Dublin’s Circular Roads – 6

The Phoenix Park.

Where the arc of the North Circular declines, the road swerves south and dips steeply towards the Liffey by way of Infirmary Road. Straight ahead the Phoenix Park beckons, spreading its serene blanket of greenery on the western periphery of Dublin. Once remote, it is now a playground for its urban and suburban surrounds.

Phoenix connotes birth from fire, or revolutionary rebirth, concepts not without echo in the park’s historical fabric. In fact, the name derives from the Irish Fionn Uisce, meaning clear water. This refers to the Liffey along the southern edge, where the waters run clear above the muddy waters of the tidal estuary.

In Norman times, this was part of the demesne of the Knights Hospitalier based at their abbey south of the river at Kilmainham. The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1537 dispossessed the monks of their lands. At the Restoration more than a century later, Lord Lieutenant James Butler, the Duke of Ormond, established the lands as a royal hunting park. A herd of fallow deer was imported and is still in occupation. In 1680 the lands were split each side of the Liffey. The Royal Hospital was built at Kilmainham to cater for retired army soldiers and is now the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

In 1745 the Phoenix Park became a public park, one thousand seven hundred and fifty acres enclosed by an eleven kilometre wall, reputed to be the largest urban park in Europe. It is twice the size of New York’s Central Park and more than four times the size of London’s Regent’s Park.

The Park is a significant city thoroughfare. The main drag, Chesterfield Avenue, ascends in a neatly dividing diagonal between Conyngham Road and the Castleknock Gate. It bisects a vast expanse of manicured nature. There’s grassland and woodland, the brazen herd of deer, pitches for football, cricket and polo grounds, the dog pond for our four legged friend and the Zoo for more exotic critters There is a sprinkling of monuments and hidden amongst trees, some significant buildings.

The Garda headquarters are to the right near the Park Gate, the NCR entrance. To the south is the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Criminal Courts of Justice. Not the best spot for loitering criminals so. Mind you, Bohemians Football Club was founded by a group of young men at the Gate Lodge in 1890. They’re the oldest soccer club in Ireland, and played their first games at the Polo Grounds.

Dublin Zoo is nearby. The quaint entry post survives, a charming thatch out of Africa and another era. The large modernist entrance is adjacent. The Zoo is picturesquely constructed around ornamental lakeland. A more enlightened policy these days gives the animals some room to roam. Monkeys and chimps have their islands, predator and prey of Serengeti and beyond have large outdoor compounds. The Zoo was opened in 1831 and quickly became a popular destination for Sunday day-trippers. Still is today.

Nearby are the quaint circular tearooms. A place where I like to catch a coffee and lounge on its outdoor terrace. Of a morning in Spring or early summer a perfect moment is possible, with the air hanging like gauze from awakening trees. It’s busy today though, despite the wintry cold, and I pass on.

The ground falls steeply away to the east, falling away towards the Hollow. The Hollow has long been an occasional outdoor music venue, whether for formal brass band or a bit of good old time rock and roll. The ornate bandstand from 1890 provides the focus. I was a frequent flier in the mid seventies, with that hippy coterie and Mary Rose. I should namecheck the playlist, but then I smoked the green, green grass of home. The Park holds memories of greater gigs. They vary from the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers some years later. The Pope attracted a million to his gig, the Chillies somewhat less; though they were rowdier and louder, including me and my teenage son, singing and sweating through a summer day.

This quadrant of the Park is marked by the stone finger of the Wellington Monument. Crossing the main road there’s an iconic view of Dublin to your left. As the road falls towards the Parkgate Street entrance, the stacks and towers of the Guinness Brewery rise up with the city, a throbbing urban wall against the sublime greenery of the park.

Off track to our right is Aras an Uachtaran, the residence of the Irish President. It was built in 1750 by the Chief Ranger, Nathaniel Clements. Clements was a property developer and politician, who lived in Henrietta Street, the first grand Georgian streetscape. The Aras, viewed across the lawns, is oddly resonant of the White House in Washington, although the resemblance is coincidental. Neo-classical architecture doesn’t vary all that much at first glance.

Before Independence it was the Viceregal Lodge and witnessed one of those darker incidents that form a contrast to the Park’s bucolic idyll. In May 1882 the newly appointed Chief Secretary Lord Cavendish was walking in the vicinity with Under Secretary Thomas Burke when they were stabbed to death by two members of The Invincibles. The assassins were spirited away by getaway man James Fitzharris, more colourfully known as Skin the Goat.

