“If you have found a quiet bench in a quiet park and sat down, be sure you had a very profitable day!” ― Turkish writer Mehmet Murat ildan.
Spring in Phoenix Park, Dublin
By Paula Halpin
After seven years of living in retirement a stone’s throw from Gatineau Park, I’m still awestruck by its beauty whenever I spend time there, no matter the season. With all of my senses attuned, I take in its majestic trees, its wooded hills, its pristine lakes and rivers, and its abundant wildlife. Grand altogether, as my Irish grandparents used to say.
I tell my family back home they really must come and experience this extraordinary Northern landscape for themselves – photos just don’t do it justice. They ask if they will see bears and coyotes and the Mounties. Will we go white water rafting, and skate on a pond in the moonlight, and sleep in a log cabin? You can tell we were raised on a diet of NFB films?
One of my sisters-in-law is a big Celine Dion fan and has suggested a side trip to visit Charlamagne where the diva was born. She asks if it is close to the Gatineau Park. I explain that Quebec is many, many times the size of Ireland – a concept difficult for someone from a tiny island country to grasp.
Being in Gatineau Park sometimes draws me back to Phoenix Park, a more urban green space, next door to my childhood home. It began as a deer hunting-ground in the 1660s, becoming a national public park in 1747. It is still home to about 600 wild fallow deer, a smaller and stockier animal than the white-tail deer found in Gatineau Park.
Dubliners have long since dropped “Phoenix” from the name. It is simply and affectionately referred to as “the park,” or “being up in the park.” We love the place. We will brag about it at the drop of a hat. At 707 hectares, it is one of the largest walled city parks in Europe, its elegant main thoroughfare still lit by gas lamps which have been faithfully maintained by the Flanagan family since the 1800s. It is about twice the size of New York’s Central Park – we enjoy pointing that out to American tourists. Gatineau Park, it should be said, encompasses a truly impressive 36,130 hectares.
Four of my six siblings and I walked every weekday through the park to St. Philomena’s primary school. In 1961, the Vatican suddenly stripped Philomena of her sainthood. The reason given was that there is no record of this martyred Greek princess ever having been canonized. Needless to say, the school community was rocked by this blow. People get attached to their saints. To add insult to injury, Philomena was the patron saint of infants and children.
Other memorable happenings in the park include my first husband proposing to me in the Furry Glen, a wooded part of the park favoured by young lovers. That same year, his older sister, who had learned to ride in the park, won two medals in an international equestrian event. She still rides a horse for pleasure in her seventies.
Another cherished memory is being at the Phoenix Park racecourse with my grandmother and two of my aunts, feeling glamourous and grown up in my new spring outfit and Easter bonnet. A lifetime away now.
Like most parks, ours was a paradise for kids. We hiked its trails. We rode our bikes year-round, the bravest of us careening down hills, hands off the handlebars. We gawked at the gentry as they charged at each other on their ponies at the polo grounds, or “bowled over maidens” on the cricket field. We locked eyes with the big cats and talked back to the mynah birds at the Dublin Zoo.
We scared ourselves silly with reports of apparitions showing up at night in imposing aristocratic piles like the viceregal lodge, which Queen Victoria visited in 1849 during the height of the potato famine. Some 150 years later, Tony Blair apologized for the famine, saying that the British government had stood by “while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.”
After independence, the lodge changed its name to Áras an Uachtairáin, to this day the official residence of the president of Ireland. During her visit in the 1800s, Victoria planted — of all things — a redwood tree on the grounds. It’s one of several sequoias sent from America that still stand in the park among the native oak, ash, lime, sycamore, beech and horse chestnut.
There are many ghost stories associated with Phoenix Park. One is that the long-deceased writer Jonathan Swift haunts the place – no one can say why. And only the brave or the foolhardy will walk after dark past the final resting place of some 40 Vikings, the largest Viking cemetery outside of Scandinavia, where ghostly wraiths are alleged to hover over the graves late at night. For its part in ghostly lore, Gatineau Park can claim the haunted walk through the grounds of the Mackenzie King Estate.
We Dubliners are happy to shamelessly drop the names of James Joyce and other literary luminaries who were born in our city, including Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and William Butler Yeats (the latter three Nobel Laureates). Dublin is also the birthplace of acclaimed contemporary novelists Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry and Roddy Doyle. Is there something in the water, or maybe in the Guinness, that inspires such fine writing?
The park shows up in several of the works of Irish writers. The Wellington Monument, which stands just inside the park’s main entrance, appears in Joyce’s short story, The Dead, where it is covered with snow and frost in the protagonist Gabriel Conroy’s imagination, serving as an outdoor solitary and quiet contrast to the bustling of the party going on inside the Morkan home:
“Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cold pane of the window. How cool it must be outside! How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park! The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a bright cap on the top of the Wellington Monument. How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table.”
