This park's life
It’s bigger than all of London’s parks combined, beats Central Park for size, and is 350 years old this year – so is Phoenix Park the best in the world, asks PATRICK FREYNE
AILEEN AND MAUREEN seem to know everybody. I’m in the café in the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, when these two women ask if they can share my table. Before long they’re helping me identify the people I’ve come to interview.
“That’s the former superintendent John McCullen there,” says Maureen, pointing at an older man in a blazer and V-neck who’s just come in and ordered a coffee. “He’s a Louth man.” (“I’m not from Louth,” he says later with mock horror. “I’m from Meath.”) They tell me that Helen, who runs this café, is the sister-in-law of Angela, who runs the Victorian Tea Kiosk near the zoo. “The kiosk is lovely as well,” says Maureen. “But it’s hard to park there because people come in, leave their cars and head off to the Luas.” They also tell me that when traffic through the park was restricted for the inauguration of Michael D Higgins, locals were allowed to enter by another gate.
For Maureen and Aileen, originally from Cavan and Monaghan respectively, and now long-time residents of Castleknock, the Phoenix Park is their park. And, indeed, since the earl of Chesterfield opened it to the public in 1747 (hence its main thoroughfare: Chesterfield Avenue), it’s been the property of the people of Dublin and one of the largest enclosed parks in the world. It’s bigger, so the literature says, than all the parks in London put together. There was a spring of clear water in the area, or “fionn uisce” in Irish, which was anglicised over time to Phoenix.
The 350-year anniversary date relates to 1662, when James Butler, duke of Ormond, established it as a deer park for aristocratic use. The poor duke would probably be a bit nonplussed by the commoners now frequenting his lands – pushing prams, biking (bikes can be hired at the main gates), running, rollerblading, kite-flying, picnicking, dog-walking, cricketing, Segwaying and occasionally playing bike-polo (apparently the polo club do this). He’d probably also have been a little put out by the various political murders (the murder of the chief secretary and under secretary in 1882) and mass Catholic rallies that have occurred since his day (the Papal visit in 1979 attracted close to a million visitors, the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 had 1.5 million), not to mention the recent Swedish House Mafia gig.
Everyone in the park is enthusiastic about something. Margaret McGuirk from the visitor centre tells me of the park’s various landscaping projects over the years, and how Decimus Burton straightened Chesterfield Avenue. Walking along that road I meet Jack Dunne, who’s revelling in having days off since retiring from night-work. He comes here to walk his dog, Junior. “There’s a bit of a Chihuahua in him, I think,” he says looking sceptically at his dog. “He’s not as well-behaved as he looks.”
Cricketer Matt Lunson declares the park to have “the best climbing tree in the world” (over by the visitor centre) and enthuses about Farmleigh. Newbie rollerblader Dave Carty enjoys having a place to skate where “you’re not going to be killed by traffic”, while his companion Charlene Loughrey notes the “hidden things here that no one knows about. There’s the maze and the gardens. They’re like my secrets.”
Head coach at the Phoenix Cricket Club
“There’s a sign out there and it says ‘Phoenix Cricket Club, Members Only’,” says Tasmania-born, Chapelizod-dwelling cricket coach Matt Lunson. “It’s a bit forbidding. I think it should say ‘Phoenix Cricket Club, Members Welcome’. Cricket is growing exponentially here. I’ve been working in schools for a few years now – Ballymun, Clondalkin, Tallaght – introducing cricket to people in cooperation with the County Council. That’s been my main occupation.”
The second-oldest cricket club in the world – “It was started in 1830,” says Lunson. “I can’t remember what the oldest is” – the Phoenix Cricket Club was once one of 20 cricket clubs resident in the park.
Sitting beneath pictures of Edwardian gentlemen and a big wooden board featuring the names of former presidents and captains, Lunson talks of how he made his way from Australia to Dublin as an aspiring musician. He sang backing vocals on Thomas Walsh and Neil Hannon’s cricket- themed The Duckworth Lewis Method album, but has more recently transferred his musical energy to his first love – cricket.
