St Stephen’s Green, Dublin: a historical travel guide
A foray into St Stephen’s Green
So it was pretty much the same situation as previously. Cheap flight to Dublin. An opportunistic few hours to kill in the city before heading down south to Cork. An opportunity to go to a city park this time, such as St Stephen’s Green.
Whenever I go to Dublin, usually I stick to the streets near to the main thoroughfare of O’Connell Street. Mainly Henry Street and Abbey Street where I can stop and look for any bargains in the shopping mall or grab a bite to eat. Dragon Buffet is a personal cheap and cheerful favourite of mine if I want a quick bite to eat.
This time around, I had a couple more hours’ time to kill than last time. So I thought I’d venture further out and head up to the famous Grafton St. I walked past the Dublin staples such as Brown Thomas and Pandora. Past eternal British favourite Marks and Spencer. I pushed myself to go as far as I can up Grafton Street and I eventually reached a plateau. Where I came up to a monumental arch in front of me.
Walking under through this arch, I could see the space in front of me open up. This space is a city park known as Stephen’s Green. It’s an interesting place to visit and has an interesting history to match. And this is what I want to share with you, and my experience of it.
What is St Stephen’s Green?
St Stephen’s Green is a public park in the centre of Dublin. In its current form designed by William Sheppard, it was officially re-opened as a public park on Tuesday, 27 July 1880 by Lord Ardilaun. Out of all of Dublin’s main Georgian garden squares, St Stephen’s Green is by far the largest.
It’s an important public resource, in the way of providing respite away from the busy city. Its four centuries of history are eventful and reflect the sensitive and complex history between Ireland and its larger neighbour across the Irish Sea. This is evidenced by the large number of monuments to Irish history.
If you were living in 1663, you’d be more familiar with St Stephen’s Green being a marshy common on the edge of Dublin. You might even have been the farmer who let his cows or sheep graze on the land. However later that year, you would have had a rude awakening.
Exclusivity and reopening
With the need to raise revenue, the Dublin Corporation enclosed the centre of the common to form an exclusive park and sold the land around this for building. The year after, a wall was built to enclose the park. New Georgian style buildings quickly sprung up with the new park being an exclusive place for the wealthier citizens of the city.
Until 1877, unless you were a local resident, access to the Green was impossible. That was until an Act of Parliament reopened the Green to the public. This was thanks to the efforts of Lord Ardilaun (more popularly known as Sir Arthur Edward Guinness). He also paid for the park to be re-landscaped into its current form.
During the Easter Rising of 1916, 200 or so insurgents established positions in St Stephen’s Green. This was under the command of Commandant Michael Mallin assisted by Kit Poole, and Constance Markievicz. Motor vehicles were used as road blocks on the streets surrounding the park. The insurgents dug themselves into defensive trenches in various areas of the park.
This strategy ultimately led to their downfall as the British Army were able to position themselves in buildings which overlooked the park. From these positions, they were able to shoot down into the entrenchments. If you were one of the insurgents, this must have been terrifying. After finding themselves under heavy fire, the insurgent volunteers withdrew to the Royal College of Surgeons.
Remarkably, during this time, the battle was temporarily halted by both sides. This was to allow the park’s groundsmen to feed the local ducks. I found this a noble and admirable thing to do.
The park is now operated by the Office of Public Works on behalf of the Irish state.
The park’s design has had three major overhauls since it first opened. The first in 1670 when lime trees were planted around its perimeter. The second happened in 1815 when it was redesigned by Arthur Neville. The third overhaul was during the 1860s when the campaign to make the park publicly accessible was underway.
This third overhaul is what I was experiencing at the park that day, thanks to the designs of William Sheppard, and the engineer A.L. Cousins. Lord Ardilaun also contributed to the planning and importing of trees and plants to be used in the park. If you happen to walk around the park you would see some of these today.
What to see and do
St Stephen’s Green is a fairly expansive space, and I can’t say I walked everywhere that day. However, there are a few notable monuments and areas that I walked through, which I recommend you at least see.
Yeats Memorial Garden
OK, so it may be an unassuming garden. In fact I wouldn’t call this area a garden at all. More like a granite-paved patio – that’s the best I can describe it. For those that are not in the know, it’s a great place to sit down on a granite ledge or seat and take in the relative silence and towering tress around you. It’s especially good if you’re on a lunch break.
For those who are into poetry, there is something here that may interest you. Although not recognisable, there’s an abstract sculpture of the poet WB Yeats. If you haven’t worked it out by then, just read the sign.
Royal College of Surgeons
Although it isn’t in the park itself, one of my favourite buildings in the area is one of the Royal College of Surgeons. I noticed this building while looking at the statue of Lord Ardaulin. Despite Ireland gaining independence from the UK nearly 100 years ago, this is one of the few institutions in the country that has retained its royal prefix.
Built in 1810, I think it’s a truly grand impressive building, befitting of its role of being the home of one of Ireland’s most respected professions. During the 1916 Easter Rising, the building was occupied by the Irish Volunteer forces led by Michael Mallin and Constance Markievicz. However, they soon surrendered with both leaders tried and sentenced to death, although Markievicz’s sentence was later commuted on account of her being female.
St Stephen’s Green is a great place for a leisurely walk, taking you away from the hustle and bustle of Dublin’s streets. And it was something that I took full advantage of. This was the most interesting part of going around the park.
