#FollowYourPassion - An Insight into Managing the Facilities at Phoenix Park: Ireland’s Largest National Park
Facilities management exists across a broad range of sectors and industries spanning everything from large and small buildings to factories and even iconic landmarks such as Phoenix Park.
As you might remember from our piece on five walks to do near Portobello Institute, the Phoenix Park, located along the River Liffey, just north of Heuston Station, boasts an array of impressive facts and figures.
At 1752 acres, the park is the largest enclosed park in any of Europe’s capital cities, with a perimeter wall that stretches for around 11km. It has been in existence since 1662, some 360 years.
It is home to Áras an Uachtaráin, the home of President Michael D. Higgins, Dublin Zoo, the Wellington Obelisk, the People’s Garden Pond, and headquarters for An Garda Síochána, just to name a few.
Aerial view of Phoenix Park, Heuston Station and the River Liffey. Credit: It's a Park Life
The park also houses an impressive amount of wildlife, with over a thousand trees and the famous 650-strong pack of deer that roam the southern meadows of the park.
So, what goes into looking after and maintaining the facilities in a park of that size? To answer that question, we spoke to Paul McDonnell, Park Superintendent for Phoenix Park.
His farming background played a key role in his interest in all things outdoors.
“Growing up, my father would have had mixed herds, cattle and sheep. That has changed to just sheep now and free-range hens.
“So, I would have always been outside, whether it was farming or helping my mother out in the garden. It developed from there,” he said.
Paul went on to study Agricultural Science at university. After the first year, he had to choose a specialisation to continue the degree with. Paul chose landscape horticulture, firmly setting him on the path to the jobs he currently holds.
This decision at a key point in his education journey played an important role in setting him on the path to his unique career. If you are interested in a career in facilities management, visit our department page here.
Upon graduating, Paul worked at Tully’s Nurseries, a large wholesaler based in North Co. Dublin. After that, he went to Dundalk to work for the Town Council, closer to his Donore home. While there he became the first park superintendent and his main responsibilities were to “look after the general maintenance and upkeep of the parklands and development of parks in Dundalk.”
In 2007, he returned to Dublin, this time taking a post with Fingal County Council, where another iconic Dublin park would be within his remit.
“Then, around 2007, I moved on to Fingal County Council. I had a wonderful time there. Was there for eight years so lots of experience.
Malahide Castle. Credit: Malahide Castle and Gardens.
“I was involved in the redevelopment of the botanic gardens and the whole upkeep and maintenance of Malahide Castle, which is a beautiful part of the country.
“As well as that, I would have been involved in planning and any details specific to landscape horticulture. Mainly trees, landscaping plans, maintenance plans, all that type of stuff, how trees would be protected during construction works,” he said.
After eight good years with Fingal County Council, Paul began working for the Office of Public Works in 2016. There are a number of different sites that fall under his guidance including the Garden of Remembrance, Grangegorman Military Cemetery, the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, and Arbour Hill Cemetery.
Royal Hospital, Kimainham. Credit: Heritage Ireland.
However, it is the site which is the main focus of this article that keeps him the busiest. While Paul is on the go all year round, his position is one he feels very privileged to hold.
“It was always a goal of mine when I came into the industry.
“When I first joined a council, I opened my eyes and saw the various different roles and jobs that were out there. Working in the industry, you get to know certain people in various jobs.
“It certainly was a goal of mine early on in my career to take on the park superintendent role in Phoenix Park. The Phoenix Park is one of the most well-known parks we have here in the country.
“I was lucky enough to get it,” he said.
There are many responsibilities that come with Paul’s position, and he is kept busy all year round.
“It’s only when you take on the role that you realise the breadth of the work involved in it and all of the different people that you will meet through your job and the contacts that you will make with people.
“There are over 2,500 people that are employed in the park through An Garda Síochána, Ordnance Survey, St. Mary’s Hospital, Áras an Úachtaráin, the OPW. Part of our job is that we look after the road network, the footpath network, and all the cycle lanes. We have to keep them maintained so that people can get in and out of work.
“As well as that, we are doing our core work which would be the maintenance and management of the parklands, the trees, the wildlife, specifically the deer. That’s a huge part of our role because they are such a huge attraction for people here in Ireland and tourists that come here.