“My wife and daughter also play,” he says. “I think it’s because they think it’s the only way they’ll see me.”
Model airplane enthusiast
If you put the words “Phoenix Park”, “model planes” and “Pathe” into Google, you will find 1930s footage of besuited gentlemen flying remote-controlled planes in Phoenix Park. So Frank Boughton, former chairman of the Leinster Model Flying Club, informs me. I’ve approached some men flying radio-controlled planes from a landing strip mown into the long grass in the 15 Acres (the first pretended to run away when I said I was a journalist, then pointed me in the direction of Boughton).
Boughton, a retired civil servant, tells me about the standing agreement the club has with the park and then explains the various models used by his club-mates. “That’s a Thunderbolt 947 second World War plane,” he says, pointing to a large model being fuelled using a portable wooden fuel pump.
Personally, he’s a bit nostalgic for an age when all of the members built their own planes rather than purchasing them ready made. He discusses the various debates within the world of model aeroplanes about whether it is or isn’t a sport and at one point references an elusive group of “model-helicopter people”.
He stresses how happy they are to have permission to fly planes in the park. “The flying of model aircraft here goes back to 1911,” he says. “There’s a picture of a Ranelagh man flying his aeroplane here in an English engineering magazine from 1911. And we continually say this to new members that this is an area of great natural beauty and that being here is a privilege. I think there’s a miniature orchid here that’s almost unique to the park.”
Park ranger and deer-keeper
The deer were here first. Phoenix Park was first boundaried as a deer park in 1662 and it’s been the same herd of fallow deer ever since. “They’re the most studied deer in the world,” says John McCullen. “There’s 12 PhDs on the back of those deer. The most learned animals you’re likely to find.”
Terry Moore, the park’s current deer-keeper, is a Ballymun-born Santry resident who is hugely enthusiastic about his job. We drive out to the female herd (the male animals stay at the other end of the park outside of mating season). It’s the end of fawning season so timid-looking newborns huddle to their mothers, and signs warn people to keep dogs leashed.
“I think they should always be on a leash to be honest,” says Moore, but he notes that the bylaw in question is vague. “It says dogs have to be kept under their owner’s control.”
Throughout June, Moore and students from Trinity College searched the long grass to tag, monitor and protect helpless fawns. This is crucial. Two years ago, a couple thought a newborn was injured, put it in the boot of the car, and brought it to the rangers. “You should never handle a fawn because you’ll leave your scent and the mother won’t be able to detect them. We returned it and luckily didn’t come across it abandoned or dead.”
People mean well, he says. “Most who come to the park are A-one. If they see something that shouldn’t be happening, they ring us – whether that’s a dog chasing deer or young fellows on scrambling bikes.”
As we glide effortlessly through the long wet grass (“It’s some jeep,” says Moore), the post-rain sun makes the park look incredible. Female deer graze serenely. Elsewhere, antlered male deer are “browsing” the lower leaves in a copse of trees (in Phoenix Park, no leaves exist below the deer’s “browse line”).
In the rutting season, he says, their Adam’s apples change, making their roars deeper, while the antlers, which are soft right now, harden and shed their outer coating. “We get loads of calls then,” he says. “People think they’re in pain.”
They have to cull deer on a yearly basis to keep numbers down (there are between 500 and 600 deer at the moment).
“I found it very difficult at first. It didn’t feel right. You spend most of the time looking after them so killing them feels wrong. But it’s for their own good. They wouldn’t look so sleek and healthy if the park was overpopulated.”
Occasionally, Moore has to put down deer that have been injured or hurt. “The other night I got a phone call at half six to hear that a deer had been hit by a car. I had to operate a humane dispatch. That’s tough because they’re beautiful animals. But there was no chance of survival. It would have been a long painful death.”
With this in mind, I have an ominous feeling when we notice a deer hobbling with a bad limp and Moore makes a note to call Jim Walsh, the vet.
Later, I see Moore’s jeep, now with trailer, heading towards the herd, followed soon after by what sounds like a gunshot. “It was just a tranquilliser gun,” Moore tells me over the phone. “The vet thinks she’s going to be okay actually.”
