THE BAT­TLE OF IVEAGH GAR­DENS

Plan to build chil­dren’s sci­ence mu­seum next to Dublin’s se­cluded park is prov­ing con­tentious

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Paddy Wood­worth

The Iveagh Gar­dens lie hid­den in plain sight at the very heart of Dublin, around the cor­ner from St Stephen’s Green. Even in spring and sum­mer, there are no spec­tac­u­lar bursts of colour, ex­cept the lovely rose gar­den, and that area is dis­creetly tucked away off the main paths.

So, on a dull Oc­to­ber day, with the wind tear­ing still-green leaves off the trees, these gar­dens hardly beckon the stranger in. The lo­cals, how­ever, know bet­ter, and once you cross the thresh­old, you are likely to come back, again and again.

De­spite the un­wel­com­ing weather, there is al­ready a fair scat­ter­ing of visi­tors at 11 am. As lunchtime ap­proaches, a free bench be­comes a rar­ity.

For the large work­ing pop­u­la­tion in nearby of­fices, the gar­dens are ob­vi­ously a much ap­pre­ci­ated sanc­tu­ary. For peo­ple liv­ing in the south city cen­tre, they are of­ten a cher­ished and es­sen­tial part of their lives.

The ac­tress Pom Boyd has lived in the Iveagh Trust flats, 10 min­utes’ walk away, for more than 20 years. Through­out that pe­riod she has walked al­most daily in the gar­dens, al­ways with her dog, of­ten with her hus­band and chil­dren.

“I be­lieve that city peo­ple have a right, and not just a right but a need, to re­con­nect to na­ture near their homes,” she says. “Our flats have no gar­dens, so this place is like a lung to us.”

Char­ac­ter

She feels the Iveagh Gar­dens have a unique char­ac­ter, an at­mos­phere of calm and seclu­sion, that can’t be found in other city-cen­tre parks such as St Stephen’s Green, more ob­vi­ously beau­ti­ful though these may be.

And she pas­sion­ately be­lieves that this spe­cial char­ac­ter is se­ri­ously threat­ened by a plan to build a chil­dren’s sci­ence mu­seum be­tween the Na­tional Con- cert Hall and the park’s eastern edge.

It baf­fles Boyd that the Of­fice of Pub­lic Works (OPW), whose ded­i­cated gar­den­ers serve the gar­dens’ Vic­to­rian de­sign so faith­fully, has en­dorsed this plan, and that An Bord Pleanála has ap­proved it.

She recog­nises that a chil­dren’s sci­ence mu­seum is badly needed in the city. But she has launched an on­line and on-site cam­paign against the way its pro­posed lo­ca­tion im­pacts on the gar­dens. She ob­jects in par­tic­u­lar to the re­moval of a high bound­ary wall, and of an ad­ja­cent semi-wild area in­clud­ing many ma­ture trees, to cre­ate a pa­tio for the mu­seum.

On pa­per, these losses may seem ac­cept­able costs, if the ben­e­fit is a new chil­dren’s in­sti­tu­tion. On the ground, how­ever, Boyd can make a strong case.

She walks me from the en­try off Har­court Street, around the edge of a sunken open area that looks like a huge ten­nis court. It is, in fact, an archery green, dat­ing from the gar­dens’ cre­ation in 1863. The am­a­teur archers are long gone. To­day fam­i­lies bring small chil­dren there, happy to let them race around freely, be­cause its steep sides de­ter any quick es­capes.

“This is one of the safest places in the city for chil­dren,” says Boyd.

The perime­ter walk, lined with holly, sy­camore, oak and lime is pleas­ant and leafy, though marred at one point by the un­pleas­ing back­side of a neigh­bour­ing house. City sounds are muted, but still pen­e­trate the trees.

Turn­ing the cor­ner, how­ever, there is a qui­etly dra­matic shift in at­mos­phere. The wall sep­a­rat­ing the gar­dens from the con­cert hall is ex­cep­tion­ally high. Boyd says it is part of the orig­i­nal de­sign by the land­scape ar­chi­tect Ninian Niven, com­ple­ment­ing the 1863 In­ter­na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion build­ings at Earls­fort Ter­race, where the NCH now stands.

How­ever, the OPW’s Ciaran O’Con­nor, State Ar­chi­tect, tells The Ir­ish Times, that it was added later, and that Niven’s plan linked the ex­hi­bi­tion build­ings and the gar­den di­rectly. Thus the OPW would ac­tu­ally be restor­ing Niv- en’s work, not des­e­crat­ing it, in his view.

Ei­ther way, though, the wall to­day un­doubt­edly cre­ates an ef­fect of seclu­sion that is ex­cep­tional in the city.

This at­mos­phere is am­pli­fied by the ditch-and-mound that runs in­side the wall, and by ma­ture wood­land that forms a belt be­yond the mound. The wood­land is just am­ple enough to cre­ate an im­pres­sion of wild­ness. No, this is not pris­tine na­ture, but it’s a good enough fac­sim­ile.

We find a cir­cle of log seats, ev­i­dence of the ac­tive “for­est school” that at­tracts chil­dren weekly. Some­one has very re­cently put nest boxes high on the trees above the cir­cle. Boyd says a nearby bat colony feeds around the woods, and a raven and a spar­row hawk have been spot­ted here re­cently.

Though no for­mal en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact study has been un­der­taken, O’Con­nor says “there is no sig­nif­i­cant loss of bio­di­ver­sity”. He adds that the trees, which are ob­vi­ously quite ma­ture, “are only seedlings”, and again, not part of Niven’s plan.

Mu­seum pa­tio

Most of the wood­land area would be swept away if the mu­seum pa­tio plan goes ahead. When you walk through, it be­comes ob­vi­ous that the pro­posed changes would rad­i­cally af­fect the whole gar­dens.

In­stead of be­ing an en­closed park­land, the space would be­come the ex­posed back­yard to an­other in­sti­tu­tion. It’s easy to imag­ine the pres­sures that would de­velop to pret­tify the whole area, in ways quite alien to Niven’s his­toric de­sign. And it’s hard to un­der­stand why the chil­dren’s sci­ence mu­seum can be lo­cated only here.

Boyd claims that the OPW’s ini­tial brief, and the con­di­tions for an EU grant it re­ceived for the gar­dens, in­clude a com­mit­ment “to con­serve the in­ter­nal and perime­ter veg­e­ta­tion to screen out ad­ja­cent of­fice blocks and build­ings”, will be vi­o­lated by the plan.

O’Con­nor says Boyd is con­fus­ing is­sues here: “The char­ac­ter of the gar­den will not be un­der­mined by the OPW de­sign. Iveagh Gar­dens will con­tinue to be a green sanc­tu­ary within the city.”

Clearly, a lot of peo­ple dis­agree. Boyd launched an on­line Uplift pe­ti­tion a year ago to re­tain the wall and the wood­lands. It re­ceived 10,000 sig­na­tures in four days, and has now reached al­most 18,000 names.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DEREK SPEIRS

A Save the Iveagh Gar­dens protest at Dublin’s se­cluded park.

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