Aras an Uachtaráin
by Pat Liddy
The White House in Washington was architecturally modelled on Ireland’s present parliament building, Leinster House, which was built in 1745 and is situated on Kildare Street. However, the Irish president also lives in, literally, a white house, in Dublin’s huge Phoenix Park. Known as Áras an Uachtaráin (House of the President), this large and classical edifice has a long and intriguing history. The only glimpse the public get of the house is through a wide gap in the shrubbery and trees along the main road of the park. From here it looks a bit like the Washington White House with its large four-columned portico. Other than its portico, it’s a fairly plain building but still possessing the formal lines from the Georgian period of the eighteenth century.
It was first built, but on a smaller scale, in 1751 for Nathaniel Clements (who partly designed it himself), the deputy Vice-Treasurer of Ireland and recently appointed as the Park Ranger and Master of the Game (the Phoenix Park was, at that time, a royal preserve with partridge and pheasant stocked for game shooting). He may not have had the top job in Ireland but he certainly had one of the best-sited residences set amid the lush 1,752 acres (709 hectares) of the enclosed park with wild deer (who are still there) and the aforementioned game birds.
In 1782, the government purchased the house off Clements for £25,000 and an attempt was made to persuade one of the most influential politicians of the day and leader of the opposition in the Irish Parliament, Henry Grattan, to give up his ideas of Irish independence from England in exchange for the house and demesne. That scheme hopelessly failed and the Irish Parliament did succeed under Grattan to achieve a short-term independence until it was negated when Ireland, through the bribery and corruption of other less noble politicians and the raw use of the force of arms, became part of the United Kingdom in 1801.
From 1787, an ambitious programme of renovation, expansion and enhancement of the house and its gardens was carried out and it became the summer home of the British Viceroy, also known as the Lord Lieutenant, in Ireland. Henceforth the house itself was known as the Viceregal Lodge. Extra wings were added for the visits of Queen Victoria and George V. The Viceroy lived here for nine months of the year (except from January to March when he lived in Dublin Castle for the busy social events of the so-called Castle Season). The Phoenix Park was not always a serene place. On one occasion a horrified Lord Lieutenant, the 5th Earl of Spencer, witnessed the brutal murder by an insurrectionist group called the Invincibles, when they stabbed to death, on the road opposite to the window from which he was looking out, Lord Frederick Cavendish, the Chief Secretary of Ireland and his Under-Secretary, Thomas Burke. This was in 1882.
The court of the Viceroy came to an abrupt end in 1922 when Britain pulled out of Ireland (except for the six counties of Northern Ireland) and the Irish Free State was established. The house then passed to the new Irish government and while Ireland was a member of the British Commonwealth and the head of State was still the king of England, the Governor General was initially housed in the former Viceregal Lodge. In 1938, it became Áras an Uachtaráin with the arrival here of the first President of Ireland, Dr Douglas Hyde. There had been plans to demolish the building and build a new residence on the site (memories of the former British association with the house were anathema at the time) but the Second World War prevented those plans being put into operation and the house was saved. Since then the 95 rooms of the house have been occupied by eight more presidents (including two women) and their staff.
Famous visitors to the house included the above-mentioned English monarchs and others besides and, most notably, Queen Elizabeth II in 2011 when she planted an Irish oak tree. Other dignitaries to pass through the beautifully decorated gates were American Presidents John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Also hosted here were Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, Princess Grace of Monaco, King Baudouin of the Belgians, King Juan Carlos and even the young Winston Churchill when his grandfather, the Duke of Marlborough, was the incumbent Viceroy
Seventy-six-year-old Michael D Higgins is the current President. He is an acknowledged poet and writer, academic and statesman and a passionate human rights advocate. Michael D. Higgins has previously served at almost every level of public life in Ireland, including as Ireland’s first Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht (the Irish-speaking regions).
The interior of the building includes the state drawing room, large and small dining rooms, the President’s Office and Library, a large ballroom and a presidential corridor lined with the busts of past presidents, and some fine eighteenth and nineteenth century bedrooms. It is deemed to be a very homely and relatively comfortable state residence.
Áras an Uachtaráin is usually open to the public on Saturdays (unless there is a state function being held on that day). Don’t approach the house directly as tours start from the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre. Enquiries to telephone: +353 1 677 0095 or email: [email protected]