The Phoenix Park is one of Ireland’s best-known landmarks and hundreds of people walk inside the largest walled park in Europe daily. In his new book, Donal Fallon tells how through generations the Flanagan family came to be synonymous with lighting the beautiful gas lamps along Chesterfield Avenue.
James Flanagan was standing at the top of a ladder in the Phoenix Park, attending to the timer of a gas l amp near to the Hole in the Wall public house. The weather was turning, and the latter seemed more and more appealing. Below, wiping raindrops from the front of his camera, my brother snapped one of a series of images for this book.
“Is that an old film camera?”, James asks down to Luke. “You don’t see many of them now.”
There’s a moment of laughter as Luke replies, “I don’t know, you’re the one fixing a Victorian gas lamp!”
Across Europe and beyond, such lamps are quickly fading from the streetscape. A visitor to Berlin will encounter the Gaslaternen-Freilichtmuseum in Tiergarten, where dozens of gas lanterns from across Europe are displayed, including one from the Phoenix Park.
The distinctive glow of gas lamps can still be seen in the Charlottenburg area of the city especially. Nearly half of the world’s gas lamps today are to be found on the streets of Berlin, but rising costs, political uncertainty around the provision of gas and environmental concerns all seem to be working against the lights there.
The World Monuments Fund placed Berlin’s gas lamps on its 2014 list of endangered cultural resources, but this only led to discussion over what exactly should be preserved – the lamps themselves or the gas lighting?
Several thousand gas lights have now been retrofitted with LED lighting, specifically designed to give off the same unique colour as gas lighting. If there is ‘no perceivable difference in brightness, colour or form’, what does this mean? For some residents, historians and others, a gas lamp without gas does not constitute genuine heritage.
Reversing trends, Prague has sought to increase the presence of gas lamp lighting on its streetscape in recent times. In London, a pioneering city in the development of the technology, more than 250 gas lamps survive in the Westminster area. Having withstood not only technological change but the Blitz too, these lamps are one of few constants in an ever-changing city. London’s fog has been described as ‘the greatest character of nineteenth-century fiction’, but her gaslit Westminster streets are part of her unique atmosphere too. Yet few places are as synonymous with this historic lighting as Dublin’s largest park.
Writing about a drive through the park in the 1970s, a journalist with the Evening Herald described the experience as ‘Sherlock Holmesian. The gas lamps swelled with yellow softness as we approached them and the fog coiled in great serpent-like undulations amid the trees.’
The best place to see these lights is on Chesterfield Avenue, the main artery of the Phoenix Park, which brings the visitor from Parkgate Street to the Castleknock Gate, at just over 3.7 miles. Now free of cars since the pandemic led to a rethinking of the park and access, both sides of the road are lit in a beautiful, soft yellow glow each evening. Some people even come to watch them flicker on, in slow procession as the timers do their jobs.
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own
The Lamplighters of Phoenix Park: A unique history of one of Ireland’s most famous places by Donal Fallon, with James and Frank Flanagan is published in hardback by Hachette Ireland, €22.99.