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 beginnings
Phoenix 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.

Ancient history
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 flint blades dating back to the Neolithic Age. Around the same time, archaeologists also discovered two prehistoric burial chambers, one on the Hill of Knockmary, a hill west of St Mary’s Hospital, and one in the zoological gardens.

Viking times
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).

Victorian tragedy

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 Park Murders.

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.

Momentous occasions
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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