When Carey told on Skin the Goat
O’Donnell caught him on the boat
He wished he’d never been afloat

George Hodnett’s mock trad spoof, Monto, gives a scabrous and partial account. Cavendish had just replaced Forster, known as Buckshot for his hardline attitude to the Land League.

You’ve heard of Buckshot Forster
the dirty auld imposter
He took his Mott and lost her up the Furry Glen.

Forster resigned over Parnell’s release from Kilmainham Jail, and Cavendish’s first day in the post proved to be his last. After the outrage, Carey, leader of the Invincibles ratted out the perpetrators, but paid a high price when assassinated on a ship out of Cape Town.

It wasn’t very sensible
To tell on the Invincibles
They stand up for their principles, day and night.

I skirt the Wellington Monument, its plinth gained by sloping steps and today occupied by happy loving couples taking in the view, being kings of their castle. Wellington Road branches left off Chesterfield and descends towards the Islandbridge Gate.

Exactly a century on from the Invincibles outrage, Malcolm McArthur, an effete, financially straightened socialite, hatched a convoluted plot to stage a solo armed robbery. Determined to steal a car, in July 1982 he loitered in the woodland nearby. He identified a target, a young nurse, Bridie Gargan, who parked her car and left it to take the summer sun.

Spring was never waiting for us girl
it ran one step ahead as we followed in the dance.
Between the parted pages we were pressed
in love’s hot fevered iron, like a striped pair of pants.

The plan was not best laid. MacArthur dragged her to the car and violently assaulted her, driving out of the park with her dying in the back seat. His escape took him towards James’s Street Hospital where, bizarrely, an ambulance, its driver thinking MacArthur was a doctor with a patient, escorted him through the grounds of the Hospital with siren blaring. MacArthur kept going, eventually depositing the car and its victim in Rialto.

I recall the yellow cotton dress
foaming like a wave on the ground around your knees.
The birds like tender babes in your hands
and the old men playing checkers by the trees.

Days later he murdered farmer Donal Dunne while posing as a purchaser for his shotgun. MacArthur was run to ground in his hideout; the residence of the Attorney General in Dalkey. You couldn’t make this stuff up. John Banville tried with the Book of Evidence but it’s not nearly so bizarre as the fact. The AG, meanwhile, headed off on holiday, it was booked after all. Taoiseach Charles Haughey ordered him home. Haughey’s expression of disbelief resulted in the coining of the acronym, so descriptive of the era, by Conor Cruise O’Brien; GUBU: Grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre and unbelievable.

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down.

The Magazine Fort stands guard over Islandbridge Gate. It dates to 1734, a star fort dominating this undulating, lonely south-western section of the Park. It featured in the overture for the 1916 Rising. A group of Volunteers, posing as footballers, gained entry to the fort claiming they needed to retrieve their ball. I have no idea if any were members of Bohemians, but they managed to disarm the guards. However their plan to blow up the fort by way of signalling the onset of the Rising was something of a damp squib.

Exiting by the pretty Gate Lodge, a short left takes us to the Liffey bridge. Rising up to the south is the first stretch of the South Circular Road and the second part of our odyssey. Conyngham Road heads east, a short stroll along the southern wall of the Park to the Luas line at Kingsbridge connecting to the city centre. A halfway house, if you like.

 

 

Advertisements

Dublin’s Circular Roads – 2

From Spencer Dock to the Five Lamps.

Spencer DockHeading north on Guild Street, the Royal Canal to our right seeps towards the Liffey. A new city, linear and rational is being stamped over the old North Wall docklands. That’s the feeling crossing Mayor Street where the Luas Red Line takes passengers arrow straight from Connolly Station to the Point Village. The Point Depot at the eastern end of the Docks is the major venue for indoor concerts. I saw Bob Dylan there some years back. A man with a hat playing piano. I could have spent the evening out in the real world, where the Liffey melts into the sea. I could have sat contentedly and watched the river flow, the memory of Bob’s music stronger in my blood.

FerrymanAt Ferryman’s Crossing, a rusty reminder of the old days rises in the form of a decrepit crane. The old docklands peep through, first the palimpsest, then the ancient script itself. It’s still being written. Often the same old story. Sheriff Street runs parallel to the quays but remains remote from the modern narrative there. The area has a rough inner city reputation.

Lorcan OThe Church of St. Laurence O’Toole marks the start of Seville Place. It was built in the Famine years and opened in 1850. Along Seville Place, the grandly named First to Fourth Avenues suggest New York. In fact, these are short, cottage lined cul de sacs. Under the railway bridge we reach Amiens Street.

