Home is where the park is

 

You don't have to be feathered or furry to live in a park. You don't even have to build a nest or know how to shimmy trees. But you must work in a park, or have worked in one at some stage.

Sauntering through Dublin's city parks, among acres of flowers, fountains and freshly mown grass, it seems the gingerbread-style houses are right out of Snow White . . . but it's not all a fairy tale.

Depending on the park, you can face deer feasting on your chrysanthemums, birds mating on your steps, tourists clicking their cameras, all-comers seeking directions - or complaining about dogs, drug pushers, broken swings and why the flowers aren't all dead-headed. At the house in St Stephens Green - the Dom PΘrignon of park houses - you can't hang out your washing without all of Dublin and half of vacationing New Jersey having a gawk. And then, even if you do live in a park, who dares go through shrubbery after dark anyway - apart from foxes, US marines out jogging, snogging couples, or those seeking to pitch a cardboard box of a bed, too worn out to fear for their lives?

Gerry Barry is Dublin Corporation's parks superintendent, with overall responsibility for 35 parks, as well as 21 occupied houses amid the greenery. But it's a quarter of a century since the corporation last built a house for a park caretaker.

"It's hard for the park-keepers these days. Middle-class people in particular don't like being chastised over their dogs. There isn't the same respect for authority, and the keepers have got to take more hassle. It's hard to ask people to be the eyes and ears of a place any more, and that's seven days a week if they live there."

And yet some of them get to live on millionaire's row, such as in Herbert Park, where a charmer of a house fronts on to the road, built as part of the Great Exhibition early last century. But security has become a big issue. In many areas, park-keepers are sitting ducks, risking attack and burglary on account of their isolation, says Barry, though rising house prices have led to increased interest in occupying the park houses.

Some houses date back to the 19th century - the caretaker's lodge at Blessington Street Basin is about 120 years old, and Elmfield House in the grounds of Albert College in Glasnevin is more than 100 years old.

The lodges in St Anne's Park in Raheny were built for Guinness family employees, but are mostly demolished now, apart from two residences. A number of the park homes were built in the 1960s and 1970s, such as those in Fairview Park and Bushy Park. Past or present park employees, and sometimes their spouses, occupy them all.

The corporation is generally not in a position to sell the houses, because of where they are situated in the parks, but exceptions have been made, such as in the case of Ringsend, not so long ago.

The eye-stopper is the pretty house on St Stephen's Green. This is one of the parks run by D·chas, the heritage body, and tourists are constantly posing outside this not-at-all-typical Irish house.

Like most of the older park houses, it was designed in Queen Anne style from the outside and built partly for ornamental reasons in the late 19th century, when Lord Ardilaun was restoring the park. The building had to be an attractive feature of the landscape rather than a good home.

The park superintendent in St Stephen's Green likes to keep a low profile and is known simply as M. Gormley. It's a quick 30-yard dash between house and park depot. Off-street parking is provided, and the house goes with the job. The job without the house isn't an option, as D·chas likes its top people to live over the shop, so to speak. Twenty acres represents the back garden, but you can't hang out the washing. That's the downside.

"Could you imagine the photographs back in the States or wherever, if I did," says Gormley. Not to mention the damage to white sheets from birds passing overhead. And after dark, the park becomes an eerie wilderness of squawks, stale bread and intruders who risk more than limb by venturing across spiked railings.

D·chas also runs the National War Memorial Gardens and Iveagh Gardens, with another redbrick pad there, but the Phoenix Park is the main centre of its operations, with 41 households in all, including half a dozen on the grounds of ┴ras an Uachtarβin.

The Phoenix Park is a world apart, according to park superintendent John McCullen. Home for him has been in the 1,760-acre park for the past 16 years, and so interested is he in his surroundings that he chose the park as the subject of his PhD at Trinity College.

He lives in a four-bedroom house called The Whitefields, and his four children grew up there. "The main problem was having to ferry them everywhere, since we weren't on a bus route," he says.

Some of the most attractive homes are the gate lodges at each of the nine vehicular entrances, which all date from the 1800s.

The oldest of these is the hexagonal Rose Cottage near the Ordnance Survey office, built in the earlier part of the 19th-century and occupied by the park deerkeeper. Mind you, there's also Deer Keeper's Lodge - designed by renowned English landscape architect Decimus Burton - where the park constable lives. The Bailiff's Lodge was designed by Jacob Owen in 1832. Again, most of the smaller houses in the park were built to be easy on the eye.

"Everyone living in them is in some way connected with working in the park," says McCullen, "and we have to be compassionate about a person's circumstances, too."

You've also got to like trees, badgers, squirrels . . . and deer. "They come into the back garden after the vegetation, and they can eat your best flowers," says McCullen. And the zoo? "In recent years there haven't been incidents of escaped animals, but a buffalo was meant to be on the run in the park back in the1940s or so."

Otherwise, it's a case of cries of the wild and lots of sightings of well-known people en route to the ┴ras or the American ambassador's residence, which is why the park is not so lonely, says McCullen.

"There's plenty of security, so it is pretty safe."