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Phoenix Park is 350 years old: Here are 20 things to know about it

One of Europe’s largest city parks, the Phoenix Park has hosted herds of British royal deers, herds of British royals – and some dastardly criminals.

Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

THE PHOENIX PARK in Dublin is one of the city’s best-loved free amenities – and it is 350 years old in 2012. Here are some interesting discoveries we’ve been making about it:

  1. The park started life as a royal deer park for King Charles II in 1662. The stone wall that first ran its perimeter was “poorly constructed” and had to be rebuilt. Fallow deer herds have been kept in the park since its creation right down to the present day.
  2. Archaeologists have discovered that a Neolithic community (circa 5,500 years ago) lived on a high strip of land at the southern edge of the Phoenix Park between Knockmaroon and Islandbridge.
  3. There is also a burial mound dating back to Neolithic times just west of St Mary’s Hospital on the grounds. Three males were found buried there along with a shell necklace, a bone toggle and a flint blade. Later Bronze Age burials there (circa 4,000 years ago) saw four urns containing human ashes interred there.
  4. The Vikings buried their dead in what is now the Phoenix Park. Around 40 graves – one of which contained a woman buried with a pair of bronze Scandinavian brooches – were discovered together near the Islandbridge/Kilmainham edge. This is the biggest Viking cemetery outside of Scandinavia.
  5. The Phoenix Park covers 1,752 acres (707 hectacres) which makes it one of the largest city parks in Europe but a good deal smaller than South Mountain Park in Phoenix, Arizona which at over 16,000 acres is the largest city park in the US.
  6. The Phoenix Park was actually larger when it was first built because it stretched across the Liffey to the south, taking in the Kilmainham Priory. However, it was reduced to its present size and kept to the north of the river when Kilmainham Royal Hospital was built.
  7. The oldest building in the park is Ashtown Castle, which began life as a tower house in the 1430s but was later restructured with stone. A Georgian house called Ashtown Lodge was built onto the castle in 1760 but has since, sadly, been demolished.
  8. The Victorians adjusted some of the wildness of the park to suit their own sense of order – the Victorian People’s Flower Gardens were built in 1840 near the Parkgate Street entrance as a civilised place to perambulate around ornamental lakes and the bedding schemes beloved of the Victorians. A Victorian walled vegetable and fruit garden has also been refurbished.
  9. Around one-third of the park is covered with deciduous trees like oak, ash, lime, beech, sycamore and horse chestnut. It has 50 per cent of the mammal species and 40 per cent of the bird species found in Ireland, making it one of the most biodiverse locations in the country. The Dublin Zoo on the grounds gets 900,000 visitors a year.
  10. In the past, you could rent some grazing land from the Park Commissioners “for such period less than one year” and only if such grazing was considered “proper”.
  11. In other by-laws applicable to the Phoenix Park since 1925, park constables are allowed to ask people to leave the park or to demand their name and address if they are caught doing something untoward there. Mind you, the Garda Síochána – who have their HQ in the park – are also allowed to patrol there.
  12. You are not allowed to do any of the following in the Phoenix Park: light fires, litter, ride a horse unless in an area specified for horseriding, put up posters, drive on the grass, sell things, play frisbee unless you get permission from the park superintendent, act “contrary to public morality”, “annoy or otherwise intefere” with other park users, go no faster than 50km/per hour on roads through the park.
  13. There are plenty of places to play though – there are 3 camogie pitches, 2 for cricket, 7 for GAA, 12 for soccer, one for mixed use, one for the use of gardai, one for the use of the Army, a polo grounds, one model aeroplane arena and one seasonal cross-country circuit.
  14. Many major architects have their work live on in the Phoenix Park as either monuments or buildings, including Edward Lovett Pearce (who designed the old Parliament – now Bank of Ireland building – on College Green and Castletown House) and James Gandon, he of the Custom House, Four Courts and King’s Inn. Dr John McCullen of Trinity College Dublin catalogued the extensive architecture of the Park in this thesis if you’re interested. Edward Lutyens (who designed Stormont House in Belfast) designed a bridge that was intended to cross from Islandbridge over the Liffey but it was never built.
  15. The massive Papal Cross near the edge of the Fifteen Acres was erected for the visit of Pope John Paul II on 29 September 1979. One and one-quarter million people came to watch him give his sermon. The cross was put in place on the previous 14 September, which happens to be the Catholic feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross. It hosted a tribute to JPII when he died in April 2005.
  16. As one might expect of such a vast park, with many isolated patches, several murders have taken place there over the years of its existence. Some were more high-profile than others: the so-called Phoenix Park murders of 6 May 1882 saw British PM Gladstone’s personal secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish stabbed on the day he started his new job as Chief Secretary for Ireland, alongside the most senior Irish civil servant of the time Thomas Henry Burke. Both were killed by the republican group, the Invincibles. This report from JB Hall at the time gives a colourful account of the subsequent criminal trial.
  17. The brutal murder of a young nurse called Bridie Gargan by Malcolm MacArthur in 1982 as she lay sunbathing in the park led to a national scandal and outrage when the killer was later found hiding in the home of a former attorney general. The acronym GUBU was coined to paraphrase Charles Haughey’s description of it as grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre and almost unbelievable.
  18. Queen Elizabeth II took a trip through the park to meet President Mary McAleese at Áras an Úachtaráin earlier this year but she’s not the first British royal to use the park’s facilites. Farmleigh has an illustrated exhibition on these visits from 1821 to the present day at its Oak Room from 10am to 4.30pm as part of guided tours of the house.
  19. The Government is currently lobbying UNESCO to have the Phoenix Park designated as a world heritage site.
  20. There was a 5k road race on there today to kick off a year of events. Naturally, most of these are sports-related and you can see the full list for 2012 here. If you are looking for something to do on a rainy day, see what’s on at Farmleigh House and gallery and at the Phoenix Park visitor centre.

Phoenix Park is 350 years old: Here are 20 things to know about it
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  • Aerial view of Phoenix Park

  • Phoenix Park in 1837

  • King George V visiting the Phoenix Park in 1911

    PA Archive/Press Association Images
  • Gathering to see Pope John Paul II in 1979

    PA Archive/Press Association Images
  • Fallow deer herd at the Papal Cross

    Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland
  • Irish Grand Prix at Phoenix Park motor track in 1930

    Rudolf Caracciola, third on right, was a famous German driver when he won the Irish Grand Prix on July 21, 1930 at Phoenix Park. AP Photo.

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