Walk through St Stephens Green at lunchtime on any hot sunny day and you will be greeted by what feels like the population of the entire city trying to enjoy the sun’s rays. Happy people trying to find a free blade of grass to sit and have their lunch. Maybe some music will waft over from the bandstand while a Shakespeare play might be performed over in the Yeats memorial garden. Definitely you will find children at the water feeding the birds. Such an outburst of life and fun is at odds with the dark and divisive history of the park.
The leper hospital, founded in the late 12th century, was dedicated to the first martyr of Christianity; St. Stephen. The hospital is long gone but the name stuck to the 60 acres or so of marshy grazing land south of the river Liffey. In the 17th century Dublin Corporation decided to divide the area up into plots in an ambitious plan to develop the area. Building would center around a large walled private park. It foreshadowed the movement of the Ascendancy to the unfashionable south side that the Earl of Kildare James FitzGerald would begin in the middle of the 18th century. Indeed FitzGerald’s move would result in these 17th buildings being replaced with newer Georgian era dwellings.
In 1758 the park got it’s first statue – King George II. Created by John Van Nost the Younger it was situated at the center of the park. The King, seated on a horse, stood raised upon a large pedestal.
St Stephens Green. June, 1796
It was good that James Malton took his print from this period in the parks history because the statue immediately became the target for anti-British sentiment with many attempts to amputate body parts. It was blown up by nationalists on 13th May, 1937 to ‘celebrate’ the coronation the day before of the statues namesake King George VI.
The 19th century saw changes to the parks layout by Arthur Neville, George Hemans, and William Sheppard. However the biggest change was that the park was made public in the later part of the century. Up to then it had been a private park only accessible by the residents in the locale. One of the structural changes, suggested by Herman, was the construction of four entrances at each corner of the park. Two of the most notable entrances show the extremes of Irish political history. At the Grafton Street entrance stands a Roman arch called Fusiliers’ Arch and insultingly called Traitors Gate by nationalists. It honors the men of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers who were killed in the Second Boer War. Representing the other extreme of Irish politics and history, at the northeastern corner of the park, is a statue of Wolf Tone, Irish revolutionary leader, and a memorial of the Great Famine where a million died and another million were forced to leave the country.
The park history saw it view one of the early skirmishes of the Easter 1916 rebellion where troops of the Irish Citizen Army, led by Commandant Michael Mallin and Constance Markievicz, took control of the park. They were quickly routed however by British troops and retreated to the Royal College of Surgeons building on the park’s east side.
Name note: Lot of debate over Saint v St v St. and Stephens v Stephen’s. Rules of grammer can run aground against entity names and I’ve chosen to use the name as used by the Office of Public Works; “St Stephens Green”. Being almost dyslexic and grammatically challenged who am I to argue.