In 1663, St Stephen’s Green was a private park surrounded by a sprinkling of townhouses. Around ten years later, the Leeson family settled in Ireland and built a mansion and brewery on the south side of St Stephen’s Green. In Rocque’s map of 1756, this side of the Green is marked ‘Leeson’s Walk’. Shortly after, the ancient road to Donnybrook took the name of Leeson Street. The Leesons also owned the uncultivated ground south of their house, known as ‘Leeson’s Fields’, which extended beyond the city boundary.
Image above is a detail of the 1797 map published by William Faden. Public domain.
The Earl of Clonmell’s Lawn
In 1777, Harcourt Street was built southwards from the south-west corner of St Stephen’s Green. The following year, its first residence was completed – Clonmel House – now number 17 Harcourt street. The proprietor was John Scott (1739 – 1798), 1st Earl of Clonmell, whose country estate was Temple Hill House in Blackrock, Co Dublin. A lawyer by profession, Scott was a friend, collaborator, and fellow-scoundrel of the infamous ‘Buck’ Whaley (whose house at number 85 St Stephen’s Green backed onto Leeson’s Fields).
Scott bought eleven acres of Leeson’s Fields as a garden for Clonmel House. Because Harcourt Street separated the two, a subterranean passage was built (believed to be extant), from one of the now-demolished wings of Clonmel House, with two entrances in the garden. In a map of 1789 this site is named ‘Lord Earlsfort’s Lawn’ after Scott’s first title Baron Earlsfort. In the 1790s he became Earl of Clonmell, to which he added an ‘L’ (Clonmell).
The Cobourg Gardens
In 1817 this private land was leased, made public, and renamed the ‘Cobourg Gardens’, a name probably suggested by recent events on the Continent. For a brief period the Cobourg Gardens, barely altered from their time as the lawn of Clonmell House, enjoyed a very fashionable position among Dublin’s upper-class society. The entrances were in Harcourt street and through the Royal Horse Bazaar at number 94 St Stephen’ s Green, in the approximate location of Stokes’ Place today.
On the 20th of June 1828, a grand evening show was held to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo. Another in the summer of 1830 celebrated the coronation of King William IV.
Some of the fireworks seen that night of the summer of 1830 were blue Turkey lights, rattlesnakes, a grand fountain of Palestine fire, fiery pigeons, a beautiful Chinese pyramid, a Prussian mill, a superb yew tree, a grand Malta piece with changing coloured fire, a spiral wheel representing fiery serpents in chase with a Salamander, and the finale a ‘correct representation of a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius’.
The Wide Streets Commission
By the 1830s the popularity of the Cobourg Gardens had declined sharply. In 1836, the ground reverted to Thomas, Earl of Clonmell, who seems to have encouraged plans to build a new street across the Garden, parallel to St Stephen’s Green to be called Clonmel Street.
A further scheme was to affect the area. In 1839 the Wide Streets Commission removed numbers 62 to 65 inclusive at the meeting place of Leeson street and St Stephen’s Green south. While Clonmel Street never materialised beyond its present form (extending a few hundred metres east of Harcourt street), the intended New Street was completed and named, in 1839, Earlsfort Terrace after the title in the Earl of Clonmell’s family. In the Dublin Directory of 1840, Earlsfort Terrace first appears, with the comment “Unbuilt”. By 1841 two vacant houses had been completed. Until the 1870’s, the road was to remain relatively underdeveloped in terms of housing.
The gardens therefore were saved intact, but were badly neglected until bought by Benjamin Lee Guinness from John Henry, Earl of Clonmell, in 1862.
The following is quoted from a writer in 1865 who commented on the disorder of the land in these twenty-five odd years:
“Years ago this plot was familiarly known as the Cobourg Gardens….then it was used as a place where sheep were allowed to graze. Heaps of rubbish were thrown in several parts of it, and nothing remained to show that it had ever been at one time a thickly-wooded pleasure ground, save the projecting roots of large trees, and one venerable elm, which now stands as the only remnant of the once famous Cobourg Gardens”.
The Dublin Exhibition Palace and Winter Garden Company
“Notwithstanding the largely increased population and wealth of Dublin within the last few years, and its ranks as the second city in the empire, it has long been matter of observation and surprise that it contained no institution where the citizens might meet for the purposes of rational amusement blended with instruction – no garden or place of public assembly of a character similar to those existing in many of the Continental cities. [The intended buildings] will comprise a winter garden, where horticultural exhibitions and promenades may be held; a concert hall suitable for the production of the works of the great masters with an effect not hitherto attainable in this city; a smaller concert hall adapted for the musical societies of Dublin; a gallery, for the exhibition and sale of pictures; a department for the display of manufactures and useful arts; a polytechnic museum and theatre for lectures on popular subjects, the whole to be placed in ornamental pleasure grounds, in which the skill of the landscape gardener will be displayed…”
– company secretary Henry Parkinson
Benjamin Lee Guinness acquired the land to act as a garden for his town house mansion Iveagh House (numbers 80 and 81 St Stephen’s Green), which he acquired in 1856. Being characteristic of his conscientious and philanthropic family, he became a trustee of the Dublin Exhibition Palace and Winter Garden Company, established in 1862.
