A Tale of Two Parks

Posted by admin | July 21, 2009 0

The Fair City has undoubtedly given much to the descendants of Arthur Guinness whose St James Gate Brewery gave a distinctive waft of roasted barley to the banks of the River Liffey and whose ships transporting the “Black Stuff” were a feature of the quayside opposite the Custom House when I was growing up in Dublin. Guinness is a popular dry stout beer that originated in the brewery of Arthur Guinness (1725–1803) at St. James’s Gate, Dublin. Guinness is based on the porter style that originated in London in the early 18th century and is one of the most successful beer brands worldwide. A distinctive feature is the burnt flavour which is derived from the use of roasted barley. Unfortunately the parent company has been headquartered in London since 1932 when it listed on the London Stock Exchange and was later merged with Grand Metropolitan plc. Due to the machinations of Ernest Saunders (the only person to be cured from irreversible senile dementia!) in the “Guinness Scandal” in the 1980’s the family connection with the firm is largely a thing of the past and the company has developed into a multi-national alcohol conglomerate named Diageo. However, with his well known Gift of Prophecy, the Celtic Sage foresees a future campaign to repatriate this part of our National Patrimony to Ireland!

Summer House by the Lake

Well in better times when Guinness was Irish, the Guinness family amply reciprocated the generosity of Dubliners contributing to Irish institutions and culture and to public welfare through the Iveagh Trust, now the Guinness Trust. In Dublin’s South City Centre you can find many examples of the family’s munificence including Dublin’s best known and finest Victorian public park, St Stephen’s Green, and overlooking it are two fine Georgian Mansions both donated by the Guinness family. One is the world renowned College of Surgeon’s (RCSI) and the other Iveagh House is a splendid urban palazzo housing the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, Iveagh House. Behind Iveagh House is another gift from the family, a “secret garden” the Iveagh Gardens.

College of Surgeons

St Stephen’s Green was re-opened by Lord Ardilaun in 1880 for the citizens of Dublin. This 9 hectare / 22 acre park has been maintained in the original Victorian layout with extensive perimeter tree and shrub planting, spectacular spring and summer Victorian bedding. The herbaceous border also provides colour from early spring to late autumn. Sanctuary from inclement weather can be obtained in the Victorian lakeside shelter or in the Victorian Swiss shelters in the centre of the park. It is a wonderful green lung in the midst of the hurly burly of the busy city and with its lake, flower beds, glades and shelters it is both well used and well maintained by the Office of Public Works who have added features to it without detracting from the Victorian integrity of this public space and its surrounds, encased as it is by fines cast iron fencing and sheltering mature trees.

Until 1663 St Stephen’s Green was a marshy common on the edge of Dublin, used for grazing. In that year Dublin Corporation, seeing an opportunity to raise much needed revenue, decided to enclose the centre of the common and to sell land around the perimeter for building. The park was enclosed with a wall in 1664. The houses built around the Green were rapidly replaced by new buildings in the Georgian style and by the end of the eighteenth century the Green was a place of resort for the better-off of the city. Much of the present-day landscape of the square comprises modern buildings, some in a replica Georgian style, and relatively little survives from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Map of current layout

In 1814 control of St Stephen’s Green Park passed to Commissioners for the local householders, who redesigned its layout and replaced the walls with railings. Access was restricted to local residents, until 1877, when Parliament passed an Act to reopen St Stephen’s Green to the public, at the initiative of Sir A.E. Guinness, a member of the Guinness brewing family who lived at St Anne’s, Raheny and at Ashford Castle in Cong, Co. Mayo. He later paid for the laying out of the Green in approximately its current form, which took place in 1880, and gave it to the Corporation, as representatives of the people. By way of thanks the city commissioned a statue of him, which faces the College of Surgeons. His brother Edward lived at Iveagh House, which his descendants gave in 1939 to the Department of External Affairs (now the Department of Foreign Affairs).

Lord Ardilaun
Ardilaun Lodge

Over 3.5 km of pathways are accessible for all users. The waterfall and Pulham rock work on the western side of the green are worth of a visit likewise the ornamental lake which provides a home for waterfowl and a garden for the visually impaired. A number of sculptures are located throughout the green and a children’s playground is a popular attraction of the park. Lunchtime concerts are performed during the summer months providing a musical interlude for office workers and visitors.

Map of Green with key features(A)Fusilier’s Arch(B)O’Donovan Rossa(C)O’Connell Bridge(D)Wolfe Tone & Famine Memorial E)Lord Ardilaun(F)Countess Markievicz(G)Playground(H)Bandstand(I)3Fates

One of the more unusual aspects of the park lies on the North West corner of this central area – a garden for the blind with scented plants, which can withstand handling, and are labelled in Braille. Another feature is a sculpture group representing the Three Fates inside the Leeson Street gate (a gift from the German people in thanks for Irish help to refugees after World War II).

The Three Fates

Further north again (and spanning much of the length of the park) is a large lake. Home to ducks and other water fowl, the lake is fed by an artificial water fall, spanned by O’Connell Bridge, and fronted by an ornamental gazebo. The lakes in the park are fed from the Grand Canal at Portobello.

Most people enter from the top of Grafton Street through the Fusilier’s Arch (first termed “Traitors Gate” by Redmondites) at the Grafton Street corner which commemorates the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who died in the Second Boer War. Irish Nationalists identified with the stand of the Boer Republics against British rule, hence the epithet this being the only time the supported Orange Men!

“Traitors Gate”

A seated statue of Lord Ardilaun sits on the western side, the man who gave the Green to the city, faces the Royal College of Surgeons which he also sponsored. His country house was the superbly located Ashford Castle at Cong in Co. Mayo, today a rather upmarket hotel on the shores of Lough Corrib.

