An Irishman’s Diary on Irishtown Nature Park

From rubble to an urban oasis

  Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Photograph: Bryan O’Brien


Walking through a green area in Irishtown the other day, warm and sunny, a mere six kilometres from the city centre, I got an entirely new perspective on the southside of Dublin Bay. I could see the whole sweep of the bay, from the start of Sandymount to Dún Laoghaire, with the Dublin Mountains as a distant backdrop.

I was exploring the Irishtown Nature Park, which is on the southside of the Poolbeg peninsula. The main track through the park skirts the coastline, looking out over Sandymount Strand, with its fast-moving tides, while several more minor paths criss-cross the hilly uplands of the park, which rises quite steeply.

Along those more minor paths, trees and vegetation have grown profusely and it is easy to imagine being in the depths of the country, except for the low hum of machinery being used elsewhere on the peninsula. Just at the back of the park, you can see the incinerator being built, a highly contentious issue in Sandymount and Irishtown. You’ll also see the wastewater plant close by, while two sentinels stand guard, the now disused chimneys that were once part of the old Poolbeg ESB generating station, their red and white paint fading away.

The whole genesis of the park seemed implausible. During a short-lived building boom in Dublin between 1972 and 1975, much rubble from construction sites was dumped here, while much of the Irishtown end of the strand was also used as a rubbish dump. Turning the huge mound of building rubble into a nature park seemed an unlikely idea, and when the Sandymount and Merrion Residents Association met with officials of the old Dublin Corporation in the mid- 1970s, scepticism prevailed. Lorna Kelly, who has been closely involved with the association since it was reborn in 1963 from what had been the Sandymount Residents Association, says that one person in the Corporation was particularly supportive, Frank Feely, who went on to become city manager and who retired in 1996.

Jim Shannon, the then parks superintendent, also warmed to the idea. Some of the initial plans for the park included a boating lake and an area for tennis and basketball, but these never happened. Today, a number of wooden seats along the main path are the only artificial creations. One of those benches has an apposite slogan carved into it: “The trail is beautiful, be still.”

When development of the park started in the 1980s, lots of trees were planted as well as seeds and the Corporation’ s efforts were helped by many local residents who also planted seeds. Today, says Lorna Kelly, the park has over 200 plant species. Some weren’t native; tail grass, with its fluffy seed heads, came in via the nearby Dublin port. The park also has areas of grassland and scrub and all kinds of fungi.

It also has many species of sea and shore birds, butterflies, too. The park is an ideal habitat for the wren, commemorated in Sandymount by the St Stephen’ s Day wren boy festivities. Other birds here can include skylarks and linnets, dunnocks and stonechats and I spotted a heron just offshore. Brent geese winter in a two-hectare area of grassland close to the park.

Walking the main trail gives an entirely new way of looking at this side of Dublin Bay, much more revealing than what you can see from the walkway beside Strand Road, seen by some as being over-sanitised, a phrase that could never be used about Irishtown Nature Park. The walk through the park can be continued to the Great South Wall, as far as the Poolbeg lighthouse.

The tracks are meant for pedestrians and when I was walking the main path the other day, I passed by a young woman walking barefoot along the path despite its stones. Bikes can be a problem; local residents say that the park should be solely for pedestrians, runners and joggers.

One south- facing part of the hillside even looks like a discarded vineyard and it got me thinking. The northeast of France has over 300 huge mountains of slag from disused coal mines and viticulture has started, with grapes growing on the less than fertile soil. Perhaps one day, we could see an Irishtown appellation?

Strangely enough, there’s another natural park with exactly the same name in New Brunswick in eastern Canada. It’ s vastly larger, with nearly 900 hectares of forests and 100 hectares of lakes; perhaps a little twinning would be in order?

In the meantime, Irishtown Nature Park remains fiercely cosseted by local people who enjoy walking its trails and a delightful green oasis waiting to be explored by those who don’t know it.