Analysis: the proposed redevelopment of the Phoenix Park has led to much discussion, but it's not the first time these 1,750 acres will see change

By Marion McGarryGalway Mayo Institute of Technology

The Phoenix Park lies to the north-west of Dublin and once stood between the city and surrounding countryside. It is one of the largest enclosed public parks in a European capital city, at just over 1,750 acres which includes large areas of grassland and tree-lined avenues, Áras an Uachtaráin, Dublin Zoo and other buildings, monuments and amenities. A herd of fallow deer has been maintained there for over 300 years. The Park is much loved by the city’s residents and it is understandable that debate surrounds any proposed re-developments. But throughout its history, the park has undergone at times significant redevelopment and change.

From RTÉ One's Six One News, a report on the planned redevelopment of the Phoenix Park

The medieval hunting ground

The "Phoenix" of the title actually has Gaelic origins and is an Anglicization of fionn uisce which means "clear water". In pre-history, the land surrounding the Park was in an occupied landscape, with evidence of Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement, and later Viking activity. The parkland itself dates back to medieval times when it was first used as a hunting ground. Ashtown Castle, a tower house, is the oldest building extant in the Park. In the 1660s, it was formally designated as a Royal deer park and was stocked with game for hunting and used by the vice regal court for hunting and sporting activities.

From RTE Archives, Michael Sheridan reports for Jo-Maxi on dealing with the overpopulation of deer in the Phoenix Park in 1992

Public pleasure grounds

In the 1740s, the Phoenix Park underwent improvements and most of the Park was opened to the public at this time. The fourth Earl of Chesterfield, who became the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1745, is credited with starting significant landscape works that included the planting of trees on either side of the main avenue and the creation of the Phoenix Column in 1747.

The title of Park Ranger was created at this time and Nathaniel Clements (1705-77), an important figure in the political and financial management of Ireland, held the post. A man of influence and one of the richest commoners in Ireland, Clements built what was then known as the ranger's lodge in 1751 – a building that would later become Áras an Uachtaráin - and went on to make significant improvements to the landscape from 1752 to 1757. Following Clements’ death, the ranger’s lodge was acquired by the British government and the building was made into a residence for the Lord Lieutenant.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Juliette Gash reports on concern over aspects of the latest Phoenix Park strategic review

A 19th century overhaul

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Park was in a state of neglect and hampered by poor roads, bad drainage, and overgrown or decayed plants and trees. Major improvement works were undertaken from 1832 to 1849 after which the Phoenix Park emerged as a site of geographical, symbolic and political importance in Dublin. The chief architect involved in the redevelopment was Decimus Burton (1800-1881), who had achieved some fame for his previous work on Hyde Park and Kew Gardens in London.

Prior to Burton’s work, the park had been undulating, boggy, undefined and used for grazing. His scheme involved drainage, replanting, the design of pleasure grounds for the public and landscaping. The perimeters of the park were marked out and gate-lodges were rebuilt to a classical design. Most significantly, a road network was laid out to allow better access. Burton realigned the original Chesterfield Avenue and replanted English elm and red twigged lime trees (on advice from experts and Kew gardens and Trinity College Dublin). These were later replanted to include horse chestnut and beech, some of which remain today.

From RTÉ Archives, Nick Coffey reports for RTÉ News in 1986 on a new plan aimed at preserving the Phoenix Park's resources

There were major developments in the park around this time. Dublin Zoo was opened and memorials and sculptures were erected. The Promenade Grounds - later known as the People’s Garden - opened in 1840 and the Head Gardener’s House, rock garden, and horticultural facilities were launched in the 1860s.  The Royal Irish Constabulary depot was completed in 1842 and two police barracks were later built. In 1848, a school house and teacher’s residence were built to Burton’s designs. The Office of Public Works took over management of the park in 1860 and building works continued: a bandstand and tearooms were built in the final decades of the 19th century.

Recent additions

In the 20th century, many trees and shrubs were replanted, with 10,000 trees planted in the 1980s, and maintenance works carried out on the mature tree population. The erection of the Papal Cross in 1979, the relocation of the Phoenix Column and the rebuilding of the entrance gate piers and linking walls at Parkgate St were further noteworthy projects that were commenced towards the end of the 20th century.  More recently, there has been a focus on biodiversity in park management and on native species in planting.

From RTÉ Archives, June 1976 episode of Pieces of Land about summer activities in the Phoenix Park

The park is a beauty, and a place of pride and identity for Dubliners and the nation as a whole. It is also an important urban green area, and its public accessibility makes it a symbolic democratic space. It's no wonder then that when the space is up for potential change, it inspires (sometimes heated) discussion and will continue to do so.

Dr Marion McGarry is an art historian, author, independent researcher and lecturer at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