I’m relieved. And so, rather winningly, is Terry Moore.
Head guide at the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre
Margaret McGuirk, “a fifth-generation Ballsbridge woman”, now lives around the corner in Castleknock and breathes history and heritage. Currently in the midst of a PhD on local history at NUI Maynooth, she spent the previous week at an archaeological dig.
She is also an avid proponent of sustainability, and on a recent night left the park only to work on her garden until midnight. “I just love Dublin,” she says, “a wonderful, wonderful city oozing with history and artefacts and things to do. We’re spoiled for choice but often the last people to identify all that are the Dubliners themselves.”
When we speak, she is in the midst of providing Eco Unesco summer camps for children. She passionately lists the educational projects, exhibitions and sites to be seen. She is knowledgable about the park’s flora and fauna (a recent “BioBlitz” established that there were 528 species present – fewer than some other parks, she says, only because of the ravenous, all-consuming deer) and its monuments (the Wellington memorial was the tallest in the world prior to the Washington monument, and its plaques were made from cannons used at the Battle of Waterloo).
The park even breeds celebrities. “The lion that roars at the start of the MGM movies. He’s a Dub. He was born in Dublin Zoo.”
'Dubliners love the Phoenix Park'
Retired chief park superintendent
John McCullen – a Rotunda-born Meath man – is sitting in the Bailiff’s Lodge recalling 30 years living and working there. He’s moving out soon, and a corner of the sitting room is filled with file boxes of notes for his second book on the park. The first, a beautifully produced illustrated history, came out in 2009.
“I arrived in 1984 during one recession and I’m going in another,” he says. “When I arrived they were felling the last diseased elm trees. There were 2,000 elms here, all with Dutch elm disease. One of my fortes was tree health. I’d written a few letters to The Irish Times on the issue, actually. Trees cover about a third of the park and it’s a park more than twice the size of Central Park . . . The Americans don’t like hearing that.”
McCullen is rightly proud of his time here and still goes for coffee in the visitor centre with other park retirees (that morning he met former landscape foreman Eamon Mullins).
He is passionate about the unsung health benefits of parks and observes an increase in visitors recently. “It’s probably a recessionary thing. It might be due to other nationalities in the country, people who are even more used to using parks as a recreational thing. That said, Dubliners love the Phoenix Park. If anything looks out of sync they tell us.”
Proud though he is of the increased interest, his favourite memories of the park are of having it to himself. “Just walking in it in the evening when there’s no one around. Beautiful.”
Things to do and see
Hire a bike from Paul McQuaid at the main gate. There’s no better way to tour the park.
The Visitor Centre at Ashtown Demesne has a kitchen garden, arboretum playground, café and gallery, and on Saturdays you can book a tour of Áras an Uachtaráin. phoenixpark.ie/visitorcentre/
Beside the Visitor Centre is Ashtown Castle. In 1978 the OPW knocked down Ashtown Lodge (the former residence of the papal nuncio) and found the 17th-century Ashtown Castle within. There are free daily tours.
Green Fingers Workshop. Gardening aficionados can meet the kitchen garden’s gardeners on the second Saturday of each month. In August they’re doing bee-keeping.
Make art. On Sundays at 11an there are art cart workshops for children at the Visitor Centre (also free).
Don’t feed the deer. “Some people try to give them food,” says deer-keeper Terry Moore. “But these are wild animals. We don’t encourage it.”
Appreciate the trees. Margaret McGuirk says: “The trees in the park are beech, horse chestnut and lime . . . The oldest are Irish oak and were planted by Ormond’s men in the 1600s. You should take some time to just sit back and look at the trees because they’re absolutely fabulous.”
Admire the Decimus Burton-designed gate lodges. On Sunday, August 26th, Margaret McGuirk leads a tour of the lodges as part of Heritage Week. Meet at the Visitor Centre at 1.45pm.
Take a guided tour of Farmleigh (Wednesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm) or visit its food market. farmleigh.ie