I’m a fan of old country manses. I like imagining life back then, upstairs rather than downstairs, of course. I have my favourites, Blenheim Palace being one. I’m a tad neglectful of the gardens and parks that surround them, though, being more interested in the buildings and life as it was lived. A mistake, perhaps?
Before the Guinness family ever hatched the plan that would result in twenty-first-century Dubliners being able to enjoy the wonderful St Anne’s Park on Dublin’s northside, the Vernon family were enjoying Clontarf Castle and their estate.
In 1835, Benjamin Lee, rich from the proceeds of the family’s brewery, bought Thornhill, a seventeenth-century Georgian house, sitting on some land. He renamed the house St Anne’s, given the holy well that had come with the lands he’d purchased, and continued to add to this estate. Benjamin’s son Arthur inherited the estate and undertook a major renovation of the Georgian house, turning it into an Italian renaissance-style palazzo. (Sadly, in 1943, when occupied by the Local Defence Force, the house would fall prey to fire.)
It was a labour of love and experience. Sir Arthur (he who gave Stephen’s Green back to the people of Dublin) planted the oaks and pines along the main avenue and around the estate. His wife, more interested in the French-styled chateau gardens, lent her hand, too. I particularly liked the Bell Tower.
It is a 4-storey brick tower with a giant bell (nearly 1.2 metres across), inscribed with Benjamin Lee‟s name and family motto, ‘Spes Mea in Deo’ (My Hope is in God). The tower has three floors and access to the first floor was via an external staircase (now removed) with internal ladders to the other floors. There is no enclosed ground floor as the tower forms the entrance to the former walled gardens. The clock has one dial facing eastwards towards the house, black and gold-leaf Roman numerals and skeleton hands. It was made by James Booth of Dublin and was privately commissioned by the Guinness family (Murray, 2006). It is listed in the DCC Record of Protected Structures (Ref. No. 7738).
It was sold to Dublin Corporation in 1939 for the sum of £55 000 (about €3.2 million in today’s money – a steal). The result is a 240-acre (97 ha) public park that I sadly neglected during my time in Dublin. And I lived around the corner.
The second-largest public park in the city, St Anne’s is home to 35 playing pitches, a par 3 golf course, 18 tennis courts, 4 boules courts, a remote-controlled-car track, public walks, rose gardens, a duck pond, and the city’s Millennium Arboretum. The Naniken River flows through the park and is being restored to its natural state with wildlife and wildflowers claiming their seasons.
We didn’t have time to do it justice and check out the ten or so follies scattered throughout. We did see the Herculanean Temple, though, the site of many a tea party back in the days when the Guinness family were in residence.
On Saturdays, from about 9 to 5, the market traders come and set up their stalls in the shadow of the original Victorian stables. Fresh fruit and veg, cut flowers, arts, crafts, and all sorts of food offerings reflecting the cosmopolitan face of Dublin today make it the perfect place for a picnic lunch and a wander.
It was October. The last of the roses were hanging on. With strains of The Last Rose of Summer playing in my mind, I had little trouble imagining what the rose garden would be like in full bloom. Established in the mid-80s, the garden now hosts the annual International Rose Trials from May to September. Something for your calendar if you plan to be in Dublin during the summer and note that the Annual Rose Festival takes place on the third weekend of July.
I was particularly taken by the Peace Tree, a wonderful carving of a dying Macrocarpa (Monterey cypress) using a chainsaw by Durham-based tree sculptor Tommy Craggs. Craggs specialises in making living sculptures from dead trees. And this one is a gem. He had no idea what he was going to do with it, but as each shape unfolded, an animal or a bird came to mind. It took him three weeks (112 hours) to turn it into what it is today.
In June 2020, when the carving was just two years old, some idiots set it on fire. Craggs was called in to see what he could to, to repair the damage. The tree is now an iconic part of Dublin’s northside, standing about 10 m tall on the corner of Watermill Road and Clontarf Road, or, if you have mastered your compass points, on the northeast corner of the park.
If you’re in Dublin on a Saturday, grab a blanket and head to St Anne’s for a picnic lunch, a bit of shopping, a stroll in the gardens, and a game of boules.