One of the loveliest parks of Dublin is right in the heart of the city and is literally a place of serenity and refreshment from the surrounding busy shopping and business streets. Even in mid-winter St Stephen’s Green has a special charm and wonderment. The architecture of bare trees reveals perspectives that are not so easily perceived in the full flush of the summer.
This park is a direct link with our distant medieval past. In the 13th century, a religious community ran a nearby leper hospital dedicated to St Stephen and over time this institution gave its name to a marshy tract of land that stretched across the south-east outskirts of the old walled town. The City Council of the time designated this wild area as a common grazing ground for the citizens (only the English were citizens – the subjugated Irish could not access this privilege).
By the 17th century, the expansion of the city began to sweep up towards St Stephen’s Green, so the Council decided to expel the grazing cows in favour of the cash cow. In 1663, tracts of this land were apportioned into ninety building lots and set around a grand square. The remaining grassed space in the middle, amounting to 11 hectares (27 acres), was set aside as a public amenity. The new park was then surrounded by a stone wall and formal paths were laid out around the boundary. Each tenant of the encircling development had to pay for the planting of six sycamore trees alongside the boundary wall to ensure a sense of privacy within the park.
With the opening of the posh residential Grafton and Dawson Streets in the early 1700s, St Stephen’s Green became a very fashionable place of resort. The Beaux Walk, situated along the northern perimeter of the park, became a popular promenade to show off one’s latest fashions from London or Paris to the admiring or jealous glances from other aristocratic gentlemen and ladies of high society. The western perimeter boasted the equally elegant French Walk and it led to Leeson’s Walk and Monk’s Walk. In 1758, a lofty statue to King George ll was erected in the centre of the arrangement (it was badly damaged by a bomb in 1937 and removed!).
After the Act of Union with Great Britain came into effect in January 1801, the aristocracy and gentry gradually abandoned Dublin for London and the park went into decline. To arrest the decay the green was handed in 1814 to a body representing the local home owners. The stone wall was replaced by ornate railings and new internal landscaping was carried out but, much to the resentment of the general public, the park was solely restricted to the local resident key-holders. Sir Arthur Edward Guinness, a member of the famed Guinness brewing family, had lived in the family mansion overlooking the green. He determined to resolve this festering issue about accessibility so when the park eventually ran into debt he persuaded parliament to pass an act allowing the purchase of the park by the state. He personally paid off all the park’s debts in addition to the radical new landscaping and layout that we see today.
The main features of the redeveloped park include a 1.2-hectare (3-acre) lake served by a waterfall and stocked with ducks. This work was followed by ornate shelters, a stone bridge, fountains, formal flower beds and a Victorian-styled superintendent’s lodge. Without any formal ceremony the park reopened its gates to the general public on July 1880. The gratitude widely felt towards Guinness (by now known as Lord Ardilaun) was expressed in 1892 when a statue to him was unveiled on the western boundary opposite to the Royal College of Surgeons.
From the time Lord Ardilaun first sat on his granite pedestal many more statues and memorials have been introduced into the park and have made St Stephen’s Green a window onto Irish history particularly of the last two centuries. The Wolfe Tone statue, standing opposite to the Shelbourne Hotel, honours a doomed leader of the abortive 1798 Rebellion. Robert Emmet (situated close to Lord Ardilaun) was also executed for leading the failed revolution of 1803. The Great Famine of the 1840s is commemorated by a bronze group to the rear of Wolfe Tone and the fatal casualties of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the Boar War are remembered by the magnificent archway forming the entrance from the top of Grafton Street. Close by this archway is a memorial bronze to another revolutionary, O’Donovan Rossa, who died in 1915. He provided an inspiration to ignite the Easter Rising of 1916 in which St Stephen’s Green played a role during its short occupation by the rebels.
Busts of writers like James Joyce and James Clarence Mangan line footpaths. Women are not forgotten either. Feminists, trade unionists and suffragettes like Anna Haslam, Louie Bennett and Helen Chevenix have their places in the green as does Constance Gore Booth, otherwise more famously known as Countess Markievicz (after her ex-husband). Markiewicz was prominent in the struggle for Irish freedom in the early 20th century and was the first woman to be elected to the British parliament. There are many other statues and memorials, too many to mention in this short article. There are plenty of explanatory signs throughout the park.
St Stephen’s Green is easily accessible by walking up to the top of Grafton Street or by taking the Luas Green Line tram. Maintained by the Office of Public Works to an extremely high standard, the park remains open during daylight hours so is obviously open for longer in the summer than in the winter.