In Joyce’s masterpiece, Ulysses, references to the infamous Phoenix Park Murders run through the pages. In 1882, while walking towards the Viceregal Lodge, England’s chief secretary for Ireland and his aide were ambushed and stabbed with surgical knives by two members of the Invincibles, a militant group fighting to gain an independent Irish republic
In September 1979, more than a million people crowded into Phoenix Park to see Pope John Paul II celebrate Mass. I remember how extraordinary it felt to be in the midst of a crowd that size, a third of the population of the country.
President John Kennedy also drew large crowds when he came to the park in 1963 during a state visit. I remember my father hoisting me up onto a railing so that I could catch a glimpse of Kennedy walking out the gates of the stately US Ambassador’s residence. That same year, two weeks before the president was gunned down in Texas, I went to a Beatles concert at the old Adelphi Cinema in Dublin. Couldn’t hear a thing because of the hysterical screaming of the teenaged girls, myself included. Did I really do that?
I was also a Rolling Stones fan. I told my sister I had once seen Mick Jagger on a horse in the park. “You did not!” she scoffed. It’s true that I might have imagined the sighting because Jagger was friends with the Guinness family and often stayed with them at Farmleigh, their estate in the park. A tourist attraction these days, Farmleigh is representative of the Edwardian period, with its art and fine furniture, and a library that houses the Benjamin Iveagh collection of rare books and manuscripts.
On a recent hike in Gatineau Park, I watched two young men plough fat bikes through the snow and was reminded of winters in Ireland, where cycling played a big part in our lives. Of course our snowfalls were watery, short-lived affairs compared to the spectacular showstoppers in Canada. But winter biking (albeit on skinnier tires in my time) and summer competitive racing are hugely popular in Phoenix Park.
My all-time favourite story from the park involved a bicycle. It still makes me smile.
My father was employed as a map maker in the Ordinance Survey of Ireland, located in the park. One foggy morning in the winter of 1958 he was hit by a car (not the funny part) as he cycled to work. He was unhurt except for a few scratches and a brief loss of dignity. But his beloved black Raleigh was mangled beyond repair.
The accident itself is not what earned it a place in the family memory vault. It was that the driver of the car was none other than my father’s good friend and colleague, Malcom G. The men had been to school together and were now colleagues at the Survey.
After landing hard on a grass verge, my father was struggling to his feet, being stared at by a curious buck, when through the haze he saw two taillights barreling towards him. Panicked, Malcolm had begun to reverse his Morris Minor back to the scene, swerving away from my father at the last second.
“I was sure the bugger was out to kill me,” my father would say, laughing at the memory in the many retellings of the story.
My mother would round out the tale by describing her shaken husband and a shame-faced Malcolm arriving at her front door, carrying the twisted corpse of the Raleigh, the only intact bits being the tire pump and the headlamp. She poured them each a stiff whiskey at the unholy hour of nine in the morning. Malcolm was happy to share his ham sandwiches with my father whose own packed lunch had been reduced to mush in the accident. My father bore no grudge and always said Malcolm was “a good soul.”
It took months for my father to scrape together enough money to buy another bike, the only mode of transportation for our family of nine apart from an unreliable local bus service. In the 1950s, large families might, at most, own one or two shared bikes at a time. Few families had cars. We walked everywhere, so the park was a godsend.
My father wore out many Raleighs over the course of his life. He kept each one in turn in a shed in the back yard, along with a maintenance kit, a spare inner tube and a set of metal clips that protected his pants when cycling.
By his own admission, Dad was not mechanically-minded. Unlike most of his neighbours, he was not a work overalls man, the kind that are always ready to unblock a drain or paint a fence — tasks I saw my mother tackle with gusto.
But he did know his way around a bicycle. I would stand next to him on weekend mornings on the concrete path outside the shed while he tinkered with the two-wheeler. He would be wearing dress pants and a white shirt, but no tie because it was Saturday. I would watch as he oiled the chain, adjusted the brakes and — my favourite — repaired a puncture. When the job was done, we would have a cup of tea and a fig roll.
My father’s bikes also served as emergency vehicles. I remember him once sitting my 10-year-old brother on the crossbar and pedalling furiously through the park to our family doctor’s surgery. James had been bitten by next door’s cranky old collie and needed a 14-day series of painful anti-rabies shots in his belly. Ouch!
When I was 17, I bought a blue Humber ladies’ bike with my baby-sitting earnings. It rested comfortably against the Raleigh in the shed until I left home two years later. A young cousin took it over and rode it to Phoenix Park School (formally St. Philomena’s, you’ll recall) along the same tree-lined avenues that I had cycled when I was her age.
These days, my eight-year-old Wakefield granddaughter loves to ride her bike with her parents in Gatineau Park. Wheels turning through time in beautiful parks everywhere.