Friday, 27 February 2015
Returning to the Unicorn after many
years and strolling in a Victorian park
I have often passed by Blackrock Park, but usually I have been on my way somewhere else. I have stayed at least once in the Blackrock Clinic for a procedure related to my sarcoidosis, I have had an afternoon stroll through Blackrock Markets, and I have visited some of the bookshops and coffee shops, but until this afternoon I had never been in Blackrock Park.
Four of us had lunch this afternoon in the Unicorn in Merrion Court off Merrion Row, close to Saint Stephen’s Green. This is one of Dublin’s oldest Italian Restaurants. It dates back to 1938, but has stood the test of time, retaining a warm, modern and informal environment.
The Unicorn in close to O’Donoghue’s Pub on Merrion Row, forever linked with the Dubliners and politicians, and Toner’s on Baggot Street, with its associations with James Joyce, WB Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, making the Unicorn a favourite restaurant for journalists, and politicians.
It has been years, if not decades, since I had been in the Unicorn for either lunch or dinner, but I was not surprised to casually bump into people I know.
Later, in search of a nearby beach for a walk, we drove from Baggot Street through Ballsbridge, thinking we might end go for a walk in Seapoint or Sandycove.
But instead, on impulse, we decided to stop at Blackrock Park, thinking we would walk along the shoreline behind the railway line.
The park is a classic Victorian affair with tree-lined avenues, gently sloping pathways, the occasional sculpture and breath-taking views from the mounds out over Dublin Bay and across to Howth Head.
Blackrock Park was built in 1873 to win back some of the Dublin holiday makers who had deserted Blackrock after the arrival of the railway stretching the length of the east coast of Ireland.
The park was laid out on reclaimed, ugly swampland that was abandoned after the railway line from Dublin to Wexford had been built.
In summer, the park is the venue for family-friendly events and festivals, including an annual Teddy Bears’ Picnic. Even this afternoon, as the sunshine held out the bright promise of winter turning into spring, small family groups were in the park for afternoon strolls, and schoolchildren were making their way hurriedly through the park to Blackrock Station.
But the playground and the park look neglected in many places. The Temple in the artificial lake, which might be an attractive feature in another park, looks inviting from a distance. But when you get closer it looks neglected and more like a sad, abandoned and rusting pump house. The 1890s bandstand and the Victorian Tudor-revival pavilion ought to be two Victorian gems, but they are daubed with graffiti and paint, and the bandstand is padlocked.
In the 18th century, Merrion Strand extended as far as the site of Blackrock Station and spread along the present area of Blackrock Park. Later, the Vauxhall Gardens occupied the site of the present main entrance to Blackrock Park opposite Mount Merrion Avenue, from 1793 until it was sold in 1804.
The Dublin to Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire) railway line was the first in Ireland and opened to traffic on 17 December 1834. But the new railway line was soon to prove a disaster for Blackrock. A foul-smelling swamp formed between the sea and the town, and the rocks that gave Blackrock its name had were lost under the swamp and wasteland. Their memory remains in the name of Rock Road, which forms the south-west boundary of the park.
Once the once-pleasant strand was lost, people taking the train from Dublin in search of seaside locations in the summer months by-passed Blackrock, preferring Monkstown, Kingstown or even Dalkey. Blackrock as a resort lost its summer lodgers and people in search of sea-bathing and fresh air, and was almost deserted.
In search of new injection of life, the Blackrock Town Commissioners borrowed £3,000 in 1873 to develop a park on the site of the swamp. The park was ready for public use about a decade later. What had been a swamp became the People’s Park, with walks, rockeries, parterres and flowers. A small portion of water was kept to form two picturesque lakes, each with an island planted with shrubs and one with a fountain. Once a week, a military band played in the ornamented bandstand.
We were joined by a friend as we followed the commuters down a narrow alley to Blackrock Station. There we crossed a footbridge over the railway line to the narrow path that runs beside the shore, above the small coves and beaches and the former Blackrock Baths.
Below us, the water seemed gentle as it lapped against the shore. Although no-one was bathing, a father and his small daughter were enjoying the sand the tide.
We back-tracked and returned to Blackrock Park, and found the second smaller lake no longer exists. The formal Victorian park was transferred to the new Dun Laoghaire Corporation in 1930, and to Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council in 1994.
The Peace Fountain in the pond was erected in 1986 to mark the International Year of Peace, but was not switched on until 12 March 1987. The sculpture of “Cut-Out People” is by Dan McCarthy and dates from 1986. It forms an interesting silhouette against the sea and skyline from several viewpoints, but is not labelled.
The sun was still not setting, but as we left the park the sun was casting its long rays through the trees and out onto the blue waters of Dublin Bay.