Frank McNally on the joys of Europe’s biggest city park at a time of pandemic

‘The deer grazed safely, unworried by dogs. People walked singly or in twos. An occasional lone cyclist passed’ 

It was in a  calm and empty Phoenix Park I went for a run one night this week.

It was in a calm and empty Phoenix Park I went for a run one night this week.

 

Out for my daily, Government-approved run in the Phoenix Park recently, I passed two other male joggers, both of a physique suggesting that they were relative strangers to exercise.  Even so, they were trucking along gamely, while also talking non-stop, an achievement in itself. 

They were also observing correct distance, being on either side of the footpath. So approaching from behind, I pulled out into the overtaking lane (formerly known as the road, but mercifully free of traffic these days) for a two-metre passing manoeuvre, while briefly tuning into the conversation, as you would while turning a radio dial.

“. . . Those lads have been on the beer all week,” I overheard one of the pair say, between gasps. “They were drinking all day Monday anyway, and Wednesday.  But sure, I’d be at it myself if I had nothing to do.”

His companion – the one nearest me – replied: “I haven’t had a drink since I got sick. [Hearing this last word, I eased a bit farther out onto the road].  Lost interest in it. But the thirst is on me again now.” The other man congratulated him on this return to health. “Well that’s a good sign . . .” And with that, I moved out of range.

*****

On the TV news the other night, I heard New York’s Central Park described as “the lungs of the city”. The same phrase has probably been applied to every big green space in a metropolis at some time.  But as those of us lucky enough to have it on our doorstep know, the Phoenix Park deserves it most.

First there’s the sheer size of it: 1,762 acres. Then there’s the shape, which is roughly that of a thoracic cavity. The green space is even divided into two sides by the long, straight Chesterfield Avenue, which runs down it like a spine. And okay, the left lung is somewhat collapsed compared with the other.  But it still fits the metaphor a lot better than the rectangle in Manhattan.

*****

The park’s coronavirus etiquette will be tested by the Easter weekend’s forecast weather. So far, however, observance has bordered on impeccable.  Even around the Wellington monument, which in normal times would be magnet for social gatherings, you rarely see more than two or three people within conversational distance now.  It probably helps that the main Garda checkpoint for traffic from the city centre is just opposite.

Not that this will assuage the criticisms of some social media puritans.  Twitter in particular is a haven for the self-righteous, giving a pulpit to everyone who needs one.  And especially in the early days of the lockdown, even solitary exercisers in their local park were frowned on by long-distance observers, clearly disappointed at the moderation of HSE advice.

I was reminded of a quotation from Thomas and Valerie Packenham’s A Traveller’s Guide to Dublin, in which the Freeman’s Journal decried the relaxation of rules that first turned the Phoenix into a people’s park, in the 1770s:

In the good old days, it lamented, “every impropriety was rigorously expelled from that beautified spot. Ill-looking strollers of either sex could never get admittance at the gate except on public occasions. Cars and noddies [cheap, one-horse carriages] were refused passage. But now the gates are opened wide to Tag, Rag, and Bobtail. The Sabbath is abused by permitting a hurling match to be played there every Sunday evening, which is productive of blasphemous speaking, riot, drunkenness, broken heads and dislocated bones, among ten thousand of the lower class; and meanwhile the deer are hunted by detached parties of these vagrants and their dogs.”

*****

It was in a contrastingly calm and empty Phoenix Park I went for another run one night this week. The deer grazed safely, unworried by dogs. People walked singly or in twos. An occasional lone cyclist passed.  But the Garda checkpoint had gone for the evening, which may have explained the extraordinary sight, approaching me on one of the side roads, of a gleaming red sports car, roof down, driven by a young man and featuring (as standard) a female passenger with wind-swept blonde hair.

They pulled in just ahead, apparently to ask directions from two women walking on the footpath. I didn’t hear what the driver asked, or most of the reply. 

But the woman answering was obviously a member of the community police, because the car pulled off again swiftly. And from a safe distance, on a grassy bypass, I caught only the last part of her directions to the couple, which was that they should both “have more cop-on!”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.