herald

Thursday 17 August 2017

The rich man's retreat that's now free for all

An oasis of calm in a bustling city, Anna Coogan reveals her favourite green space

You never go into Merrion Square Park without spotting a robin. This tiny bird with its orangey-red breast has long been associated with this time of the year, and pops up on cards. Yet he doesn't go away when the Christmas wrap is binned. In fact, his constant presence hopping about is one of the many delights of this city-centre park, along with the central floral garden which, when it bursts alive with tulips, lets us know spring has safely arrived.

A walk around the park takes you past old Dublin lamp-posts the likes of which regularly feature on postcards. These antique light-givers give a hint of this history behind the park, which goes back to the construction of the Georgian houses at Merrion Square which began in 1762.



FRAZZLED

A stroll around this park is one of the best treats to give yourself if feeling frazzled by the festive season. An early plan for the park shows a double line of trees around the perimeter which was later enclosed by railings in the early years of the 19th century. Yep, it was only the aristocrats living in the fine Georgian houses bordering Merrion Square Park who had access to this delightful park for many years.

They could take an afternoon perambulation around the 'Jardin Anglais' (the name give in the 18th century to a landscaped urban garden) with its winding paths, contoured grass areas, heather garden and plentiful planting of seasonal blooms radiant with nature's unbeatable hues.

Ordinary Dubs, meanwhile could only press their noses up against the railings up until almost 40 years ago, and previous generations must surely have wondered about the beauty which lay behind the locked gates.

For two centuries, Merrion Square was a fashionable address for the aristocracy and the professional classes -- until the 1950s the houses were largely residential. Number One Merrion Square is where Oscar Wilde honed his wit as a child, and there is a statue of the writer in the park, while the poet WB Yeats lived at No 82 and Irish liberator Daniel O'Connell lived at No 58.

Today, most of the beautiful buildings, with their Georgian doors and peacock fanlights, are inhabited by businesses, and the prestige and privilege of the Square has become caught up in the thrust and shove of profit-making.

The cultivated park in the middle of this Georgian square was purchased from the Pembroke Estate by the Roman Catholic Church in 1930 as a site for a cathedral.

It's easy to imagine a majestic cathedral in the middle of the square, which would have been bordered on the west of the square by the National Art Gallery, Government Buildings and the Natural History Museum.

However, this project never materialised and in 1974 the then Archbishop, Dermot Ryan, transferred the 4.75 hectares to Dublin Corporation for use as a public park.

So finally the hoi polloi got in the gates, and the secrets of the park were revealed to all and sundry. Today, city-centre workers regularly take a lunch break stroll.

The tranquility of the park means that though slap bang in the middle of commercial Dublin, visitors are able to briefly let the stress of the working day go.



ABUNDANCE

Meanwhile people crossing town nip through the park to speed up their journey to Grafton Street or Trinity or the IFSC. Over weekends artists exhibit their paintings on the park's railings.

Robins aside, it's the abundance of flowers and the inviting benches where you can sit quietly and pass an hour while drinking a coffee outdoors and reading a paper or a book, which makes Merrion Square Park special.

Opening Hours: In December and January the park is open 8am to 4.30pm weekdays, and 10am to 4.30pm on weekends.

Coffee Pick-Up: Butlers Chocolate Cafe, Nassau Street, for a tea or coffee and chocolate treat. If ever there was a place to enjoy an outdoors coffee, it's Merrion Square Park.

Books: Reads in Nassau Street, is a handy book shop for picking up a paper or novel on the way to the park. Recent publications include Country Girl, A Memoir by Edna O'Brien, and Joseph O'Connor's new short stories collection, Where Have You Been?

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