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).