night of 6 May 1882, Ireland’s
Chief Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his Under Secretary Thomas
Burke, were walking to the Viceregal Lodge, (present day Áras an Uachtaráin) when
they were violently attacked. Members of the Invincibles, a radical nationalist
group, stabbed the two men to death using surgical knives in an incident that
came to be known as the Phoenix
Winston Churchill’s roots
In his autobiography My Early Life:
1874-1904, Winston Churchill wrote
that his “first coherent memory” was formed in Phoenix Park. Churchill lived
in the park as
a small child in Little Ratra (or Ratra House), formerly called the Little
Lodge, when his father was appointed Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant,
Churchill’s grandfather. In his book, he remembered hearing soldiers from the
nearby barracks carrying out drills during his morning walks with his nanny.
World War II
On 31 May 1941, Germany bombed Dublin. According to Nolan, four bombs hit the
city, with one falling in Phoenix Park, near the dog pond and the Phoenix
Cricket Club. Although the surrounding buildings were damaged, no one in the
park was hurt (elsewhere 28 people were killed in the North Strand
area of the city).
During that time, Phoenix Park played a role in the war effort. An underground
railway tunnel and station beneath the park was used to
store emergency food
supplies, wrote journalist Tom Prendeville. The rail line is still used to move freight and locomotives today.
In 1903, the motor car world speed record was broken in
Phoenix Park by
Baron de Forest, who reached 84mph (versus the 20mph that was standard
on public roads, Nolan wrote). In 1979, Pope John Paul II came to Dublin, and more
than a million people attended the papal mass in Phoenix Park. In 1994,
hundreds of thousands of people showed up to welcome home Ireland’s soccer team
after its World Cup campaign. In 1997, the Tour de France finished its first stage with a leg through the park -- the first
time the race was in Ireland.
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