Early History and Habitation
Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Man had long associations with the lands that now form The Phoenix Park. About five and a half thousand years ago man was attracted to the narrow strip of land along the southern edge of the Park between Knockmaroon and Islandbridge. This land had a commanding view over the River Liffey and offered unrestricted views across the valley to the Dublin Mountains.
Early Christian Period
Aerial photographs of the Fifteen Acres in The Phoenix Park show a series of earthworks and it has been suggested that the smaller enclosures may represent ring forts or enclosed farmsteads which were constructed in the Early Christian Period between 500 and 1,100 AD.
More than forty Viking graves were excavated at various times on the south bank of the River Liffey at Kilmainham and Islandbridge during the 1840s and 1850s and again in the 1930s with the construction of the National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, thus making it the largest Viking cemetery outside Scandinavia. One of these graves, located in The Phoenix Park, was found, when excavated, to contain the remains of a woman with jewellery of the period.
Norman and post-Norman Periods
The nucleus of the lands which were eventually to form The Phoenix Park consisted of lands attached to Phoenix Manor. These were part of the lands of Kilmainham which were located on both sides of the River Liffey. In 1174, a few years after arriving in Ireland with his Norman colleagues, Richard Strongbow, Earl of Pembroke, granted the Kilmainham lands to the Knights Templar. When these were suppressed by King Edward II in 1312 the lands became the property of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem. In 1542 these lands reverted to the Crown when they were confiscated by King Henry VIII only to be restored to the Knights by Queen Mary in 1557 and then to revert to the Crown the following year when Queen Elizabeth I succeeded to the throne.
In 1611 a new grant of land was made to Sir Edward Fisher, which consisted of all lands north of the River Liffey extending from Oxmantown Green to Chapelizod and to the River Liffey which also included 330 acres of the Kilmainham demesne and sixty acres known as Kilmainham Wood. Fisher relinquished his portion of lands and house to the King in 1618 for a sum of £2,500 which subsequently became known as ‘His Majesty’s House at the Kilmainham called the Phoenix’. The Phoenix House continued to be used as the viceregal seat until 1665 when Chapelizod became the preferred location for the viceroys.
A further reduction in the size of the Park resulted from the building of the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, which commenced in 1680, when the Park was reduced to its present size, all of which is now north of the river. Shortly after the Park’s acquisition it was enclosed with a stone wall, which was initially poorly constructed. Subsequent wall repair and new build were necessary as the Park’s size and boundaries were adjusted and realigned. In 1668, Marcus Trevor, Viscount Dungannon, was appointed Ranger who, with two other keepers, was responsible for the deer, managing the Park’s enclosures and newly formed plantations.
The 18th Century and the Chesterfield Era
The fourth Earl of Chesterfield was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in January 1745 and is credited with initiating a series of landscape works, many of which were probably not completed until after his short tenure, having been recalled to London more than a year later. These included considerable replanting of the Park as well as planting of trees on either side of the main avenue and the erection of the Phoenix Column in 1747. He is also credited with opening the Park to the public.
The dominant 18th century managerial and infrastructural characteristics of The Phoenix Park were reflected in the extensive use of the Park by the military and the number of lodges used by government officers and other lesser officials involved in Park management. Apart from the use of the Park for military manoeuvres and practices, there were also a number of military institutions which included the Royal Hibernian Military School (1766) for children who were orphaned or whose father was on active military service abroad. The Magazine Fort, constructed in 1736 with additions in 1756, was a major military institution from which small arms, munitions and gunpowder were distributed to other military barracks in the Dublin area. Mountjoy Cavalry Barracks (formerly the home of Luke Gardiner, one of the Keepers of the Park) and the Royal Military Infirmary were two further buildings constructed during the 18th century in 1725 and 1786 respectively. The role of the Salute Battery (for firing cannon on Royal and other special occasions), situated in the environs of the Wellington Testimonial, was discontinued and the lands it occupied within the Park subsequently became known as the Wellington Fields and on which the Wellington Testimonial was erected.
All the important lodges and accompanying demesnes, which were originally occupied by Park Rangers or Keepers, were purchased for Government use as private dwellings for the chief officers of state. These included the Viceregal Lodge for the Lord Lieutenant (now Áras an Uachtaráin), the Chief Secretary’s Residence (now the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Ireland) and the Under-Secretary’s Residence (subsequently the Papal Nunciature and now The Phoenix Park Visitor Centre).
The 19th Century and the Decimus Burton Era
The beginning of the 19th century saw the Park in a much-neglected state with poor drainage, the roads in bad order and most of the trees very old and/or in a state of decay. However with the Commissioners of Woods and Forests taking over the management of the public areas of the Park and the employment of the renowned architect/landscape architect, Decimus Burton, all this was about to change. Burton produced a master plan for the Park which included the building of new gate lodges, the removal and levelling of old hedgerows and shooting butts, tree planting in strategic locations, drainage, the restoration of the boundary wall, creation and realignment of the Park roads, which included Chesterfield Avenue. This latter project involved the relocation of the Phoenix Column on the main avenue. Burton’s involvement for nearly two decades represents the greatest period of landscape change since the Park’s creation by the Duke of Ormond.
Further improvements were undertaken following the transfer of management of The Phoenix Park to the Office of Public Works in 1860, the first of which included the completion of the outstanding works associated with the Wellington Testimonial which was commenced in 1818. Two further memorials of considerable artistic merit were unveiled – one in 1870 commemorating the Lord Lieutenancy of the Earl of Carlisle and the other an equestrian statue commemorating Field Marshal Viscount Gough which was unveiled in 1880 – both of which were sculpted by John Henry Foley.
From the 1830s and particularly after the 1860s, sporting and recreational activities became prominent. The Royal Dublin Zoological Society opened Dublin Zoo in 1830. The Promenade Grounds opened in 1840 (later to be known as the People’s Garden) and were considerably improved in the 1860s with the addition of a Head Gardener’s House, rock garden and horticultural facilities to allow for flower production for planting in the Gardens. Between the People’s Garden and Dublin Zoo, a bandstand and tearooms were built in the final decade of the19th century.
Although the military dominated the Park’s institutions and Park use in the 18th century, their influence was lessened somewhat in the 19th century (though Mountjoy Barracks became the Irish headquarters of the Ordnance Survey in 1825). The presence of the police became more prominent, as illustrated by the construction in 1842 of the Royal Irish Constabulary depot near the North Circular Road entrance to the Park and two police barracks – one at Ashtown Gate and the other at Parkgate Street. In 1848 the Commissioners of Woods and Forests further met their social obligations by providing for the educational needs of the Park’s children by building a school house and teacher’s residence to the designs of Decimus Burton.
The 20th Century
The history and landscape management of The Phoenix Park in the 20th century is characterized primarily by the replanting of trees and shrubs that took place in the first decade, due to the great storm in 1903 which was responsible for the demise of nearly 3,000 trees. Another 10,000 trees were planted as part of the 1986 management plan and considerable arboricultural works were carried out on the mature tree population in the latter quarter of the century.
The erection of the Papal Cross in 1979, the relocation of the Phoenix Column and the re-erection of the entrance gate piers and linking walls at Parkgate St, were also significant projects that were undertaken towards the end of the 20th Century. (Ref Section 1.4. above).
The Phoenix Park was also the location for a number of major national and international events during the 20th Century.
These events, which were of a spiritual, cultural, sporting and charitable nature commenced in 1903 with motor racing and a major international motor racing event in 1929. In the same year, the centenary of Catholic Emancipation took place, followed in 1932 with the 31st Eucharistic Congress. The template for the latter event was used to host the Papal visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 when more than one million people attended the celebrations. Other notable gatherings included Bob Geldoff’’s 'Live Aid’ walk in 1986 and the finish of the 1st stage of the Tour de France, which was held for the first time in Ireland in 1997. Throughout the 20th Century, the Park has been used for a large range of day-to-day sporting and recreational activities.
The Commissioners of Public Works, under the Minister for Finance, have been responsible for policy, management and funding of The Phoenix Park since 1860 (with the exception of an 8 year period commencing in 1996).