The people, places and things that make Dublin special.

It is a cold sunny Saturday morning in late spring, and we’re having a coffee in the courtyard of the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, which is a find in itself.

It is tucked away beyond the Walled Garden, which is getting geared up for the Bloom Flower Festival, which runs from late May. The rhubarb that grows there ends up in the tarts you can eat in the café next door. The fashion around us tends towards running gear. Babies who’ve been whisked out of the house early in the morning toddle about the place while people read papers and eat cakes.

Every Saturday morning on the half hour, three mini buses, navy with gold harps, take tourists the short distance from the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre in through the gates of Áras an Uachtaráin and up the long drive to Dublin’s own little White House. Red tulips are in full bloom at the front door where we disembark and as all the phones come out for photos, one uniformed Garda frantically stops us from photographing the west wing, President Michael D. Higgin’s private quarters.

The President is lovely and very personable. As is his wife

The tour group is small enough to let us feel we’re being allowed in on a secret, and Bernie Canning, our sing-songy tour guide, gathers us close to tell us that the Phoenix Park was opened as a royal hunting park for King Charles II in 1662, and stocked with deer. In 1665, a wall was built around it “to keep the Dubs out, because they got too fond of the venison”.

In 1751, Nathaniel Clements got the job as Park Ranger here. He built the core of the modern house and in 1782, his son sold it to the English government as a residence for the Viceroy.

The house has had as many extensions as an Irish bungalow in the eighties. Add-ons were built to encourage royal visits and the first room we enter is the dining room built in 1849 for Queen Victoria’s visit. We stand under a Birmingham Crystal chandelier that was lit first with candles, then gas before becoming one of the first electric lights in Ireland. The room is lined with portraits of past presidents; the men painted in the dark colours and shadow, the portraits of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, a riot of colour.

The oblong table in the centre of the room is the very one where the first Council of State sat, taken from Leinster House to the Áras by De Valera, but the original fireplaces put in for Queen Victoria are long gone. Each Viceroy would take something he liked from the house after his term, and one particularly enterprising fellow took the grand fireplaces.

The best room by far is the President’s own private study, clearly in the full flight of use

In the State Corridor, the floors are plush with Killybegs wool carpets and the walls textured with stucco work. Bronze busts of the past presidents stand tall on pale green Connemara plinths. There are no portraits or busts yet of President Higgins. These come only after a sitting President leaves.

In the State reception room, a plaster transcript of the sumptuous Lemoynes painting hanging in the Louvre, Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy, adorns the ceiling. In the centre of the carpet, a motif of a phoenix.

“Where’s the Dubs?” Bernie asks us, and everyone goes a bit shy about being questioned. She recounts the story of how the park got its name. ‘Fionn Uisce’, we’re told, from a spa of clear water where the locals bathed. Through mishearing and anglicisation, it became ‘Phoenix’. In 2004 at the Park’s Farmleigh House, Seamus Heaney read his poem “Beacons at Bealtaine” to twenty-five Heads of State during Ireland’s EU presidency.

Uisce: water. And fionn: the water’s clear.
But dip and find this Gaelic water Greek:
A phoenix flames upon fionn uisce here.

The Garda trailing the group makes sure we’re behaving and it brings to mind the story of another poet’s adventures in the Áras. Then working journalist Patrick Kavanagh was not going to be relegated to the sidelines at the Red Cross Ball in 1943. He placed himself among the invited guests in the President’s drawing room and was subsequently barred for unbecoming conduct. Dublin.ie will try not to follow suit.

On his desk, amongst papers, an issue of Poetry magazine

All the Pietro Bossi fireplaces heave with peat briquettes. From a family of Italian stucco workers, Bossi emigrated to Dublin in 1785 and was so secretive about his marble technique that he worked with a screen around him and sprinkled sawdust on the floor at night. If he saw a footprint in it the next morning, he’d walk off the job.

We walk past a book in a glass case, opened to the page signed by the Obamas, then into the Council of State room. Here, the heavily gilded rococo ceiling depicts Aesop’s Fables, while the art on the walls depicts Ireland’s historic realities: a Sarah Purser painting of Maud Gonne with her monkey, Countess Markievicz, Sean Keating’s IRA Column, Simon Coleman’s Council of State painting of men sitting around the table seen in the first room, among them future presidents Hyde, DeValera, and O’Ceallaigh.

The doors of the French Drawing Room open out onto a tulip planted garden. Only the brave stand under a quarter-ton chandelier. Commissioned for the Act of Union in 1801, it is engraved with garlands, roses and thistles and shamrocks. There are pink couches, one is an original from the Palace of Versailles, “Marie Antoinette may have sat on that couch, ” Bernie says, and an older woman goes over and places her hand on the back of it.

Then we are brought into the best room by far – the President’s own private study, clearly in the full flight of use.

The ceiling was taken from artist Sarah Purser’s home and depicts Jupiter presiding over the four seasons. On the wall, a print of ‘I am Raftery, The Poet’, signed by Seamus Heaney. On a table by the fire, a picture of the President and his brother on the day of their First Holy Communion, then two little caricature colourful sculptures of the President and his wife, and an IFTA.

The pride and joy for us is the President’s private office

We lean precariously over the velvet ropes to see what he has on his bookshelves: books on Wolfe Tone and Yeats, speeches from the Dail, and then a little surprise, a young adult novel by Irish writer Louise O’Neill. On his desk, amongst papers, an issue of Poetry magazine.

Back at the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre, Bernie is rushing off to do another tour so I speak with another tour guide, Nick Mernagh. He tells me that the Visitor Centre celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and the idea of opening the Áras for tours was a whispered suggestion by Mo Mowlam on a visit to Mary Robinson. 150 people tour the house each Saturday. “The pride and joy for us is the President’s private office,” says Nick. “It says so much about him, that he’s a man of learning.”

“And that he doesn’t work on Saturdays,” I joke, but Nick corrects me with a smile. “He works very hard. He’d often drop in to tidy up a speech and we’d have to get out…If he comes across a tour, he’ll interact. He’s lovely and very personable. As is his wife.”

Nick tells me the each President leaves a certain stamp on the house. “Michael D, we know, is a poet, and he has a little private room when he wants to write poetry where he can go and turn the key and that’s his spot. It’s actually out in the garden, near the dining room window as you look out at the Queen’s Walk. The carpet in the private office was a Mary McAleese initiative. That room used to be a bit cold and that carpet is almost crimson so just the colour heats the room up.”

It says so much about him, that he’s a man of learning

Nick sees the Áras as housing the collective memories of the Irish people, “the Louise XIIII pink settee in the middle room, that was [a gift from] DeGaulle. When I was a child, DeGaulle was coming to visit De Valera, and that always reminds me of him.”

And the tour is not static. “In August, the dahlias in the President’s wall garden are in bloom and the house tour changes into half the house and half the garden.”

Nick says he sees tour guides like himself more as folklorists than historians, whose role is to ensure “that the stories are not lost.”

To find out more about visits and tours go to www.president.ie/en/explore-visit/tours-visits
You can also take a virtual tour of the house and grounds.

Catherine Conroy is a Dublin writer, regularly contributing to The Irish Times, and dabbling in fiction in The Dublin Review. Her novel continues to wait patiently in a drawer.

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