The spatial pleasures of Dublin’s Phoenix Park are well known, including as they do 1,760 acres of greenery, with playing pitches of every description and even an “African Plains Project”. Less well known, however, is that the park also offers the possibility of time travel.
I was reminded of this one evening recently when deciding, in a fit of enthusiasm, to run the length of its main road – Chesterfield Avenue – after dark.
And darkness was the first thing that struck me there, in fact. Because as soon as I stepped off Parkgate Street, I might as well have been in open countryside. Then my eyes adjusted to the faint light from the gas-lamps along the avenue and I realised that, rather than mere countryside, this was the 19th century.
Restored in the 1980s, the gas-lamps of Phoenix Park provide more in the way of atmosphere than illumination. For the full, eerie effect, it should also be foggy. Which it wasn’t, the night I was there. And yet in many places I could barely see the footpath.
Apart from the horseless carriages going up and down the road, it might have been 1882. Never mind the deer, about whose sudden migrations motorists are warned. For all you knew, Skin-the-goat Fitzharris and his pals were lurking behind the trees, finalising their assassination plans.
As it happened, it wasn’t the Invincibles I needed to worry about. Unless that name has been adopted by one of the many running clubs and boot-camps that, still fuelled by New Year’s resolutions, were also galloping around the park in herds.
They all seemed to be going the opposite direction to me. And with the wind and gradient behind them, they were going too fast for comfort. On the park’s footpaths, you don’t have to concern yourself about cars – much. But as yet another group of runners came careering at me out of the gloom, I soon regretted not wearing brighter clothes.
Despite the head-mounted miner’s lamps many of them were wearing, I must have been barely visible. So rather than become the victim of a run-and-hit accident, and maybe cause a pile-up, I had to veer off onto the grass frequently, and risk a sprained ankle.
Up past the Áras, though, the running groups disappeared. Now it was just me, the Victorian lighting, and the shadowy path. When a car’s headlights approached, the path became even darker. Then the thought occurred, unnervingly, that there could be a giant hole in the ground immediately ahead and you wouldn’t know.
Happily, I made it to Castleknock and back, eventually, in one piece. Even so, if I visit the 19th century again any time soon, I’ll bring a miner’s lamp.
Actually, I was back running in the Phoenix Park only last weekend, this time for a Business Houses cross-country race organised by – of all people – the Garda. But that was in daylight, and any suggestion of the 1880s had disappeared. Well, except maybe that the course was in and around that corner of the park known as “Khyber Road”.
Khyber Road’s name dates from an era when the British army (including many Irishmen) was bogged down in an unwinnable war in far-off Afghanistan. Which is very hard to imagine these days, I know. It was presumably named for some humorous likeness with the infamous mountain pass, long policed by Pashtun tribesmen who charged travellers a toll for safe transit.
There was a toll payable on the Phoenix Park’s version, too, last weekend, but it was mostly hardship. Weeks of rain had left the tribal areas either side of the Khyber barely passable. Still, at least you could see the muck. And apart from a few moments when I would have welcomed being shot at by tribesmen as a motivational tool, I enjoyed the race.
Speaking of gardaí, the Phoenix Park, and murder in the gas-lit 1880s reminds me that Limerick's annual Kate O'Brien Weekend opens again this coming Friday. No, none of those things would normally feature at the event. But the seamless segue comes courtesy of one of this year's speakers, Conor Brady. A former editor of this newspaper and also a past member of the Garda Ombudsman Commission, Brady is now a novelist. As readers may know, his recent thriller A June of Ordinary Murders is set in 1887, and centres on events in the aforementioned park. The weekend's other speakers include Colum McCann and Jennifer Johnston. More details are at kateobrienweekend.com.