“Before Nelson’s Pillar trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown and Dalkey, Clonskea, Rathgar and Terenure, Palmerston park and upper Rathmines, Sandymount Green, Rathmines, Ringsend and Sandymount Tower. The hoarse Dublin United Tramway Company’s timekeeper bawled them off:
– Rathgar and Terenure!
– Come on Sandymount Green!
Right and left parallel clanging and ringing a double-decker and a single deck moved from their railheads, swerved to the down line, glided parallel.
– Start, Palmerston park!”[i]
Palmerston Park’s place in one of the most enduring literary representations of Dublin may be slight – mentioned simply as one of a number of tram stations across the city and suburbs – but this small slice of greenery in Dartry deserves greater praise. Since March, my delight in and admiration of this late Victorian park has abounded: its paths, trees and birdsong have offered calm and relaxation as panic and fear dominate other parts of life. On most weekday mornings I bring my coffee out to the park, and walk its outer circuit while meeting a familiar cast of neighbours – both human and canine – walking, running, doing yoga in the shade, or taking in the morning sun from a comfortable bench. From lunchtime onward, the park’s paths become a perfect race track for kids on bikes and scooters (the stern ‘no cycling’ and ‘no ball games’ warning has been cast aside for the time being), and as the afternoon fades, the last of the sun-seekers lie on the grass, moving as the tree-shadows lengthen and clouds of midges appear.
The layout of Palmerston Park is unusual. Roughly semi-circular in shape, it is divided by a walkway connecting Palmerston Road and Orchard Road South (which leads, in turn, to Temple Road). The smaller part of the park is more ornate, with a pond and water feature, a red and enamel-brick shelter, and in spring, more floral planting with magnolia, cherry and other blossom trees adding colour and scent to the winding paths. The larger area is open, a large green space encased with mature planting, and a (currently locked) playground at the far end.
The park opened to the public in its present form in September 1894. The land had been owned by the Mount Temple family and was offered to the Commissioners of the Rathmines and Rathgar Township in 1881. Prior to its enclosure and redesign in the 1890s, the area was open for use – however, as the Saturday Herald reported, while it was used ‘by the respectable public by day’, the ‘nocturnal patrons and patronesses’ were a cause for concern. The development of the park was delayed by financial issues, complicated, it seems, by the terms of the gift; and how the enclosure of the park would affect local access to the adjoining streets.[ii] A published account of these difficulties suggests that when the financial issues were resolved, ‘one or two residents on the Orchard road, on the south side of the park … said that if railings were placed around the entire grounds they would have to walk some fifty yards extra, when going to and from church!’[iii] The remedy to this ruckus was the walkway, flanked by iron railings and illuminated with gas-lamps (now converted to electricity) placed on decorative arches.
The 1894 transformation of the park was overseen by William Sheppard (1842 – 1923), a landscape gardener born in Bermuda to English parents. Sheppard worked initially as an assistant to Ninian Niven (c.1799 – 1879), who had worked on designs for gardens and parks within the Phoenix Park, Iveagh Gardens, Blackrock Park, and the Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin where he was Curator from 1834 – 38. By 1894, Sheppard had worked on St Stephen’s Green and Harold’s Cross Park, which shares many similarities with Palmerston Park. The most striking feature of Sheppard’s design is the pond and rockery with a ‘cascade’ of water, created by a ‘strong volume of water [rising] to the top of the rockery, and then, tumbling from stone to stone, it falls into the pond, which shimmers in the sunlight like a sheet of moving silver.’[iv] A more unusual feature of the rockery was two public toilets located within its structure, both of which are now sealed off.
The curbing and railings were erected by Messrs. McCloughlin and Son, 48 Great Brunswick Street; and the planting by ‘Mr John Cranmer’, the superintendent of Harold’s Cross Park.[v] The newly designed park was officially opened by Mr Arthur Fawcett, secretary to the Commissioners of the Rathmines and Rathgar Township on 8 September 1894, with the ‘weather being delightfully fine’, meaning ‘a large number of the residents in Palmerston road and the surrounding district visited the park, and thoroughly enjoyed its many beauties and attractions.’[vi] Three early photographs of the park after 1894 which are part of the Lawrence Photographic Collection (NLI), offer a sense of how it might have looked in the years after its redevelopment. While still in its early phases of growth, features like the pond and waterfall, the shelter, and even some of the planting, offer a familiar sight to those who visit it today. In two of these, the same man can be seen – perhaps a portrait of the gardener who was appointed to take care of the grounds.
A 2013 Conservation and Management Plan for Palmerston Park, commissioned by Dublin City Council, described it as ‘one of the finest and most intact examples of late-Victorian urban design in the city’, and shows how aspects of the park have been brought back to life in the interim. Palmerston Park is one part of the fascinating late-nineteenth century architectural and social history of the Dublin suburbs, mirroring that explored in great detail by Susan Galavan in Dublin’s Bourgeois Homes. Just as urban planners and social reformers of past centuries looked to parks and green spaces to improve the health of a city’s citizens, the current pandemic has also shown the importance of these spaces for physical and mental health. When the Covid-19 crisis began here in mid-March, the trees of Palmerston Park were still bare. Watching them bud and bloom over the past nine weeks has been a daily delight.
[i] James Joyce, Ulysses (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 147.
[ii] ‘Palmerston Park. Four Acres of Waste Turned into Pretty Pleasure Grounds.’ Saturday Herald, 26 Many 1894, 2.
[v] ‘Palmerston Park. The Opening To-Day.’, Freeman’s Journal, 8 September 1894, 5.
[vi] ‘Palmerston Park. Opened to the Public To-day.’, Evening Herald, 8 September 1894, 3.