I hope that you are having a lovely Christmas and as we say in Ireland – Nollaig Shona Duit – Merry Christmas to you !!
For me , this Christmas will be very quiet. For the safety of my family and the safety of others we have decided that our son and daughter that live overseas will not travel home and we are curtailing our social visits during the holiday. It’s a sacrifice that we must make and to play our part in combating the spread of the virus. However with zoom, skype and social media we can still manage to celebrate this special day together !
For today’s walk I have to admit full disclosure, I’m spending the day at home and the furthest I will walk is around the block with the dogs to work off my dinner ; so todays walk was ” pre-recorded ” earlier this week.
Regardless, please come along with me for a stroll through the Phoenix park in Dublin.
The Phoenix Park is named from the Irish: Páirc an Fhionnuisce – The park of the clear water . I love the way the Irish name somehow got lost in translation and became Phoenix – as there is no connection between clear water and the mythical Phoenix bird !!
Before the go for our walk let me warn you that the park is HUGE – at over 707 hectares ( 1750 Acres ) ) it is one of the largest enclosed recreational spaces within any European capital city . Its perimeter wall is eleven kilometres long : bet that took a lot of building !! Its located some 4 Kilometres west of the city centre, so let’s head out there in the car , and we can stop off and walk around the at the various points of interest as we go along.
As we drive through the impressive entrance at Parkgate street let me tell you a little of the history :
After the Normans conquered Dublin and its hinterland in the 12th century, Hugh Tyrrel, 1st Baron of Castleknock, granted a large area of land, including what now comprises the Phoenix Park, to the Knights Hospitaller. They established an abbey at Kilmainham on the site now occupied by Royal Hospital Kilmainham. The knights lost their lands in 1537 following the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII of England. Eighty years later the lands reverted to the ownership of the King’s representatives in Ireland. On the restoration of Charles II of England, his Viceroy in Dublin, the Duke of Ormond, established a royal hunting park on the land in 1662. It contained pheasants and wild deer, making it necessary to enclose the entire area with a wall.
As we drive up the main road – Chesterfield Avenue – we can see how it was laid out over 300 years ago. On our left we can see the Wellington monument, so let’s pull over and have a closer look. The Monument is a 62 metres tall obelisk commemorating the victories of the Duke of Wellington. It is the largest obelisk in Europe and would have been even higher if the publicly subscribed funding had not run out. Designed by Robert Smirke, there are four bronze plaques cast from cannon captured at the Battle of Waterloo—three of which have pictorial representations of Wellington’s career while the fourth has an inscription at the base of the obelisk.
In the distance we can see a second notable monument Known as the “Phoenix Column” . This is a Corinthian column carved from Portland Stone , with a phoenix on the capital, which was erected by the Earl of Chesterfield during his viceregality 1747. I have to tell you I still get a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach at the sight of this monument. During my running days I entered several half marathons that took place in the phoenix park, and the course was made up of three laps of the park ;with a long stretch running up Chesterfield avenue, turning left at the monument. I had to pass it several times during the race and especially during the last lap it was a real struggle, as I looked up the arrow straight road the monument looked like a dot in the distance and I felt that I would never reach the spot ..
Let’s turn left , and we can see a fine entrance ; this is Deerfield Residence and is the official residence of the United States Ambassador to Ireland . I remember coming here as a small child to see J F Kennedy drive past on his historic visit to Ireland in June 1963.
A little further on is another important site , the papal cross; It was erected in September 1979 for the papal visit of John Paul II , and over a million people came his to celebrate mass . I was in the crowd that day, for me it was a really memorable occasion. The grounds over which the cross stands is known as the fifteen acres – although is much larger than that. Far away ( and too far to photograph ) I can see a herd of herd of wild fallow deer – the deer have roamed the park since the 17th century !!
The park is famed for its wildlife . I am told There are 351 identified plant species in the park; three of these are rare and protected. The park has retained almost all of its old grasslands and woodlands and also has rare examples of wetlands. I read that almost 30% of the park is covered by trees, mainly broadleaf. A birdwatch survey found 72 species of bird including common buzzard, Eurasian sparrowhawk, common kestrel and Eurasian jay. The great spotted woodpecker, Ireland’s newest breeding bird, has been seen in the park several times, and the long-eared owl has was confirmed as a breeding species !
The park is home to many sports, including football and rugby , and there are also a cricket club and a polo club too. Their clubhouses have a sense of ” faded glory ” about them, and are a reminder of the timeless elegance of these sporting activities.
Now , a real treat to visit is Dublin Zoo !! This has been a favourite of mine since childhood and I have fond memories of visits to the zoo, starting at old entrance gate house… watching feeding time at the lion’s den, riding on a pony ,watching the chimps tea party and feeding buns to the elephants when such things were allowed !! The Zoo was founded in 1830 and is the third oldest zoo in the world. Nowadays it has a modern entrance and state of the art enclosures and has over 700 animals for us to watch and enjoy. In fact we have supplied the zoo’s gift shop in the past and it was a real treat for me to go visit the outlet for business as afterwards I could visit the zoo for free !!!
The day is short and the sunlight is fading, but before we leave the park I want to bring you to see Áras an Uachtaráin – the home of our president , Michael D. Higgins . This fine building is the official residence of the President of Ireland, that was built in 1754 as the Viceregal Lodge . At that time it was the official residence of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. I had the pleasure to visit the ” Aras ” as its affectionately called some years ago, and to my delight saw that it contains several Connemara marble topped tables !
The grounds are well protected by a sturdy fence and in some places a moat, but there is a gap in the hedge where we can stop and get a great view of the building.
Looking towards the house, I can see one of the most famous lights in Ireland – the light that shines from an upstairs window at Áras an Uachtaráin.
As the daylight fades I can just make out the light from this symbolic beacon, lighting the way for Irish emigrants and their descendants, welcoming them to their homeland.
First placed there by President Mary Robinson, during her term as president in the 1990’s the light builds on an old Irish tradition of placing a light in the window to guide the way of strangers in the night.
And this year there is an extra installation of lighting that was switched on just the other day – a stream of light pouring out of the lantern for the diaspora. Launched by the president , It is dedicated to all those who will not make it home this year, and for me this is particularly moving as my own family cannot be together to celebrate Christmas.
So, on that note let’s celebrate the midwinter, and the knowledge that the days will become brighter and that every day that passes brings us one day closer to the end of the pandemic. Take care and stay safe , and with my best wishes to you and your family , Stephen