It’s funny how the geography of a place can change in your mind. As a kid, the Phoenix Park always seemed entirely remote and inaccessible. In reality, it is a pleasant walk along the Quays on the north side of the river Liffey. Chancing my luck on an overcast day with foreboding cloud cover, I ventured into Dublin city centre to follow the Liffey to the park. I started at the Ha’penny Bridge.
Things have changed a lot along the Quays; now there are wide boardwalks flanking the river and tons of trendy cafes and taverns with their patio tables spilling out optimistically onto the pavements the minute the sun dares to show its face. Some things are unchanged, however, like Christ Church cathedral looming large upon the hill overlooking Wood Quay.
As a kid, I was fascinated by the synod bridge of the cathedral, which spans Winetavern Street. I vaguely remember a school art project where I did a charcoal sketch of the cathedral but spent most of my time perfecting the arching bridge with its stained glass windows and oval peepholes.
On the other side of the Liffey, the Four Courts stands proudly, reflecting in the river, and just around the corner, the watering hole of choice for parched legal eagles.
Not too much further now. I take a quick diversion away from the Liffey to check out a huge market hall near Smithfield, and happen across an unexpected sight.
Seriously? I didn’t venture in, as the prices were … touristy, at €10 a pop, and anyway, I grew up here, and am well versed in the lore of the Leprechaun, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fianna. I spent childhood summers trying to pass the Fianna test of running through the forest without breaking any twigs underfoot.
Back out onto the Liffey for the final stretch to the Phoenix Park. It was much closer than I expected. From the Ha’penny Bridge to the top of Chesterfield Avenue with its imposing entrance into the park, it is a little under a mile and a half. Into the park I went, veering to the right to wander through the People’s Park rather than stick to the main drag.
Even in winter, with most of the beds bare, it is lovely. I miss the parks in Europe; the vast, manicured expanses of lawn, the carefully coiffed beds and the strategically placed park benches, where you can sit and rest and take in the surrounding loveliness. I haven’t found anything that compares in the US.
Past the Wellington Monument and the Papal Cross, which was built for a visit by Pope John Paul II back in the late seventies, when he celebrated a mass in the park which was attended by over a million people. At a time when glam rock was being crushed by punk rock, disco fever was going the way of the dodo and Michael Jackson fever was going into overdrive, Ireland succumbed to Pope fever.
I turned off to the left before reaching Áras an Uachtaráin, the president’s residence, because I was looking for something in particular – the fallow deer that roam the park. Along the leafless pathways I wandered until I met a bloke who said he’d just seen two herds of deer wandering around the playing fields. A quick trot through a bare and frosty woodland and I was there.
It was getting dark now, so I hitched a ride back into town to see the sun go down over the Liffey. I parked myself on O’Connell Street Bridge between the street vendors to watch the Liffey changing colour with the setting sun.
Simply beautiful. Now the light was gone, it was time for a pick-me-up cup of coffee, so I headed towards Bewley’s in Grafton Street. Along the way… more leprechauns!
Again, seriously? I’ve always maintained that we Irish are a proud nation, but it would appear if there’s a chance of making a quick euro, pride can go by the wayside. And off up Grafton Street, which was alive and kicking with buskers. Now busking (as opposed to standing in a leprechaun suit looking for euros) is a noble profession in Ireland; U2 cut their teeth busking on Grafton Street. The passersby take the buskers seriously, if they’re putting on a good show. In other parts of the world busking is viewed as less than noble, but here, it is a time-honoured rite of passage. There was even a buskathon in aid of the charity Solas taking place at the top of Grafton Street.
But the stars of the show on Grafton Street that night were The Riptide Movement who were rocking up a storm, surrounded by a massive crowd that would give the Pope’s mass a run for its money. Seriously good music; I bought their latest CD TRM, and am now on the lookout for their first release, What About The Tip Jars? Check them out in action on Grafton Street: