The inclusion of Merrion Square Park in a European network of historic gardens belies its current hotchpotch design, writes Environment Editor FRANK McDONALD
LAST APRIL, Dublin City Council applied to have Merrion Square Park included in the European Garden Heritage Network of 100 parks and gardens around northwestern Europe, which was set up to “preserve, develop and promote gardens of historic interest”.
Eibhlin Byrne, then lord mayor, said she believed that “our beautiful, well-maintained parks . . . rank among the very finest in Europe”. That’s undoubtedly true of Phoenix Park and St Stephen’s Green – both in the hands of the Office of Public Works (OPW) – but it certainly cannot be said, in my opinion, of the mess that is Merrion Square.
Incredibly, the advisory board of the European Garden Heritage Network decided to admit both Merrion Square Park and St Anne’s Park in Raheny. It is difficult to imagine how this decision could have been made if members of the board had actually walked through Merrion Square.
As planning consultant Fergal MacCabe complained in 2004, when the council’s parks department looked as if it might get its hands on Fitzwilliam Square, the original character and design of Merrion Square Park has been “entirely destroyed by inappropriate planting . . . myriad pieces of second-rate sculpture [and] fussy municipal flower beds”.
He also referred to the “semi-tombstones commemorating tree planting by minor dignitaries” and said the park was “simply an incoherent repository of fatuous, opportunistic, politically correct kitsch – clear testimony to the inability of the parks department to design and manage a significant historic urban park of this kind”.
A public information panel just inside the gate from Merrion Square East explains that the park was leased to the city council in 1974 by the Archdiocese of Dublin, which had acquired it in 1930 as the site for a Catholic cathedral, and is officially called Archbishop Ryan Park, after the late Dermot Ryan, then archbishop.
It also notes that the 12 acres enclosed by railings in the early 19th century were originally laid out by John Ensor, an assistant to Richard Cassels, architect of Leinster House, in the “Jardin Anglaise” (sic) style, with a double line of trees on the perimeter. This was the parkland style of the 18th century that replaced earlier, more formal layouts. “Now,” as the information panel says, “the park hosts an interesting array of sculpture, a colourful collection of gas lamps of Old Dublin and a children’s playground as well as a colourful array of plants [including] seasonal displays of bedding plants . . . Old meets new and the park, once the preserve of the privileged, now offers amenities for all ages.”
The parks department is obviously keen on “arrays”. By far the most inappropriate is the “array” of old lamp standards, culled from the city’s streets and re-erected here in haphazard fashion. Of the 25 standards, only a few appear to have had gas lamps, most have no lightbulbs, and of those with glass lanterns nearly all have broken panes. Some are relics of an era when Dublin had real local government, with cast-iron bases stamped “Rathmines Urban District Council 1900” or “Pembroke Electric Supply”. Other old standards are topped by lamps of much more recent vintage, such as the hideous orbs that lit the Ha’penny Bridge in the 1980s, when we knew no better.
Narrow pathways and lawns are bordered by limestone street setts, also culled from the city’s streets and inappropriately re-used in the park. The pathways are lined, often on both sides, by dense shrubbery that has to be clipped regularly. The centrepiece is a formal garden featuring a pair of bushy golden conifers surrounded by flowerbeds; it is like a poor man’s version of the equivalent space in St Stephen’s Green. A tall bronze throne, designed by Caroline Greene and dedicated to the memory of comedian Dermot Morgan, occupies pride of place in this setting.
There is random sculpture everywhere, including the most recent addition – a monument to members of the Defence Forces killed in action, unveiled last November. Designed by sculptor Brian King, this bizarre pyramid – just four metres high – stands in its own formal space, shoe-horned into the square near the southwestern corner. Each side has a strip-glass panel through which you can peer into a chamber containing four waxen-looking bronze figures standing to attention around an eternal flame. It is surrounded by six concrete benches, where relatives and members of the public can reflect on the sacrifices made by our soldiers.
John Devlin, one of only two objectors to the erection of this monument when it was proposed in 2007, said it would “upset the harmony and peaceful tranquillity of the park” and should be located somewhere else. Its scale was also wrong – “appropriate for a provincial town, to honour local dead, but not a national memorial”.
Trees and shrubbery were removed at the northwestern corner of the park in 1997 to make room for Barry Osborne’s post-modern statue of Oscar Wilde, in a louche pose reclining on a rock, with some of his pithy sayings (“I drink to keep body and soul apart”) on a pair of pillars in front. But at least the location is opposite his father’s house.
The fine neo-classical Rutland Fountain, dating from 1790, had its stonework cleaned recently at a cost of €230,000. But the two bronze lion heads that should be pouring water into the conch shell beneath remain dry and the whole monument has been defaced, and rendered meaningless, by the railings strung across the front several years ago.
The fountain, erected to commemorate the fourth duke of Rutland, a short-lived lord lieutenant of Ireland, is the park’s only original architectural feature from the 18th century. Yet its unadorned rear elevation is partially obscured from inside the park by a pointless podium (and more shrubbery), reached by a broad flight of seven steps.
One of the few attractive features of the park is a relatively new heather garden on its northern side, beyond the bedraggled-looking children’s playground with its standard, but decaying, equipment. Kids have more fun climbing up and running down the grassy mound near the southeastern corner, which conceals a disused air-raid shelter.
For the past 20 years, the OPW has been reinstating the historic tree-planting of Phoenix Park, based on maps of the original layout. It is beyond time that Dublin City Council’s parks department begins treating Merrion Square Park with the respect it deserves and follows this example by planting a double line of trees on the perimeter.
The remarkable integrity of the square’s Georgian terraces, compared to the hotchpotch of buildings gathered around St Stephen’s Green, demands that the park should be reinstated as a historically accurate Jardin Anglais – with all of the flowerbeds, shrubbery, undergrowth and miscellaneous lamp standards stripped out.
And if young lads want to play football there, let them.