He sold the land bordered by Harcourt Street, St Stephens Green south, Earlsfort Terrace and Hatch Street, to the Company for the price he had paid for it. This was to be the location of the Company’s planned recreational and cultural centre for Dublin’s citizens. Over 10,000 shares were sold at £5 each, to approximately six hundred shareholders. The Company’s trustees gave an indication of the prestigious members of society attracted to patronise the venture – The Duke of Leinster, Lord Talbot de Malahide, and Benjamin Lee Guinness Esq.
Meanwhile, considerable labour was required in the pleasure grounds of the Exhibition Palace. Ninian Niven, famed landscape gardener and former Director of the Botanic Gardens Glasnevin (1834 – 1838), designed the layout. As the garden was taking shape, the Viceroy, the Earl of Carlisle, laid the foundation stone of the buildings with great ceremony on June 12, 1863. The place chosen was the south angle of the semi-circular apse of the Winter Garden.
“At the proper time the first stone was gradually let down to its destined position, and his Excellency having been handed a square and plumb line of elegant workmanship, ascertained that the stone had been properly adjusted. He was then handed a mallet, made of beautifully polished wood with which he struck the stone three times and said ‘I declare the first stone of the Exhibition Palace and Winter Garden is well and truly laid’. This announcement was received with loud and continued cheering. In addition, a glass casket with six Irish newspapers of June 11 and several coins of the realm were placed next to the foundation stone.”
“It would be quite impossible to convey in a picture any notion to the aspect of the enchantment which [the Winter Garden] wears under the mystic influence of gaslight….Anything more exquisite than the effect produced in the grand hall can scarcely be conceived. Long lines of gas jets, carried over the ceiling, afforded the finest contrasts of light. The larger concert hall was lit by a series of brilliant sunlights, which served to show the noble proportions on the room, and the splendid cartoons by which it was decorated…”
– The Dublin Builder, 1st August 1864
The Grand Opening
The heir to the throne, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, to rapturous enthusiasm, performed the grand opening, on 9 May 1865. In all a huge 930,000 visitors attended the Exhibition between 9 May and 9 November. The Company arranged special railway and other concessions and the Palace was equipped with a telegraph centre, post office branch, railway office, and facilities for a large number of international newspapers.
At the close of the successful Exhibition on 9 November, an official ceremony was held at which F.W. Brady QC spoke on behalf of the Executive Committee of the Company
“…the members of the Committee] now resign the trust committed to them with the less regret, that these extensive halls are not to be taken away but will soon be re-opened, and form a permanent centre of recreation and instruction where for years to come the people of Ireland may find many agreeable associations to recall the International Exhibition of 1865…”
On September 25th 1871, the Irish Times announced that Sir Arthur Guinness (1840 – 1915), son of the late Benjamin Lee, and his brother Edward Cecil had re-purchased the site (buildings and parkland) for £60,000, so covering the Company’s debts. For the next ten years public events continued as before – banquets, concerts, exhibition, flower shows, meetings, circuses etc. The highpoint was a National Exhibition of Arts, Industries and Manufactures held under the Guinness’ patronage in 1872.
“When seen with the full blaze of sunshine illuminating all that is exquisite in art, in the fabrics of every nation, the productions of human taste and skill, the effect is like enchantment ….”
– Morning Star (London), May 1865
In 1883 Edward Cecil Guinness sold the Winter Garden structure to Mr. Lever, MP for Galway. It was subsequently erected in Battersea Park, London as the Albert Palace of Science and Art (demolished 1894). A wall was built between the main building and the Garden, the former being sold to the Commissioners of Public Works. Ninian Niven’s pleasure grounds thus became, once again, the private garden of Iveagh House.
The College ‘Backyard’
On 6 October 1941, Éamon De Valera as Taoiseach and Chancellor of the NUI opened the small newly-built gateway at the eastern end of the Gardens, at the back of the Earlsfort terrace University. The OPW had transferred the land to University College Dublin (UCD). The ceremony continued beside the Archery ground where a second gate leading to Newman House was unlocked. The Iveagh Gardens became a welcome link between 85/86 St Stephen’s Green and Earlsfort terrace for students, and a place of relaxation. For example plays were performed on a circular platform on the site of the rosarium. College events were accommodated here, such as parts of the 1854 centenary celebrations for Newman’s Catholic University.
The Gardens feature a unique collection of landscape features, which include a Rustic Grotto and Cascade, sunken formal panels of lawn with Fountain Centre Pieces, Wilderness Woodlands, a Maze, Rosariurn, American Garden, Archery grounds, Rockeries and Rookeries. Happily, many of these features were still visible when the gardens transferred into State care in 1991.
Accordingly, a plan was put in place immediately to undertake restoration and conservation works to the gardens. Looking around the gardens the fruits of this work are visible, in features such as the Yew maze and the Rosarium with its period collection of roses pre-dating 1865. The two fountains, restored in 1994, form a magnificent centerpiece in the gardens.