The outrageous past of St Stephen's Green

DUBLIN: FRANK McDONALD reviews St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 1660-1875 By Desmond McCabe Stationery Office, 381pp. €35

DUBLIN: FRANK McDONALDreviews St Stephen's Green, Dublin 1660-1875By Desmond McCabe Stationery Office, 381pp. €35

DASTARDLY PLANS stain the record of Dublin Corporation, as it was called for centuries, Wood Quay being the most notorious example in recent decades. But not many readers will know that the corporation once had a plan to carve up St Stephen’s Green into building lots for sale to the highest bidders.

This outrageous scheme, proposed in 1809, is documented by Desmond McCabe in his meticulously researched book covering the first 200 years or so of the history of St Stephen’s Green – and it includes a hitherto unknown map showing the building lots with only a tiny green area left in the middle of all the new real estate.

“A rather feeble effort was made to justify the devastation to the Green as ‘improvements . . . for the benefit of the public at large . . . in which every citizen has an equal interest with the inhabitants’, hoping that the protests of the residents of the Green would be drowned out by the voice of the urban population as a whole.”

The real irony is that the Green was ultimately saved from Dublin’s rapacious aldermen by a British act of parliament, just 14 years after the Act of Union, on the basis that it would provide “a suitable situation for the erection of the magnificent national trophy” commemorating Wellington’s famous victories.

Ownership of the Green was transferred to commissioners representing the owners of buildings around it. Soon they had second thoughts about the “enormous and overwhelming magnitude” of the competition- winning obelisk designed by Robert Smirke, worrying that so large a monument would diminish their houses.

And so the Wellington Testimonial was erected instead in Phoenix Park, aligned on the axis of the final stretch of North Circular Road – one of the few examples in Dublin of such masterly axial planning. In any case, as was pointed out, the Green already had an equestrian statue of King George II as its centrepiece.

Both Phoenix Park and St Stephen’s Green are now in the care of the Office of Public Works rather than of Dublin City Council, the corporation’s successor. And it was the OPW that commissioned this book – the first public manifestation of McCabe’s apparently open-ended contract to write a history of the organisation.

“From an astonishingly wide range of sources, literary, visual, institutional, personal, he has gathered obscure, unfamiliar and fascinating information which for the first time traces the detailed history of the early Green,” writes Dr Edward McParland in his preface to the St Stephen’s Green book.

One could quibble with his statement that “Dublin’s open spaces or squares – as in 18th-century London – are gardens more than the open paved spaces of public assembly familiar in continental Europe”. Surely Place des Vosges, in Paris, was as much a model for St Stephen’s Green as was Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in London.

As McCabe notes, when it was formed in the 1660s, it was “the largest urban square in the world”. At 110,000sq m, it is now in ninth place, even though many of those ahead of it in size are “vast communist tractor-parks or tank-lots”. More of a kind is the slightly larger Place des Quinconces, in Bordeaux.

The book deals with more than the evolution of the park area of the Green, encompassing the development and redevelopment of houses on its edges over the period covered by the author. He also does so in detail so dense and exhaustive, even excruciating, that one feels it would have benefited from a strong editorial hand.

With copious annotations, it reads like a PhD thesis. And as the late great Maurice Craig once said, he learned from his own doctoral thesis at Cambridge “how not to write a book. Because if you’re trying to impress an examiner, you have to prove that you have not missed anything, and that’s the perfect recipe for an unreadable book.”

Only the introductory chapter gives an overview of the history of St Stephen’s Green, dealing with how it went into and out of fashion before finally being handed over to the Office of Public Works under an 1877 Act “in order to be remodelled by Sir Arthur Guinness” (later Lord Ardilaun) largely in the form that we know it today.

Ardilaun, whose fine statue faces the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, “through the donation of his wealth and the exercise of his good taste, was the author of the small miracle of urban landscape that was unveiled in July 1880”, as McCabe notes. And he was able to survey its execution from his grand mansion, Iveagh House.

Yet this lavish book, with its padded cover and wonderful illustrations, stops short of dealing with the Ardilaun period. Neither does it mention the OPW’s shameful role in agreeing to abrogate his legacy to facilitate Metro North, which would have involved turning the northwestern quadrant of the Green into a huge hole in the ground.

Nonetheless, readers will discover much of interest. Such as reports from The Irish Times about a plague of lawless ruffians, as poverty spread to the edges of the Green. “A gentleman walking home with his daughters . . . was assailed in language of a fearful kind by about a dozen harridans congregated at the College of Surgeons”.

For much of its existence the Green had been closed to the general populace and open only to keyholders, just as Fitzwilliam Square, nearby, is today. “The park key was the symbol of exclusion insider status”, as McCabe notes; it was thrown open to the public only after Ardilaun had completed his improvements.

And who would have thought that the Shelbourne Hotel was rebuilt “in the extravagant style of the great European metropolitan hotels favoured by the emerging international super-rich tourist class” in the mid 1860s for “an expenditure of about £16,000”? Or that, as McCabe reports, Dublin’s first horse show was staged on St Stephen’s Green in 1867?

The book is worth it for revelations such as these and for the maps, drawings, engravings and photographs of the Green through the ages. Having started as commonage, it “survived all the machinations of the powerful and wealthy” to become Dublin’s most loved public space. But a second volume would be needed to bring the story up to date.


Frank McDonald is Environment Editor of

The Irish Times