Exploring the Power of Parks in Maynooth

 For Geography Awareness Week this year, we’ve been invited to consider the power of parks, to explore them and appreciate them for their worth. Getting to know the places we are from and the places beyond, we are exploring and discovering; our awareness is nurtured and we explore progressively further in time and space. Journeying into new worlds and new experiences, our literacy in the language of landscape develops; we discover not only new places, but new things about old, familiar places. In the voice of our own geographical experience, we become storytellers moulding worlds with passing time. In the cleanest expression of what it means to be geographical we make our mark on the world as it, just as often, leaves its mark on us.

Geographical relationships are forged, broken and recast into new beginnings with this progression. T.S. Eliot wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”[i] Exploration is continual, begetting changes as we inherit and gather legacies, distributed then back to present and future in the continuum of time and space. We can learn and discover more about the world we live in so that we might stand on firmer ground in the places of our making.

The park gives us the ability to trace that continuum as it does the ability to explore and develop new experiences. With theme parks we can experience amusement, excitement and entertainment. With nature parks we can encounter the power of preservation in valuable flora and fauna being defended from more general detrimental effects of progress on the environment. With folk and heritage parks we can experience culture and society reconstructed in landscapes of the past. All of these may well be hyper-realities, but the effect is an experiential depth that can give us a sense of rootedness in real or imagined ways; a new beginning for general space in the shape of particular place. The cause here is geography: the relationship between humanity and environment that effects landscape and affects consciousness.[ii] The park can be a map of elsewhere in space and time; the power is connectivity and the reward is a finer understanding.

Maynooth Castle

Locally in Maynooth, we have such spaces that hold the echo of legacy ringing through the centuries. With the Geraldine castle we are presented with cultural, social and political signatures of a bygone era. Telling of the Fitzgerald dynasty as a leading Anglo-Norman family from the twelfth-century onwards, its scale is symbolic of powerful fortification. This power would hold until the early part of the sixteenth century when the family would fall out of favour with the English Crown in a time of reformation and political contestation. This change in circumstance would culminate ultimately in the execution of Silken Thomas and others of his family. The Yew tree found at the entrance to St. Patrick’s College, commonly known as the “Silken Thomas Tree”, is believed to be as old as the castle itself, and indeed Ireland’s oldest native tree.[iii] Both tree and castle walls bear legacy and folklore that await revelation through exploration and discovery.

Crumbled walls reveal changing worlds, as the signatory crest over the main arch reveals flickers of renovation. The effect of the Irish Confederate Wars in the 1640’s and 50’s would ultimately bring the once great seat of power to the storied and scarred walls we see today. In more recent decades, the castle would find its way to preservation of its existing form when it came under the auspices of the State. Currently housing an exhibition on the history of the building and the family, a formative era in the history and heritage of Maynooth, and Ireland more generally, is given vitality in representation. The castle is invested with a new beginning, creating a narrative in time and space that is the reward of its exploration.

Carton House

With the political fragmentation and the societal transitions that characterised much of pre-modern Ireland, the Fitzgerald castle and lands would be made forfeit to the crown as the seventeenth century drew to a close. The family would return some fifty years after forfeiture when the nineteenth Earl of Kildare, in improved dynastic circumstances, purchased the lease and commenced with developing the estate in 1739. This development would continue apace with his son, the first Duke of Leinster and subsequent heirs through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Emblematic of the landed estate era in Ireland, Carton would inspire an important Georgian parkland landscape just as it would the modern estate town of Maynooth. [iv] The starkly powerful fastenings of castle fortification would be refastened into demonstrably ornate success and opulence with the demesne. As with the castle and Yew tree, there are legacies too such as “Duke’s Harbour” holding the spirit of development in the modern town we see today.[v]

As the estate system went into decline in the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, so too did Carton succumb to change with the passage of time. In recent decades preservation and renovation is shown with a successful redevelopment: the house into a hotel complex and the Georgian parkland into golfing facilities. There is continuity in a recreation of form that is allied with progressive social and cultural changes.

New beginnings

With these forms of castle and demesne preserved we can learn of the town’s journey from Anglo-Norman dynastic seat to estate town. Pulling on the thread further we can unravel a progression to the university and commuter town too.[vi] This overall narrative is realised in the local landscape through the power of local parks, their ability to spark connectivity with the past, to recreate worlds and provide us with a recreational experience that can anchor us in the continuum of time and space.

Our being in the world is enhanced with new beginnings hewn from landscapes hidden in time, as it is with those hidden in space. Such beginnings are awakened in exploration and the discovery of geographical relationships living and lived through the ages. The discovery is rewarded in understanding the signatures and storied marks of features. It is in the power of parks to hold these possibilities, preserving our ability to explore the things awaiting discovery.

Kevin Keegan

[i] Eliot, T.S. “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets (London: Harcourt, 1943), 49

[ii] E.g. Baudrillard, J. Simulacra and Simulations (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press., 1994); Eco, U. Travels in Hyperreality, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1986)

[iii] Cf. http://treecouncil.ie/treeregisterofireland/310.htm/; E.g. Fennell, A. Heritage Trees of Ireland, (Cork: Collins Press, 2013)

[iv] E.g. Duffy, P. Exploring the History and Heritage of Irish Landscapes (Dublin: Four Courts, 2007); Dooley, T. The Big Houses and Landed Estates of Ireland: A Research Guide (Dublin: Four Courts, 2007)

[v] Kearns, G. Water and Maynooth: Resources, Networks and Aesthetics. Maynooth Geography Blog. 16 November 2013. Available from: https://maynoothgeography.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/water-and-maynooth-resources-networks-and-aesthetics/

[vi] Horner, A. Maynooth. Irish Historic Towns Atlas, No. 7, eds., A. Simms, H. B. Clark, and R. Gillespie (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1997).


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