A breath of fresh air – An Irishman’s Diary on Ranelagh Gardens
Ranelagh Gardens in 1986. Photograph: Dublin City Photographic Collection
Few if any public parks in Dublin have had such a long and convoluted history as Ranelagh Gardens in south Dublin, which also gave their name to the district.
It all goes back to Willsbrook House, built in the early 18th century, and which had close connections with the Church of Ireland.
A dramatic change of ownership came in 1768, when the house came into the possession of William Hollister, a harpsichord maker. His grand plan was to turn the gardens of Willsbrook House, which then stretched almost as far as Northbrook Road, into a grand centre of entertainment. Hollister named the gardens after Lord Ranelagh from Co Wicklow. After they opened in 1769, the gentry of Dublin flocked to this newly opened feature to enjoy all kinds of frivolities, carnivals and balls.
What really put Ranelagh Gardens on the map was the first balloon ascent in Ireland, organised by Richard Crosbie on January 19th, 1785. The balloon was extravagantly decorated, including depictions of Minerva and Mercury, while Crosbie himself was exotically dressed, including with a silk coat and red Morocco leather boots. Around 30,000 people turned up in the Ranelagh Gardens to see the balloon soar aloft, a remarkable event for its time, comparable to space travel in the modern age. Crosbie had planned to cross the Irish Sea but in the event, got no further than Clontarf.
Today, Crosbie, scientist and showman, is commemorated by a statue in Ranelagh Gardens, while his ascent from Ranelagh Gardens has been replicated in modern style in 2010, as can be seen on YouTube.
Shortly afterwards, in 1787, as the newly opened Rotunda Gardens at the far end of the city centre began to draw the fashionable set, Hollister decided to close the gardens. They were soon reopened by another entrepreneur, but any time he organised a spectacular event in the Ranelagh Gardens, heavy rain stopped the fun.
By then, the gardens had given their name to the newly developing village of Ranelagh, which otherwise would have been called Cullenswood. A further change to the use of Willsbrook House and its gardens came in 1788, when a group of Carmelite nuns moved in. It was an enclosed order, so the Ranelagh Gardens remained sealed off to the public for close on 200 years.
In 1975, the land was sold for building and the nuns retreated to Malahide. AIB was said at the time to have been interested in Ranelagh Gardens for its new bank centre, before it decided to build its new headquarters on the Merrion Road in Ballsbridge, which it has only recently left.
Lots of apartments and houses were built on part of the site at Ranelagh Gardens after the old convent was demolished.
All this construction meant that the size of Ranelagh Gardens shrank drastically to one hectare, around a quarter of their original size.
The gardens were taken over by what is now Dublin City Council, which is still responsible for their upkeep.
Susan Roundtree, an architectural historian, who has lived in Ranelagh since 1984 and who has written extensively about the area, says that the council has overseen various developments in Ranelagh Gardens, including a new children’ s playground in 2017, which was very controversial with local residents when first mooted. The council itself plans to improve seating in the park during 2019 by replacing the park benches; it wants to continue improving its biodiversity, as well as enhancing the island in the pond.
The park is also often used for community events, including the annual Ranelagh Arts Festival.
The underground Swan river, once an open river, flows beneath the park, but has no connection to the large pond that is a comparatively new feature of Ranelagh Gardens.
The island in the pond has a “no fishing” sign, but the pond has long been fishless. The main entrance to the park is through a spectacular arch beneath the Luas Green line.
In addition to the Crosbie statue, the park also has a memorial cross to the nuns who kept the gardens shut off from the public for so long.
As for the future, Susan Roundtree can’t see any reason why the park can’t stay as it is, a little green oasis that, even in Ranelagh, isn’t always known about.
She also says that the name of Ranelagh has spread around the world, as far as Buenos Aires, New York and Tasmania, and in London, too, while in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, three streets are named after Ranelagh. Paris too has its own Jardin du Ranelagh.