Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Obelisk, Stillorgan

Obelisk and its stairway to....

Obelisk and its stairway to….

In south Dublin, as far as obelisks are concerned, I was familiar with two of them: the wonderfully sighted one on top of Killiney Hill and the other on the seafront in Dun Laoghaire that commemorates the site from where King George IV left Ireland in 1821. However, until recently I had not seen the oldest of them all, and that is the Stillorgan Obelisk on Carysfort Avenue.

As part of the Summer of Heritage (run by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council) it is open to visitors who can go on a free guided tour and enjoy a unique piece of history. The two guides, William & Eamon, who led us around were well-informed and happy to engage with our questions. It’s definitely a ‘must-see’ and, hopefully, you will have as bright and sunny day as I had.

The obelisk was built in 1727 on lands owned by Joshua Allen, 2nd Viscount Allen, that stretched north-to-south from Blackrock to Stillorgan and east-to-west from Newtownpark Avenue to Mount Merrion Avenue. He and his wife lived in Stillorgan House, a large country mansion that was demolished more than a century ago, and is roughly the site where the Stillorgan Park Hotel now stands.

Base Gates

Base Gates

Margaret, Lady Allen, hired the young but sought-after architect Edward Lovett Pearce to design the obelisk at the far corner of the property where it would offer fabulous, uninterrupted of Dublin Bay. Pearce had travelled in France and Northern Italy in the early 1720s and visited many great classical buildings and was most impressed by the work of Andrea Palladio who is widely considered the most influential person in the history of architecture. So, on his return to Dublin he adopted his style as was knighted in 1731 for his design and building of The Irish Parliament (now the Bank of Ireland) on College Green.

View from the top

View from the top

Lovett may well have referred to the restored Obelisk of (Emperor) Domitian that was used by Lorenzo Bernini in his River of Fountains work in Rome, as he had probably seen on his travels. The stone was brought from a quarry in Stepaside before being cut and set in place. The steps that circle the structure lead to an inner space with four windows that must have been a joy to sit and look out of. Up there was a popular spot for visitors that included politicians, merchants and men of learning like Jonathan Swift who liked to ‘take the air’.

It is still (just about) possible to see Howth on a clear day, and when it was finished the obelisk would have been one of the tallest buildings in the area. And, after almost three centuries of encroaching development and tree growth, it still stands tall and has a great story to tell. It’s no longer a hidden gem!

In all its glory!

In all its glory!

As part of dlr Summer of Heritage 2018 the obelisk will be open on Saturdays, between 1-5pm, until 1 September


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Grave Importance

Mount Jerome Cemetery

Mount Jerome Cemetery

It was a cold day in early January and the graveyard was a most uninviting place to be. Tall, leafless trees, silhouetted against the grey sky, swayed in the biting, cold breeze. People around the grave huddled close like windswept penguins, chins stuck into their coats and scarves. In the distance a bell peeled as yet another funeral procession began its short, sad journey. ‘For whom the bell tolls’, my uncle said before stamping his feet on the rock hard ground.

I was standing in Mount Jerome cemetery with the rest of my family, as the gravediggers lowered my grandaunt’s coffin onto two muck-covered, broad beams that were set across the grave. The clunk of wood on wood made an eerie sound and people stiffened in response. A few seagulls swooped and cawed, adding to the gloomy air. Only the gravediggers spoke as they pulled and pushed the light-coloured coffin into place. After a few hefty tugs their work was done and they stepped aside, their boots scrunching noisily on the pebbled path.

The priest, dressed all in black, carefully made his way to the side of the grave. I could see the fresh muck on his clean shoes and the wind whipping at his trousers. He said a few words about my grand-aunt and about her long and happy life. She had in fact celebrated her ninety-eight birthday only a few months beforehand, making her by far the longest living member of the family. He then began to say a decade of the rosary and we joined in, happy that the silence was broken. As we prayed I could see, off to our right, the slow progress of another funeral; its mourners following in respectful silence, heads bowed in contemplation and against the cold.

Dust to dust...

Dust to dust…

My grand-aunt was being buried in my grandmother’s grave and I, for one, had never been to the place before. All around the graves were overgrown and unattended; most of them had not been opened for over thirty years. It was an old part of the cemetery and obviously very few people visited it. ‘Out of sight…’ I thought and heard my mother say to my uncle ‘It’s different, isn’t it?’

He turned his head slowly and sniffed the air. ‘Yeah, it’s been a long since I’ve been here.’ He paused, a slightly quizzical look on his face. ‘But I thought that the grave was nearer a big tree, not as close to the path as this is.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s been a long though, and my old memory isn’t as good as it once was.’

As soon as those words had left his mouth we all turned to see a woman walking quickly along the path to where we were gathered. Behind her the funeral procession had stopped and all the mourners were looking in our direction.

The priest stepped forward to meet her, as we waited in silence. The head gravedigger moved closer, keen to find out what was happening. It was a moment nobody will ever forget.

‘You’ve got the wrong grave’ the woman said, her voice almost breaking. She took a few deep breaths. ‘There’s been a terrible mistake. This is my father’s grave. I checked it last week with the cemetery superintendent. Something’s gone very wrong.’ She started to cry and the priest gently put his hand on her shoulder.

‘What’s your father’s surname’, asked the head gravedigger quietly. She told him and he said he would have to check the details back in the office. He ran off down the path as everyone stood around the grave, my grand-aunt waiting and somewhat forgotten in the commotion. And there she stayed, lost somewhere between heaven and earth, for another five or so minutes before we heard the gravedigger’s boots scrunching along the gravel path.

There was tension in the air and even the wind stopped as if it wanted to listen to what he had to say.

‘Yes, there has been a most unfortunate mistake. I’ve checked the register and this lady’s grave number is K492, and your father’s is K429. It’s a simple mistake for which I am terribly sorry.’ He looked at my grandaunt’s coffin and slowly shook his head. ‘This woman is indeed, well almost, in your father’s grave and it’s only by a real stroke of luck that both funerals arrived at the same time. Otherwise I don’t know what would have happened.’ He shrugged with nothing more to add. The chance that the two graves were opened on the same day, and that the two funerals arrived at almost the same time was, dare I say, miraculous even. ‘The other grave is ready for this ‘lady-in-waiting’, so we will take care of things now. My most sincere apologies to you all.’

I had to grin at his words, and wondered how often does this sort of thing happened. I didn’t want to know.

‘Thank you, thank you so much’ the woman said, wiping tears away.

So, about twenty minutes later, the priest led the prayers for a second time, and we finally laid my grand-aunt to rest.

‘She always wanted to be remembered,’ my uncle said ‘and after today, well….’ He winked, and we headed down the path, past broken headstones and the church where the bell was again tolling.

This is the end...

This is the end…



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On the radio

A few days ago I was delighted to be a guest on The History Show on Limerick City Community Radio, hosted by John O’Carroll. The two topics I talked about were:

  • The publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 (95th anniversary) and the growth in popularity of Bloomsday; and
  • The premiere of GF Handel’s Messiah in 1742 (275th anniversary) and his time in Dublin.


Link (click to listen): The History Show

James Joyce

James Joyce

GF Handel

GF Handel


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Filed under Art, Dublin, History, Ireland, James Joyce