Overlooking St Stephen’s Green you’ll find the historic Shelbourne Hotel now looking as bright as a shiny pin after an extensive restoration which maintained its character and on the first floor overlooking the Green you will find the “Constitution Room” where the Irish Constitution adopted at independence was drafted. Just to the side and dating from 1693 is another urban enclave The Huguenot Cemetery. The Huguenots were French Calvinists persecuted intermittently by the Catholic rulers of France throughout the seventeenth century. Small numbers of refugees from this persecution had come to Ireland, mainly via England, from 1620 to 1641, and again with Cromwell in 1649, but it was in 1685, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed them toleration, that the main body of Huguenots began to arrive, mostly from the countryside around the city of La Rochelle in the modern region of Poitou-Charente.

The Huguenot Cemetery

After the end of the Williamite wars, large Huguenot settlements were established in Portarlington, Youghal, Cork, Dublin, Waterford and Lisburn, where they became celebrated for their expertise in textiles, specialising in weaving, lace-making, and glove-making. In the course of time, they became thoroughly absorbed into Irish society through intermarriage, and names such as Boucicault, Maturin, Le Fanu and Trench are still familiar in Ireland today. Indeed what is now the Bank of Ireland has its origins in La Touche’s Bank set up by the Huguenot David La Touche who is well known as the subject of a cheque written in verse by Richard Chapell Whaley, High Sheriff of Ireland and father of the notorious regency Rake, Thomas “Buck” Whaley;

“Mr. La Touche,
Open your pouch,
And give unto my darling
Five hundred pounds sterling:
For which this will be your bailey,
Signed, Richard Chapell Whaley.”

Richard Whaley is too connected to St. Stephen’s Green for his magnificent town mansion is now Newman House and part of the National University of Ireland attended by James Joyce and many others.

During the Easter Rising of 1916, a group of insurgents made up mainly of members of the Irish Citizen Army, under the command of Commandant Michael Mallin and his second-in-command Constance Markievicz, established a position in St Stephen’s Green. They numbered between 200-250. They confiscated motor vehicles to establish road blocks on the streets that surround the park, and dug defensive positions in the park itself. This approach differed from that of taking up positions in buildings, adopted elsewhere in the city. It proved to have been unwise when elements of the British Army took up positions in the Shelbourne Hotel, at the north-eastern corner of St Stephen’s Green, overlooking the park, from which they could shoot down into the entrenchments. Finding themselves in a weak position, the Volunteers withdrew to the Royal College of Surgeons on the west side of the Green. During the Rising fire was temporarily halted to allow the park’s groundsman to feed the local ducks! There is a bust of Constance Markievicz on the south of the central garden.


At the Merrion Row corner of the Green opposite the Shelbourne there is a bronze statue of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the leader of the 1798 rebellion. Flanked by monoliths, it was immediately nicknamed ‘Tonehenge’. Behind Tonehenge inside the Green there is a memorial to the Great Famine of 1845-1850 by Edward Delaney


Theobald Wolfe Tone
Memorial to the Great Famine

In 1862, Benjamin Guinness bought Nos. 80-81 St. Stephen’s Green and combined the two houses, turning them into the stately mansion that is Iveagh House today. It is now home to the Department of Foreign Affairs’ headquarters, and therefore cannot be visited. However, just behind the house, you’ll find Dublin’s secret gardens, the beautiful Iveagh Gardens, and these are open to the public. Designed in the 1860s, they offer a combination of the French and English garden styles, so while in some areas you’ll find a cascade surrounded by natural landscapes; in others you’ll find grand statues and fountains.

Iveagh House
Iveagh Gardens in relation to Stephen’s Green

A fine Victorian town garden, with a fountain, rosarium and maze, formerly belonging to the Earls of Iveagh. Designed by Ninian Niven in 1863, the gardens are in the process of being restored. Much has been achieved but there is still work to be done. The Iveagh Gardens are among the finest and least known of Dublin’s parks and gardens. They were designed by Ninian Niven, in 1865, as an intermediate design between the ‘French Formal’ and the ‘English Landscape’ styles. They demonstrated the artistic skills of the landscape Architect of the mid 19th century and display a unique collection of landscape features which include Rustic Grotto’s and Cascade, sunken formal panels of lawn with Fountain Centre Pieces, Wilderness, Woodlands, Maze, Rosarium, American Garden, Archery Grounds, Rockeries and Rooteries.

The conservation and restoration of the Gardens commenced in 1995 and to date most of the features have been restored, for example the Maze in Box hedging with a Sundial as a centre piece. The recently restored Cascade and exotic tree ferns all help to create a sense of wonder in the ‘Secret Garden’. The pre 1860s rose varieties add an extra dimension to the Victorian Rosarium.


So Dubliner’s are grateful to the descendants of Arthur Guinness of Leixlip for two of Dublin’s finest open spaces, in St Stephen’s Green a wonderful example of High Victorian formal Public Park and in the Iveagh Garden’s a total contrast, a real “Secret Garden” which is a bucolic fantasy and a true hidden enclave in the heart of the city. They are today (whatever the sins of the past) in good public stewardship and have been sensitively enhanced. On a summer’s day there is no need to justify their existence as the appreciation of the many users of these refreshing and rejuvenating spaces is obvious providing an oasis of relaxation and contemplation in the middle of the metropolis. But there is a further point about their public stewardship that there is absolutely no commercialisation, no kiosks, no cafes and no deckchairs to rent. This truly preserves them as unique havens and enshrines them as “People’s Parks” for grateful Dubliner’s and visitors alike.

See also: The Lady Miranda


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