Secret history of the Phoenix Park
As it celebrates 350 years, Tom Prendeville looks at the rich lore of the capital's leafiest tourist landmark
The Pope saying Mass in front of a million people. Horse racing galore. Bono, Robbie Williams and the Pixies rocking the joint. Wild deer lolling in the midday sun...
The history of the Phoenix Park is a rich and colourful one, and as it prepares to celebrate its 350th anniversary, the Office of Public Works is honouring Europe's largest enclosed parkland with a series of cultural events and projects.
The park dates back to 1662, when the Duke of Ormonde fenced off land north of the Liffey and established a Royal Hunting Park for visiting British monarchs. The ornate landscape that we now know today covers approximately 1,752 acres and was opened to the public in 1747. A large herd of the descendents of the Duke of Ormonde's original fallow deer still roam the park.
As part of the celebrations, many of the projects will revolve around the restoration of old monuments, staged events and talks.
However, the Phoenix Park has a far more offbeat history than the official celebrations might lead you to think.
The Ghost Line
There is a working railway line and station under the Park which was used during World War Two for storing emergency supplies of food.
The line runs from Heuston Station and enters the Phoenix Park tunnel at Conyngham Road before surfacing again and travelling through Cabra, Phibsboro, Drumcondra and on to Connolly Station and the Docklands.
The rail link is fully functional -- it occasionally carries freight and is used to shunt locomotives between Dublin's two main railway stations.
From the age of two to six, the future British Prime Minister and war leader grew up in Ratra House near Aras an Uachtarain.
Young Winston was fascinated by the daily drilling of the 822 mounted cavalry from nearby Marlborough Barracks (now McKee) and spent all day watching the soldiers and imitating their manoeuvres. Many believe that Winston Churchill's childhood experience was the origin of his lifelong obsession with all things militaristic.
In 1882 the park was the scene of the Victorian-era murders of Lord Frederick Cavendish, Chief Secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Burke, his Permanent Undersecretary, who were done in with surgical knives.
The assassination, which made world headlines, was carried out by members of the Invincibles, an extreme nationalistic group linked to the Fenians.
The Da Vinci Code
In the 12th Century the lands which the Phoenix Park now occupies were granted to the Knights Hospitaller who were closely linked to the Knights Templars.
The Knights controlled most of Europe's ecclesiastical power, military and finance.
In the 1430s the secretive Knights Hospitaller built Ashtown Castle, which still stands. Intriguingly, for most of the 20th Century the castle was part of the old Papal Nuncio residence, thus continuing its ancient link with power.
The Park is home to the largest Viking graveyard in the world outside of Scandinavia.
Located near the Kilmainham end of the park, the site was discovered in the 19th Century when archaeologists unearthed 40 graves which contained swords and decorative Viking jewellery.
The Manmade Hill
Magazine Fort, which sits atop the manmade Thomas Hill, was built in 1611 to protect the city.
At the time the city was an impoverished ruin, prompting Jonathan Swift to pen a sarcastic ditty about the futility of building a fort in the first place:
"Now's here's a proof of Irish sense / Here Irish wit is seen / When nothing's left that's worth defence / We build a Magazine."
The intriguing fort was the scene of a daring arms raid by the IRA in 1939 when they made off with truckloads of weapons.
Phoenix Park is home to the oldest settlement in Dublin. On the southern edge of the park near Islandbridge are the remnants of a 5,500-year-old Neolithic village.
In 1838 archaeologists discovered three bodies and flint blades and a necklace at the site. Several urns full of ashes were also discovered.
The Park was home up until 2006 of a bombed-out village and a plane wreck, which were used by the Civil Defence for urban disaster drills.
Wellington Monument has the odd distinction of being Europe's largest 'Phallic Symbol' Obelisk. Completed in 1861, the esoteric-looking monument commemorates the heroic feats of Dublin-born Arthur Wellesley -- the Duke of Wellington -- during the Battle of Waterloo.
Standing at an impressive 205 feet, the ambitious builders hoped to reach 250 foot until they ran out of public subscriptions and had to settle for less.
Additional plans for a bronze monument of the Duke astride a horse were also jettisoned due to cutbacks.
The name Phoenix Park is derived from a corruption of the Irish words Fionn Uisce which means fair water.
Numerous ancient springs in the park all are still sprouting mineral waters to this day.
The Phoenix Park has its own police force, the Park constables, who are allowed to ask people their names and addresses if they're up to no good.
The constables can also ask people to leave the park.
The force was instituted in 1925 under the park bye-laws and modern constables wear a uniform which is not dissimilar to the one worn by regular gardaí.
During the latter stages of the boom years when tens of thousands of Poles were arriving in Ireland every year in search of work, dozens of homeless Poles who were unable to find work or accommodation set up a mini-tent city in the 15 Acres near the Pope's Cross.
Until recently farmers could rent grazing lands in the Park "for such period as less than one year."
Although a fun and fascinating place to stroll around, visitors are not allowed to engage in the following activities: play Frisbees, light barbeque fires or drive on the grass.
Amorous visitors might also want to check the "contrary to public morality" clause.
The Park is home to no fewer than 350 species of plants, rare wetlands and several medieval woodlands.
One third of the park is covered in mature, mostly native trees. which provide a shelter for the 400 or so fallow deer.
In the early part of the 20th century the Phoenix Park was synonymous with international motor racing.
The first international event was held in 1903, the Irish Gordon Bennett Race Speed Trials, which involved cars and motorcycles competing against each other.
The event was an outstanding success and put the park firmly on the international motor racing map. From 1903 onwards motor racing became a regular feature in the park; a tradition which continues to this day.
Victorian time capsule
The Park has an 'end of the Raj British Empire' feel to it, and this is due to the existence of the Victorian Polo Pavilion on the Nine Acres, and the cricket club which is on the opposite side of the main road, Chesterfield Avenue.
The polo club was established in 1873 by horsing enthusiast Mr Horace Rochford, and games are played most weekends.
Of much earlier vintage is the Phoenix Park Cricket Club, founded in 1830 by John Parnell, father of Charles Stewart. The oldest cricket club in the country, they stage regular fixtures throughout the year.
The Government is presently lobbying UNESCO to have the park designated as a world heritage site. A worthy candidate, the park is home to half the mammal species found in Ireland. A survey by Birdwatch Ireland in 2007 recorded 72 species including exotic Buzzards.