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Flanagan Brothers at the Hole in the Wall. Luke Fallon
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The Phoenix Park 'We became an oasis for a new generation who had never visited parks before'

Donal Fallon’s new book, The Lamplighters of the Phoenix Park is nominated for the An Post Irish Book Awards in TheJournal.ie’s sponsored category.

THE PHOENIX PARK holds a special place in the life and identity of the capital. Today, it is something of a symbol of Irish independence, hosting Áras an Uachtaráin.

In political lingo, someone with political aspirations would be described as aiming ‘for the park.’ It also maintains some feeling of the imperial past. While Admiral Horatio Nelson has long vacated O’Connell Street, the imposing Wellington Testimonial still stands in the park, as does the nearby Magazine Fort, constructed in 1735.

FenianCross (1) (1) Fenian Cross. Luke Fallon Luke Fallon

The park has had its difficult days. Mention of murder in the park immediately recalls the tragic death of Bridie Gargan in August 1982, explored in two best-selling books this year. For those who are familiar with the long journey of the park, the same word might instead call to mind the names Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke, slain by a Fenian assassination squad known as the Invincibles a century earlier. On Chesterfield Avenue today, a small cross still marks the spot, almost opposite the familiar break in the trees which provides a view into the Áras.

Memory, folklore and tradition

Frank Flanagan’s grandmother worked in the park on the day of the assassinations and vividly described the chaos within the walls of the park that day. Like other residents of Blackhorse Avenue and the surrounding area, there was work in the big stately houses of the administration.

As a child, Frank was raised on the stories of such days. ‘It was never really forgotten,’ Frank told me. ‘I heard stories of it when young, and learned more and more of it with time. You’d sometimes see people at the little cross.’

Frank is adamant too that others spoke of seeing ghostly figures in the park, connected with the event, as ‘one man would swear on seeing the figure of Burke, walking up the road alone.’

At 92, Frank Flanagan’s connections to the Phoenix Park extend far beyond that day. He is part of a family who have served as the lamplighters of the Phoenix Park since 1890. Following in the footsteps of his own grandfather, Nicholas Flanagan, he now works alongside his brother James, sons-in-law and grandchildren in preserving the gas lamps that still line Chesterfield Avenue and the surrounding streets.

Meeting the Flanagan family

Having recently penned a history of Dublin in twelve streets, the idea of doing something different had appeal. In this one road, Chesterfield Avenue, the story of Ireland can be told, from political upheaval to extraordinary days after independence.

Whatever of the small cross that marks the 1882 assassinations, the road also offers views of the impressive cross to the 1979 visit erected by Scott Tallon Walker Architects.

Ronnie Tallon recalled how ‘we decided that we required a cross the height of Nelson’s Pillar, which was 125 feet high, which would be clearly visible to all from the furthest reaches of the vast congregation, and which would give a sense of focus to the occasion.’ How much Ireland has changed even since that day?

On meeting the Flanagan brothers for the first time, the extent of their connection to the place became apparent. Frank had dramatic recollections of the Second World War, when bombs fell on Dublin, including in the park. He remembered the fear that another family who worked within the park and lived inside its walls had been killed.

But Joe McNally’s house was only 20 yards from the bomb site, and he was there with his daughter. And their house collapsed … None of them were hurt, but the young one shouted, ‘Daddy, I feel something’s on top of me.’ It was the rafters of the house. But he got her out, and they were only yards from where the bomb was.

The best way to get my head around the concept of this book was to spend some time with the Flanagan family and learn how the gas lamps of the Phoenix Park work. In the company of my brother, the photographer Luke Fallon, we went out to watch the process.

BrothersHoleintheWall2(1) (1) Flanagan Brothers at the Hole in the Wall. Luke Fallon Luke Fallon

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of James Flanagan, standing at the top of a ladder attending to the timer of a gas lamp near to the Hole in the Wall public house. The weather was turning, and the latter seemed more and more appealing. Below, wiping raindrops from the front of his camera, my brother snapped one of a series of images for this book. ‘Is that an old film camera?’, James asked down to Luke. ‘You don’t see many of them now.’ There’s a moment of laughter as Luke replies, ‘I don’t know, you’re the one fixing a Victorian gas lamp!’ Across Europe and beyond, such lamps are quickly fading from the streetscape. It’s a very different fortune from the resurrection of the film camera.

The Hauptstadt and beyond

Across Europe, gas lamps are slowly disappearing from our streetscapes. More than half of such lamps in the world are found in Berlin, giving a unique feeling to the German capital, and a divide in light still visible across the East and West divide.

There, they first lit Unter den Linden in 1826, but the city is keen to find LED alternatives. Some argue that these lamps are part of the material culture and fabric of the city, like a tram to San Francisco, and have even sought Unesco protection for them.

The invasion of Ukraine led to increased gas costs too, but much of the debate is instead around environmental impact.

Within the Phoenix Park, the lamps continue to light a space that we have a newfound appreciation for in recent times. Speaking to those who work within the park, the words of Chief Park Superintendent Margaret Gormley about the pandemic struck me as important in understanding the space, as she described how ‘we became an oasis for a new generation who had never visited parks before. Because of Covid, a lot of people who lived in apartments had no outdoor space. So, we had these new visitors, coming to the Phoenix Park for perhaps the first time, and we now had to ask – how can we accommodate them?’ The park, and others like it across the world, was no longer just a space we drive through on a morning or evening commute – it became a vital space of recreation and escape.

workshop8 (1) Luke Fallon Luke Fallon

For Frank and James Flanagan, the Phoenix Park is a place not only of employment but connection to their own past, a rare feeling in an ever-changing city. When asked to describe that feeling, Frank’s mind went back to the sights and sounds that generations of his family would have encountered.

We can visualise the cavalry charges down the Fifteen Acres, the old armoured cars of the Tans and the Wiltshires, the polo horses of old, the many generations of deer culled down to fifty during the World War … Amidst these we carry on the tradition of the old lamplighters, and we love it.

Donal Fallon is a historian and the presenter of the Three Castles Burning podcastThree Castles Burning: A History of Dublin in Twelve Streets (New Island Books) is available now. His new book, The Lamplighters of the Phoenix Park is nominated in the An Post Irish Book Awards 2023 in TheJournal.ie’s sponsored category, Best Irish Published Book of the Year. Find the full list of nominees and more information at the awards’ websiteYou can vote here anpostirishbookawards.ie/vote.

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