Every city has a secret park, an oasis of green and seclusion not generally noticed by the locals and totally overlooked by tourists. In Dublin that elusive park is Iveagh Gardens. It is located behind and surrounded by Earlsfort Terrace, Hatch Street, Harcourt Street and St Stephen’s Green with almost hidden gateways leading off the first three. Only private entrances from a couple of premises on St Stephen’s Green give access to the park.
For the sake of this article we will direct you into the park from Earlsfort Terrace (named after the Baron Earlsfort, a title of the Earl of Clonmell, who we will meet later). Walk up towards the block containing the National Concert Hall and enter through the first gate of the complex. Don’t walk to the entrance of the concert hall. Rather walk between the side of this building and a large red-bricked structure all the way to the rear. Pushing a bit further on you will see a small gate opening in a stone wall directly ahead. Once you enter through here you are in the Iveagh Gardens.
You will initially encounter, on the right, a statue to Count John McCormack, Ireland’s best-known tenor, whose international career spanned the first half of the 20th century. Continue straight ahead (with the entrance behind you) until you reach a large sunken area on your right. Walk across to it and enter onto this plot of ground, either via the steps or by clambering down the tiny slope. This is a good place to ponder the history of the park. The grounds were once part of the medieval St Stephen’s Commonage, a place where the English colonists of Dublin could freely graze their sheep. Later they were known as Lesson’s Fields until a notorious judge by the name of John Scott built his mansion on nearby Harcourt Street in 1777. He bought over the fields to turn them into his gardens which he called Clonmell’s Lawns after his title, the Earl of Clonmell. His ruddy complexion earned him the name of Copper Face Jack, a title today of a famous night club situated near to his former home.
After Scott’s death the family sold the gardens in 1810 and they were opened to the public under the name of Coburg Gardens (the German ducal family of Saxe-Coburg from whence came Prince Albert, the future consort of Queen Victoria). By the 1860s the gardens had become quite derelict. Then along came Benjamin Lee Guinness, a member of the famous brewing family, who bought the property in 1862 to attach the gardens to the back of his house on St Stephen’s Green (today’s Iveagh House, the present government offices of the Department of Foreign Affairs). Employing the famed landscape designer, Ninian Niven, the gardens were fundamentally reshaped. A year later Guinness sold much of the land to the Dublin Exhibition Palace and Winter Gardens Company. This was to “provide a permanent exhibition of Irish arts and manufactures and also reading rooms, flower gardens, and a gas-lit winter garden, for public enjoyment.” It was to be modelled on the celebrated Crystal Palace of London. It was officially opened by Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, on May 9, 1865.
Initially an outstanding success, the Exhibition and its successor, the National Exhibition and Portrait Gallery, eventually ran out of steam and were wound up with the gardens returning to the Guinness family. The great glass hall was dismantled but the remaining large stone building was adapted and partly rebuilt to accommodate the Royal University of Ireland in 1883. In 1908 this institution was reformed into University College Dublin (UCD) with the gardens being added on in 1939 as a gift from Rupert Guinness, 2nd Lord Iveagh. In 1991 the Government purchased the gardens and opened the 3.4-hectare site as a public park.
The Sunken Garden you may be standing in while reading this article was once the boating pond for the Guinnesses and is now an archery ground. Strangely, it is also the last resting place for an elephant which died in 1922 and had been brought for examination to the veterinary students of UCD. A stroll around the rest of the gardens will reveal several pieces of statuary and two fountains, all survivors from the Great Exhibition and the Winter Gardens. Another leftover is the impressive water cascade, an immense rockery composed of limestone, sandstone and granite gathered from every corner of Ireland. More than one thousand three hundred litres a second plunge over the rocks and into the pool below.
On the opposite or south side of the park is the rosarium featuring Ireland’s largest collection of Portland Roses. Nearby is the maze comprised of box hedging and containing a sundial in the centre. It is a miniature version of the maze at Hampton Court Palace in the UK. The east end of the park represents wilderness and woodland so the whole plan combines the best of Italian, French, English and American styles of landscaping and horticulture.
The opening hours for the Iveagh gardens are Monday – Saturday at 08.00 and Sunday and Bank Holidays at 10.00. Closing times vary with the time of the year but approximate to 15.30 from December – January, 16.00 February & November and 18.00 March – October.