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Moving Statue!

One of the best known features of the Phoenix Park is one which is particularly associated with Irish Motor racing through the “Phoenix’ and Walter Sexton trophies. It is, of course, the Phoenix monument which occupies a location along Chesterἀeld Avenue – the main road bisecting the park – adjacent to Áras an Uachtaráin and the residence of the American Ambassador.

The monument is one of the many additions to the park created during the time of the Earl of Chesterfield, who took office as Lord lieutenant in 1745. The monument consists of a pillar some thirty feet high, surmounted by that mythical bird, the Phoenix. Quite why the Phoenix was chosen is hard to understand other than due to the fact that the very name of the park, Phoenix Park, is a misnomer, being a corruption of the Irish words Fionn Uisce meaning ‘clear water’. It would appear that Chesterfield never enquired into the origin of the park’s name, commissioning the Phoenix Monument to be carved from Portland Stone. In addition to the Phoenix bird, the monument bears Chesterfield’s crest. Incidentally, the area where the monument is located was once known as Beau-Belle-Walk and it was here that the elegantly clad ladies of the city gentry took the air on fine summer evenings in the eighteenth century.

Motorsport has been the cause of various modifications to the monument down the years and led to its movement from the centre of the main road in 1929.

The Phoenix Monument first suffered at the hands of motorsport in 1903 at the time of the very first motorsport event to be held in the Park – the Speed Trials of July 1903. On that occasion, the competitors were timed as they sped down the main road of the Park between Mountjoy Corner and the Gough Monument (destroyed in an IRA explosion in the 1950s). When the Speed Trials were being planned, concern was expressed by the organising members of the Irish Automobile Club (forerunner of the Royal Irish Automobile Club), that the cars would have to swerve around the monument half way along their intended course. In the widely-held enthusiasm of the Irish authorities for all things motoring at the time of the Irish Gordon Bennett Race, it was decided to remove two sides of the Monument to allow free passage for the competing cars.

This fact was lost but for the fortuitous discovery by the author of the accompanying photograph in a Dublin antique shop some years ago, which clearly shows the ‘modified’ monument during the Speed Trials as two cars pass either side of it. After the 1903 Speed Trials, the monument was returned to its original state. I understand that the Board of Works personnel working on its return to its original site in more recent times noted that it had been repaired but assumed that this was probably as a result of vandalism.

Eighty years ago, in 1929, the monument made its first move when it was dismantled and re-erected outside the gates of Áras an Uachtaráin to enable the first Irish International Grand Prix to take place in the Park. The Royal Irish Automobile Club organising committee under Edward White and Walter Sexton had proposed a circuit which was to gain international acclaim but first there was the problem of the Phoenix Monument which sat slap-bang in the middle of what would be the fastest part of the course. With the strong support of the Government of W T Cosgrave for the race, arrangements were made to relocate the monument to its new position.

And there the Phoenix Monument stayed until more recent times when as part of the re-development of the Phoenix Park and with the intention of returning the Park to a more original state, the Phoenix Monument was returned to its first home on Chesterfield Avenue. There it sits today, a real-life ‘moving statue’, sadly devoid of both the lamp standards and the ornate railings it once had, and which are clearly to be seen on the ‘Phoenix’ and Walter Sexton trophies, but synonymous with both the Park and with Irish Motor racing.                              

Extract from “Racing in the Park” Copyright Bob Montgomery