Pond Life – Frank McNally on the short but colourful history of the Phoenix Park Star Fort

An Irishman’s Diary

In both name and nature, the Phoenix Park's "Citadel Pond" may be the last vestige of one of the greatest white-elephant construction projects in the history of Ireland.

It is today better known to Dubliners as the “Dog Pond”, which is more in keeping with its modern reality as a tree-lined miniature lake, with walking path, nestled between the park’s two cricket clubs. But it owes its origins to the water-filled moat that used to surround a vast construction known variously as the “Citadel”, “Star Fort”, and “Wharton’s Folly”.

The Wharton in question, Thomas (1648-1715), who oversaw the project as Britain’s viceroy in Ireland circa 1710, was a colourful figure, even by the standards of his era.

Jonathan Swift damned him, specifically, as a "public robber, an adulterer, a defiler of altars" and, generally, as "the most universal villain I ever knew".


Others considered him a man of immense charm. But such contradictions were in keeping with the age.

His Dublin fort was originally envisaged as one of four arsenals to be built around Ireland, one in each province, during the uneasy years after the Williamite Wars.

Projected to cost £64,000, it would be funded by among other things taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

The planned structure included two gates and drawbridges, a portcullis, and eight sentry boxes “with ornaments”. Elaborate buildings were also intended for inside the huge fort, which was 550 yards in diameter.

In the event, those never happened. But even the earthworks were gargantuan, involving 13 million cubic feet of soil.

Inevitably, the project soon ran over budget, with excavation costing 60 per cent more than approved.

It later emerged that there were many corrupt practices, including payment to phantom workers, bribes taken from actual workers, and horses charged for but used privately by the overseers. In a scheme that never went much further than earth movement, even the involvement of 24 overseers or assistant overseers looks excessive.

But only months into the work, as Edward McParland of Trinity College (to whose talk I'm indebted) has put it, "the political tide was washing Wharton and his Star Fort into choppy seas".

When the Whigs he supported lost the 1710 election, the viceroy fell from favour, hard. The project engineer was soon called before the House of Commons and “by October 1710 the cat was out of the bag” on the various malpractices.

Wharton’s successor recommended the work be stopped and a smaller arsenal be built instead in Dublin Castle, with a powder magazine “a little out of the town”.

The Magazine Fort – a fraction of the size, although it too earned a satirical verse from Swift – was constructed nearby in the 1730s. It still stands, albeit abandoned. Meanwhile, and allowing for Dr McParland’s point that the corruption involved was not unusual by 18th-century standards, it seems apt that the only trace of the Star Fort now is a hole in the ground.

By the way, and speaking of holes in the ground, the site of Wharton’s white elephant had the added misfortune, 230 years later, of having a German bomb dropped on it.

According to this newspaper’s report, the 1941 explosion knocked over an actual elephant in Dublin Zoo (he got up again). And among the humans who had a narrow escape were a “Mr Joseph McNally” (no relation to the diarist). The bomb fell “a short distance from his home, near the Dog Pond pumping works”.

Wharton left at least two other legacies to Ireland, of varying virtue. One was the Palatine community, German Protestant refugees who settled here under his reign. They were later regarded as an adornment to their adopted country. But among the sticks used on the viceroy’s back in the parliament debates was the cost of resettling the “useless and indigent Palatines”.

Another of his gifts to posterity were the lyrics of Lillibullero, an anti-Catholic ballad sung at the Battle of the Boyne and at Twelfth of July demonstrations ever since.

This should not imply that Wharton was a devout Protestant. Swift summarised his ecumenism as follows: “He is a presbyterian in politicks, and an atheist in religion, but he chooses at present to whore with a papist.”

Then there is the part about his altar-defiling. The most notorious allegation against him is that as a young man in 1682, while drunk, he broke into a church in Gloucestershire where he urinated on the communion table and defecated in the pulpit.

When the story was raised 23 years later in parliament, Wharton was reportedly reduced to silence. This despite another of his reputations, as the greatest liar of his era, which earned him the nickname “Honest Tom”.