Seville 2This street provides Dublin’s main transport and communications hubs. Connolly Station, topped by an ornate Italianate tower was opened in 1944 as Dublin station, later named Amiens Street. By 1853 it served the rail link to Belfast. Madigan’s Pub, on the main concourse, was a Mecca for thirsty travelers on long, dry, Good Friday. It is the most central of all bonafide pubs. You would need a train ticket to deserve a pint, of course; a small price to pay. Such quaint customs are now consigned to the slop tray of history, as Ireland’s Good Friday prohibition has been lifted.

BusarasA little further off track, Bus Aras, nearer the river, was an early modernist pile. Designed by Michael Scott and completed in 1955, from here you can take a bus to anywhere in Ireland, or all the way to London. Bus Aras and Connolly combine to form a startling urban portal, full of the contrasts of history and architecture. At just the right spot, the panorama includes Victorian Connolly Station, Georgian Custom House, the International Financial Services Centre and the Ulster Bank HQ across the river.

The area is rich in memories from when I worked in Sheriff Street Sorting Office beside Connolly back in the day. This is Ireland’s main sorting office with a constant flow of post by day and by night. Working shift meant being on the Gravy train, one week in three doing all-nighters. Maintenance involved clearing blockages on the various belts and chutes forming the working innards of the building. A blockage was often a good excuse for shop floor workers to decamp to a nearby early opener for a pint. So, having cleared the blockage I’d have to hike off to the North Star or Grainger’s and clear the bar. Later, at dawn, a smoke break on the roof gave a view across the waking city to the mountains beyond.

… back then when everything seemed possible, even there in the Sorting Office, in the bowels of that clanking beast, amongst the trolls and elves of the workaday world. We’d climb onto the high gantry and up the fixed ladder to the roof, Alex, the Bishop and I. We were kings of the world up there, with Dublin spread out beneath us, above us only a rippling sky. (from Kings on the Roof by Shane Harrison)

DSC_0365At more civilised hours we could repair to Cleary’s pub, beneath the bridge, shuddering under the weight of passing trains. Old style boozer of dark wood, sparse light on glinting glasses being raised at the long bar. One more toast before boarding the Gravy Train. Last wet my whistle here with Davin, on our way with to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at Croke Park farther north.

Monto, bordered by Amiens Street and Talbot Street, was the name of the area in Victorian days. This was Dublin’s red light district until cleaned up by the authorities after Irish Independence. In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the area appears as Nighttown, where Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a brothel. Joyce has a nearby street names after him. You can hear his ghost whistle there, maybe catch his silhouette, some foggy night.

The area lives on in song and ribaldry. George Hodnett imagined it for us in his song Monto, immortalised by the Dubliners. The first line name-checks Ringsend, south east in the saltier part of Dublin 4. 

If you’ve got a wing-o, take her up to Ring-o

Where the waxies sing-o, All the day.

If you’ve had your fill of porter, and you can’t go any further

Give your man the order: Back to the quays!

And take her up to Monto, Monto, Monto,

Take her up to Monto, langer-oo! To you!

5 LampsAt the junction of Seville Place and Amiens Street, we’re back on track. Heading North by Northwest is Portland Row, leading to the North Circular proper. Amidst the grimy urban bustle sits the landmark of the Five Lamps, delicate and redolent of a bygone age. It sits on a junction of five streets. Again weirdly suggestive of Old New York’s Five Points, notorious focus for Irish gangs in the mid nineteenth century. The eponymous, though fictional, Dublin gang appear in Bob Geldof’s Rat Trap: 

Just pass the Gasworks, by the meat factory door

the Five Lamp Boys were coming on strong.

Rat Trap is practically the theme song for The Boomtown Rats. Alive with eastside docklands imagery, still it chimes with many listener’s folk memory, namechecking Top of the Pops, the universal Italian cafe and signs that say: walk, don’t walk. Geldof was an alumnus of the International Meat Packers south of the river, near the old gasworks and near our journey’s end. I take it the Five Lamp boys were out of area. Looking for a pint perhaps.

The Five Lamps structure itself was erected with a drinking fountain for the area’s poor. Besides providing potable water the fountain was also intended as an encouragement for sobriety. That was back in 1880. They survived the German bombing of the adjacent North Strand in May 1941. Three hundred houses were destroyed and twenty eight people died. Almost eighty years on the area struggles against less fatal if more persistent misfortune.

There’s screaming and crying in the high rise blocks,

It’s a rat trap Billy but you’re already caught.

The high density housing hereabouts doesn’t actually soar but makes for a queasily crowded environment. It’s time to push on. We’re one kilometer into our epic, only thirteen to go.