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9 things you (probably) didn't know about... Merrion Square

A new month-long festival aims to celebrate this historical part of the capital – but we’ve found out some things you may not have known about Merrion Square.

MERRION SQUARE IS a very well-known part of Dublin city, with its colourful and imposing Georgian houses, sculpture-filled gated park, famous former residents and regular art on a Sunday events.

Today, not many of the houses in the square, which was laid out after 1762, are residential – most are office space – but there is still so much history there.

Famous residents included Oscar Wilde, who lived at 1 Merrion Square as a child, while WB Yeats lived at No 82, and Daniel O’Connell at No 58. The British Embassy was once based at no 39, but was burned to the ground following the Bloody Sunday shootings in the early 1970s.

The Merrion Hotel by UggBoy UggGirl on Flickr

A new month-long Failte Ireland-enabled initiative called September in the Square has kicked off in an effort to show just how much the area offers. When we heard about its urban explorers’ trail, open day, and Wildean salon, it got us thinking about how much we didn’t know about Merrion Square.

After chatting to Nigel Monaghan, the keeper of the Natural History Museum (which is one of the prominent buildings in the area, along with Leinster House, and the National Gallery), we were a lot wiser.

Here are 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about Merrion Square:

  • The Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, described himself as being born in an Irish stable. Where was he born? In a house that is now the Merrion Hotel, said Nigel Monaghan. That gives some indication of the type of homes he was used to living in, doesn’t it?
  • As you walk around Merrion Square, you can see “little circles of metal about a foot diameter buried in the ground,” said Monaghan. “This was where coal used to be poured into the basement of the buildings, to allow servants to bring buckets into the range where you do your cooking and to bring up coal into the various rooms”.
  • The park was once a private park – only residents had keys for it, as it was built as a large ornamental garden and park for the residents of Merrion Square and not for the general public. But in the 1970s, the park was opened to the public. It was formerly called Archbishop Ryan Park, but re-named in 2010 after Ryan was criticised in the Murphy Report.

The Oscar Wilde statue by Infomatique on Flickr.

  • Merrion Square Park nearly became a site for a Roman Catholic cathedral. It belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, who were were looking to build a cathedral in Dublin, said Monaghan. The Church of Ireland had St Patrick’s Cathedral and Christchurch in Dublin. The Church eventually chose to build the Pro-Cathedral on Marlborough St.
  • When the Georgian homes of Merrion Square were built, around 250 years ago, the area was farmland on the edge of the city of Dublin. It was a far cry from the city-centre location it now occupies. “It shows how small Dublin was physically, in terms of built-up space,” said Monaghan. “If you lived in Leinster house, as a handful of rich people did, you could see as far as the bay”. That was, until Merrion Square was built.  After Leinster House was built in the 1740s, the area became quite fashionable, and new homes were built in what had been farmland.
  • Leinster House, one side of which is located on Merrion Square, was home to the RDS of its time. “You would have seen prize bulls and horses in the front lawn,” said Monaghan. “The equivalent of their spring show activities would have taken part on the Leinster lawn.”

Pic by Infomatique on Flickr

  • Georgian homes weren’t exactly like the houses we live in today (aside from the fact that we can only dream of living in a house with more than two storeys). As Monaghan explained, “they weren’t what you or I would have thought of as a family home”. Instead, they were much more the ‘city home’ and business home, where the father of the house had a business in town and kept a house.  You lived upstairs in the house, to get “better views and fresher air”. This was in no small part due to the fact that horses were everywhere, as were their droppings, and the streets could be very noisy and dirty. The genteel people of Merrion Square could avoid the noise and smell at the top of their homes. “They liked to live where the light was better,” explained Monaghan. “The streets would have been quite noisy, with cartwheels clattering everywhere, and horses braying.”
  • Some residents would hold salons in their homes, such as Oscar Wilde’s mother, Lady Wilde, who would hold salons for guests such as Bram Stoker, Isaac Butt and Sheridan le Fanu at 1 Merrion Square. Some people would visit their homes after leaving their country estates for social purposes, such as attending masked balls, or marrying their daughters to suitable men. Others would visit to hold or attend parties with other bachelors, or to play cards. “There would have been some very serious party-animal bachelor behaviour,” said Monaghan.
  • For those who missed our Underground Ireland feature: ever spot the grass-covered hump at the corner of Fitzwilliam Street Lower in Merrion Square Park? Well, it is not an unusual landscape feature but the covered entrance to a WWII air raid shelter, which links several tunnels beneath.

Today from 10am to 5pm, a Family Discovery Trail will take place in Merrion Square, created by Make and Do. Find out more here. For more details on all the September in the Square events, visit the official website, http://merrionsquare.ie.

Read: Underground Ireland: our country’s hidden structures>

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