St Stephen’s Green is central Dublin’s largest and most varied park, whose statuary provides a poignant history lesson in stone, wood and bronze. The main sightseeing draws in the area date from the Georgian period: the splendid stuccowork of Newman House and the elegant streets and squares to the east of the Green. St Stephen’s Green preserves its distinctive Victorian character with a small lake, bandstand, arboretum and well-tended flower displays. It was originally open common land, a notoriously dirty and dangerous spot and the site of public hangings until the eighteenth century. In 1880, however, it was turned into a public park with funding from the brewer Lord Ardilaun (Arthur Guinness), who now boasts the grandest of the Green’s many statues, seated at his leisure on the far western side. Over at the northeast corner, a row of huge granite monoliths – nicknamed “Tonehenge” – has been erected in honour of eighteenth-century nationalist Wolfe Tone, behind which stands a moving commemoration of the Great Famine. Meanwhile, on the west side of the central flower display, a tiny plaque inlaid in a wooden park bench commemorates the so-called “fallen women” – mostly unmarried mothers or abused girls – who were forced to live and work in severe conditions in Ireland’s Magdalen laundries; the last of them, in Dublin, wasn’t closed down until 1996. From the Green’s northwest corner, by the top of Grafton Street, you can hire a horse and carriage, either as a grandiose taxi or for a tour of the sights, which will typically set you back €40–50 for thirty minutes.
Termed in the eighteenth century “Beau Walk”, St Stephen’s Green North is still the most fashionable side of the square. The Shelbourne Hotel here claims to have been “the best address in Dublin” since its establishment in 1824 (see The Inner Southside). Beyond the hotel at the start of Merrion Row, the tiny, tree-shaded Huguenot Cemetery was opened in 1693 for Protestant refugees fleeing religious persecution in France. A large plaque inside the gates gives a roll call of Huguenot Dubliners, among whom the most famous have been writers Dion Boucicault and Sheridan Le Fanu.Read More
Newman House at 85–86 St Stephen’s Green South boasts probably the finest Georgian interiors in Dublin, noted especially for their decorative plasterwork. The place is named after John Henry Newman, the famous British convert from Anglicanism, who was invited to found the Catholic University of Ireland here in 1854 as an alternative to Anglican Trinity College and the recently established “godless” Queen’s Colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway. James Joyce and Éamon de Valera were educated at what became University College Dublin (UCD), which now occupies a large campus in the southern suburbs.
Newman House began life as two houses. No. 85 is a Palladian mansion built by Richard Castle in 1738 and adorned with superb baroque stuccowork by the Swiss Lafranchini brothers, notably in the ground-floor Apollo Room, where the god himself appears majestically over the fireplace, attended by the nine muses on the surrounding walls. The much larger no. 86, with flowing rococo plasterwork by Robert West, the notable Dublin-born imitator of the Lafranchinis, was added in 1765. On the top floor of the latter are a lecture room, done out as in Joyce’s student days (1899–1902), and the bedroom of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Having converted from Anglicanism, Hopkins became a Jesuit priest and then Professor of Classics here in 1884; after five wretched years in Dublin, he died of typhoid and was buried in an unmarked grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.
George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw
Born in Dublin in 1856, George Bernard Shaw grew up among a Protestant family fallen on hard times. His father was an unsuccessful grain merchant and alcoholic – prompting Shaw to become a lifelong abstainer – and there was no money to pay for his education. At 15 he started work as a junior clerk for a land agency, but five years later went to London to join his mother who had moved there to further the musical career of one of his sisters. Reliant on what little income his mother earned as a music teacher, Shaw set about educating himself by spending his afternoons in the reading room of the British Museum. He hoped to become a novelist, but, following the rejection of no fewer than five novels, turned his hand to journalism instead, contributing music and drama criticism to London newspapers.
Shaw was a devout socialist, joining the Fabian Society in 1884, writing pamphlets and gaining a reputation as a natural orator. He espoused numerous causes, including electoral reform, vegetarianism and the abolition of private property. His theatrical career began in the 1890s when, influenced by Ibsen, he began to compose plays focusing on social and moral matters, rather than the romantic and personal subjects which then dominated British theatre.
In 1898 he married the heiress Charlotte Payne-Townshend and the same year saw the production of his first successful play, Candida. A stream of equally lauded comedy-dramas followed – including The Devil’s Disciple, Arms and the Man, Major Barbara and Pygmalion – though he later turned to more serious drama, such as Heartbreak House and Saint Joan. Simultaneously, he maintained an active career as a critic, journalist and essayist, his often bitterly ironic wit (“England and America are two countries separated by a common language”) becoming legendary. In 1925 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but initially rejected the honour before relenting and giving his prize money to a newly established Anglo–Swedish Literary Foundation.
Shaw’s attitude to Ireland was ever ambivalent – he once commented “I am a typical Irishman; my family came from Yorkshire” – and, though he remained interested in Irish affairs and became a personal friend of Michael Collins, his brand of democratic socialism would have been antipathetic to the austere Catholic and anti-British state that emerged post-independence. Shaw died in 1950 at Ayot St Lawrence, Hertfordshire.