The famous Phoneix Park deer. Credit: RTÉ
“The Phoenix Park would be looked at with local, national, and international significance. We have a programme on the Phoenix Park called “It’s a Park’s Life”. We’ve done three series of it so far. It’s there to enlighten the public about the types of work and roles that are undertaken here at the Phoenix Park. If you get a transatlantic Aer Lingus flight, the series is on the in-flight player. People are coming from abroad and one of the first things they can see on the way over is the Phoenix Park.
“It gives me great pride to have the role and to play such a significant part for the city of Dublin and Ireland, particularly in relation to tourism,” he said.
You might be forgiven for believing that the work around the park is quite seasonal and that Paul’s job might get a bit quieter outside of tourist season. However, this is most certainly not the case.
“The Phoenix Park is very different. As I said, there are 2,500 people employed in the park so they’re coming to the park every day.
“The Phoenix Park can be as busy in depths of winter as it is in the height of summer. On a lovely day and we have a huge amount of people down at Dublin Zoo and a lot of people visiting the park. It is a very busy couple of months, July and August. We also have a lot of the races series that are conducted in the park, the Dublin Marathon for example. We have Bloom in June, Ireland's largest gardening festival.
Bloom Festival. Credit: Independent
“But if we go into the winter months, we have a tree stock of over 1000 trees which we have to manage and maintain. We’re constantly looking at that. We also have to plan when we want to do works. It wouldn’t be right for us to shut down major roads or footpaths in the middle of summer when people are in the park. So, we would be doing a lot of procurement over the winter months. We try to get that work carried out before the summer months when the park is really busy with people.
“While the park might not be busy with people during the winter months, it is still very busy with our roles. There’s always something to be done.
“Áras an Úachtaráin falls under our remit too. General maintenance within the gardens there. In the park, we have over 400 acres of meadows. We’re just starting to get ourselves ready for the removal of hay from those meadows.
Áras an Úactharáin. Credit: The Lonely Planet
“Over the full year, we have over 300 individual events. These range in size from walks or runs, to photoshoots, right up to the likes of Bloom. We have our own events too such as the Phoenix Park Honey Show and Biodiversity Festival that takes place every September. It does vary.
“It doesn’t seem to have a quiet time which is good. I think most people like that we’re busy all year round. It keeps everybody on their toes. We have a great team here. We have a team of gardeners, guides, park rangers, office staff as well, and general operatives doing stuff like emptying the bins, cleaning up the litter, keeping the place in the condition that people expect,” he said.
One noticeable thing Paul has seen over the last two years is the uptick in the number of visitors the park gets on a daily basis.
“Parks, since the onslaught of Covid 19, have been busier now than they have ever been. People during that time went to their local park, whether that was Phoenix Park or any other park because it was the only place you could really go. People got to know them, and they have kept those habits up.
“People are now walking and exercising more than they have ever done. We could see here on Saturday and Sunday mornings, pre-covid, a lot of people out doing their morning walk or run. Now, that number has just ballooned. There are so many people here early in the morning every day of the week.
“It’s wonderful to see that the changes to people’s lifestyles that they took up through Covid have been maintained. Our parks are now so valuable to people’s lives.
“We were gathering figures during Covid on how many people within a 5km radius of the park. That was the rule for a long time, the 2km and 5km rule. We had it estimated that there were half a million people living within a five-kilometre distance of Phoenix Park.
“Over the past two summers, for half a million people, this was their place to go for their daily walk, run or cycle. The location of the park lends itself to a huge amount of use, which is absolutely fantastic,” he said.
As Paul mentioned, there are events going on in the Phoenix Park year-round, which makes for a hectic schedule. This was never truer than in 2018 when both Ed Sheeran and Pope Francis came to town.
“It was a very busy year.
“We had Ed Sheeran for three concerts in late April /early May. He played 60,000 for three nights. We worked with the event organisers. It was a complete build on a greenfield site. Everything had to be brought in.
Fans at Ed Sheeran's 2018 concert in the Phoenix Park. Credit: Golden Plec
“Our main role there was the protection of the fabrication of the park. That the roads, structures, and infrastructure weren’t damaged. The grasslands too. You have to bring in all this infrastructure to try and protect it because the concerts are there for three days, but they might be building it for two weeks in advance and be taking it down for ten days after. We have to try and mitigate any damage that occurs onsite.
