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Pro Bono Publico: The Little Museum on St Stephen's Green

Published
March 31, 2023
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AFTER the Stephens Green Shopping Centre, I wandered around St Stephen’s Green, the small but historic park nearby.

St Stephen’s Green, aerial view, 29 October 2015. Image by Dronepicr, edited by King of Hearts, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. North-northeast is toward the top.

On the northern side of the Green, there stands the must-see Little Museum of Dublin.

The Little Museum of Dublin

The distinctive thing about the Little Museum is that it is all about Dublin, so it is a good place to actually find out more about Dublin’s history. Such as Georgian Dublin, for example.

Or the places frequented by such native literary characters as Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde, better known simply as Oscar Wilde.

The Little Museum had a live human narrator who talked about early Dublin. There were pictures of early Dublin. And musical performances by artists called Raglan Rose and Pete Cavanagh.

There were exhibits about the passing decades, including such events as John F Kennedy’s visit to Ireland.

There’s a permanent U2 exhibition in the Little Museum, as well. The famous Irish band U2 used to play at the nearby Dandelion Market, then housed in a disused warehouse next to St Stephen’s Green, because there weren’t many other places to play their kind of music as yet, in an Ireland much more conservative than today.

Here are a couple of photos of Bono in his younger days, circa 1983. Love the hairdo!

Display at the Little Museum

Bono fronting U2 at the Kalvøya-festivalen (Isle of Calf Festival), Norway, 21 August 1983, photo by Helge Øverås, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I took a selfie next to an effigy of an older Bono in character as Mr MacPhisto (geddit?), a devilish stage persona he first adopted in 1993.

In a degenerate-sounding upper-class English accent — what other kind is there, especially if you are Irish? — MacPhisto would poke fun at various hypocrisies and ring up folk both ordinary and famous on his cellphone to have a go at them for their failings, mostly only getting so far as to annoy some receptionist while broadcasting the conversation live to the concert-goers.

After that, Bono got into good works. An exhibit about his humanitarian efforts included a 2006 photo of Bono with former US President George W Bush, with whom Bono worked on AIDS charities.

Here’s a closer view.

In 2000, Bono and the U2 guitarist known as the Edge were made Freemen of the City of Dublin, exercising a traditional right to graze sheep on St Stephen’s Green: a vestige of the era when the green was a commons in the old sense of the word, meaning any Dubliner could graze animals on it.

Of course, there weren’t nearly as many Dubliners back then as there are now. It wouldn’t work as a general practice today. And in any case, most Dubliners now have city jobs and no longer feel a pressing need to keep livestock.

Though I suspect even this brief revival of the ancient custom might have made the modern park superintendent nervous. What if the lambs ate the park’s rarest flower? Still, not as bad as having to come between the Irish rebels and the Brits back in 1916 to save the ducks.

While U2 have strong links with St Stephens Green, they’ve only played one concert actually on the Green, or at its edge, as far as I know. This was on Christmas Eve, 2011. Interesting to see how many people had smartphones, even then.

People donate stuff to the Little Museum all the time. It is going from strength to strength.

The park, which began as a marshy commons and still sports two duck ponds, became surrounded by stately Georgian homes in the 1700s, including one called Tracton House, which had an amazing image of the Greek god Apollo on its ceiling.

When visiting Dublin Castle a few hours later, I took a photograph of the same ceiling in a room called the Apollo Room without realising that I had just retraced its journey.

The Apollo Room ceiling, Dublin Castle

As to how this came about, Tracton House was pulled down in 1912 and the ceiling, too good to end up in a builders’ skip or whatever they used in those days, was transported to the National Museum of Ireland.

Indeed, the entire room in which the ceiling had existed was transported and reassembled in the museum as an example of Georgian decoration at its finest, right down to the fireplace, which had been sold in the interim and had to be tracked down and repurchased.

In 1942, the room was dismantled once more, so that the space could be used to store peat, which some in Ireland also refer to as turf. The idea was denounced in a fine flow of words by a weekly columnist of the day:

"Then some time ago the Board of Works had the brilliant idea that the Tracton Room at the Museum would make a splendid store for turf to keep Leinster House, the Museum and others of this group of buildings warm during the winter, and it was decided that the room should be taken down from ceiling to floor and be filled with turf. Did you ever in all your life hear the like of it?"

The room went into storage for the best part of thirty years. Thereafter, it was restored and reassembled as the Apollo Room of Dublin Castle, which was opened to the public in 1970.

The park was occupied by about 250 rebels during the notorious 1916 Easter Rising, with the local detachment led by Michael Mallin.

A sign about Michael Mallin on St Stephen’s Green

The leaders also included the Irish-descended but London-born Countess Constance Marckievicz, who would go on to become the first woman elected to the United Kingdom Parliament in 1918, but would decline to take her seat since her party, the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, had a policy of abstention at the time.

A similar sign about Constance Markievicz, on the Green

After the British began to occupy the Georgian buildings surrounding the Green, the insurgents withdrew to a more defensible position. In the meantime, a ceasefire was arranged so that the park’s attendant could feed the ducks!

What else can I say? Well, in Dublin, it pays to book ahead for any attraction you want to see if there is any chance of it being booked out. Especially in the summer, I would say.

The next time I return to Dublin, I plan to spend more time in the Docklands area. And of course, there is plenty more to see in such a historic city, of two million.

But for now, I was off to Drogheda and the more rural, but equally historic, valley of the Boyne.

Note: The quote about the dismantling of the Tracton Room in 1942 is from the 19 June 1942 issue of Gertrude Gaffney’s Irish Independent column ‘I sketch your world’, quoted at greater length in J. B. Maguire, ‘History of the Apollo Room’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vols 142/143 (2012/2013), pp. 155–165 at p. 160.

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