Not only is St Stephen’s Green an ideal place for strolling, but it’s also a really useful historical resource. courtesy of the 1916 Exhibition. At regular points dotted around mostly the perimeter of the park, I found several information boards. These gave accounts of events that happened during the occupation of the park by the Irish Citizen Army.
From the battles played out in the various areas of the park, to the important role that women played during the Easter Rising. This exhibition aims to give an understanding of these events that helped change the course of Irish history forever.
An eye-opening experience
As someone who’s British, it’s a real eye-opener. At school, I was never taught this side about our history. Usually, you’re mainly told about the good things that happened. Never the bad things that were perpetrated. I’ve had to find these things out for myself. So, it’s nearly always a shock when I’m confronted by truths from the opposite side.
But I see myself as someone who is able to learn and unlearn knowledge. This can only be a good thing. New knowledge can positively change my own perceptions. As well as help to banish any misconceptions of my own.
The first thing I saw walking up to the park was what I initially thought was a triumphal arch. Similar to others such as Marble Arch in London, or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. How wrong was I.
The Fusilliers’ Arch is actually a monument, and a controversial one at that.
Erected in 1907, it was funded publicly and designed by John Howard Pentland. The arch commemorates the four battalions of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers that served in the Second Boer War. It lists the main battles and locations where they fought. The names of 222 dead Irish soldiers are chiselled on the underside of the arch.
At the time of its construction, there was a lot of political and social change in Ireland. Along with the rise in the Irish nationalist movement. Despite these soldiers being Irish, the idea of celebrating the British Empire’s military achievements went against what was happening. Because of this, the arch earned the nickname known locally as ‘Traitor’s Arch’.
Lord Ardilaun statue
While I was admiring the Royal College of Surgeons building, I noticed a solitary, fenced off but rather grand and almost regal looking statue overlooking the college building. The statue of Lord Ardilaun.
Who was he?
Also known as Sir Arthur Guinness, Lord Ardilaun was a well known Irish businessman, politician, and philanthropist. He was part of the family who owned the Guinness brewery. But he was best known for giving St Stephen’s Green back to the people of Dublin.
Educated at Eton and Trinity College Dublin, Lord Ardilaun devoted much of his time to a number of public causes. Causes such as restoring Dunlin’s Marsh’s Library extending Coombe Women’s Hospital. He supported the building of affordable housing for the people of Dublin. Ardilaun was a generous sponsor of the Royal College of Surgeons. He was also instrumental in preserving the lake and mountain landscape around Killarney, which is now one of Ireland’s most popular tourist destinations.
His best-known achievement, was to buy, landscape and give to Dublin the park of St Stephen’s Green. In order to do this, he sponsored a Private bill which was eventually passed by Parliament as the Saint Stephen’s Green (Dublin) Act 1877.
I found it rather fitting that day, that his statue is placed in front of the very college that he sponsored.
I don’t really know much about this structure, but from what I know, the Pavillion was added to the park in 1898.
You do get lovely views of the lake from here and this is the attraction. Every lunchtime this place comes alive with throngs of students and city workers. All taking some chill-out time from the office and their studies for some peace away from the stresses of life.
One of the most poignant memorials I came across is that of the Famine Memorial sculpted by the late Edward Delaney in 1967. This abstract sculpture of three figures and a dog is a memorial to the victims of the Irish Famine of 1845-1849. A sombre lesson in how not to deal with the mass starvation of a country.
The Haunting Soldier (temporary)
If you were Irish, joining the British Army to fight in the First World War was seen as treasonous. Especially with the political climate and the Irish Revolutionary War happening at the same time. Despite the threat of reprisals for joining the British, many thousands of Irish men still chose to fight the British cause against Germany.
Thankfully for all of us, with 100 years passing since the events, attitudes are very different. Political relations between Britain and Ireland at a friendly level. And there is now an appreciation for these Irish soldiers. If not for who they joined, then definitely for what they did – making the ultimate sacrifice.
What is the Haunting Soldier?
The Haunting Soldier was brought over to Dublin to mark the centenary of the armistice in a way that would be memorable in Ireland.
The exhibit was created in 2017 in Dorset, England by Martin Galbavy and Chris Hannam. It’s made from pieces of scrap metal and portrays a very tired, weary and haunted-looking first World War soldier with a backpack, leaning on his rifle. Looking closely, I saw that metal objects such as horseshoes, springs, brake discs and spanners and chains were used to depict every detail of the soldier. Which I think is either very clever or resourceful.
What struck me about this exhibit was that despite this figure being created from inanimate objects, there was humanity that projected out from this soldier. It also shows that the mechanisation of war took away the humanity of those soldiers on the Western Front on both sides. That’s a heavy burden for me to take away from this.
For me, St Stephen’s Green in Dublin is one of the city’s best public spaces. Initially it was an exclusive area for the most privileged of society. Fortunately, morality and common sense prevailed. Today it’s a space of leisure and respite from the busyness of the city. Especially with the Dublin’s residents, workers, and students, as well as the many tourists who visit the city every year.
The history of the park also tells of the turbulent and uncomfortable history between two nations. Although the park is dotted with reminders of Dublin’s and Ireland’s imperial past, there are also glimpses of the hope and aspiration that came through during this period. And I think it’s wonderful how the park manages to balance them both.
Whatever your reason for visiting St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, it is one of those historical places that will touch you in one way or another. It did with me.