“There is also the protection of all the trees on site, particularly near the build areas. We don’t want any disturbance around the base of the trees, in and around the roots and that. We would have been heavily involved with the event organisers in the planning and organising of it. We would have spent a lot of time in meetings with all of the core agencies such as Dublin City Council, An Garda Síochána, the HSE and so on.
“We did a lot of the planning in relation to getting traffic in through the park, where the traffic was going. We still had 2,500 people working in the park. They had to be able to get out of the park at the end of their day, while 60,000 people were coming in.
“We would have managed where all the buses were to be parked as well. And the various routes to get people in and out of the event. We helped with the whole de-rig of it afterwards also,” he said.
Ed Sheeran was one thing. But for Paul, the Papal visit in August of 2018 was as big if not bigger.
The Papal visit in 2018. Credit: Irish Mirror
“The Papal visit was an enormous amount of work. That was a multi-agency effort. There were so many different departments of government involved in that. The OPW would have had a lead role in it. We worked closely with the church and all of the various statutory agencies.
“All of the routes had to be planned in because when people were coming in, they got a certain colour ticket and that ticket coordinated with the gate you were coming in, the route you were going through and all the way to the corral you were stood in, so that people wouldn’t get lost and knew that if they had a yellow ticket, they went into the yellow gate, along the yellow route, and into the yellow corral and back out the same way. There was a lot of planning and management around that.
“We had to plan where people went because we want to keep them away from trees. We had to cut routes through the parklands. One of the interesting things we had to do was to manage the wild deer. The wild deer are generally on the 15 acres. We had our deer keeper and other members of the park rangers keep a good eye on the deer at all times during the main event. We didn’t want 650 wild deer wandering into the centre of the event area.
“The whole build, the staging, the corrals, the fencing needed to be done too. It was just enormous. We had to make all the ground conditions were safe because we had people of various ages and various abilities. They had to walk across the Phoenix Park from a gate, through the park. We had to check all those areas and make sure they were all even footed and safe for people to use.
“That build took around a month.
“Something that made headlines at the time was that we had to take all of the gates down as well. All of the gates in the Phoenix Park came down. Some of them had been up and in position since 1832. They had only been taken down on two occasions before, the 1932 Eucharistic Congress and for the Papal visit in 1979. We had to take the gates down and put-up temporary ones. We couldn’t leave the entrances to the park ungated because of the deer. They would wander out. We had to get planning permission for that because the gates of the Phoenix Park are protected structures.
The Ashtown Gates of the Phoenix Park. Credit: The Irish Times
“As part of the consent for that, the gates all had to be fully restored and returned back to their original position. That all happened after the event. It was a very bespoke project that was brilliantly handled by our architects and our major projects team. We actually followed through with a piece on the programme I mentioned earlier. You can actually see the restoration of the gates from start to finish,” he said.
And if all that wasn’t enough, in between Ed Sheeran’s concerts and the Papal visit was one of the Park’s biggest annual events.
“In the middle of all of that, we had Bloom, with 120,000 people coming for that. So, 2018 was an extremely busy year for the Phoenix Park,” he said.
As busy as it gets, Paul still finds the job extremely rewarding. And with all the high-profile events that come and go, it’s the simple things in the job that make it most enjoyable for him.
“A couple of years ago, someone came to the park from Belfast. They had a small child with them. And the child lost their teddy bear. It was of really high value to the family and to the child. They couldn’t find it anywhere. Our guys went about checking everywhere and they eventually found it and returned it back to the family.
“It’s being able to do small things like that that make a difference to the people. We always love hearing various stories. People always have lovely stories about the Phoenix Park and what it means to them. Some people have grown up in the Phoenix Park and they’ll come in and tell me about where they lived, where they used to play, how the park used to look to them, and how the trees have grown. It’s great hearing those stories from people about their love of the park. That’s the most rewarding thing.
“But also working with a team that’s here in the park that loves their jobs. I’m stationed in the park; my office is in the centre. I’m working within the park all the time. I’m not in an office in the city centre. I’m very lucky in that way," he said.
Paul's education journey and career path to becoming Park Superintendent for Phoenix Park is an inspiring one. If you are interested in working in facilities management to someday manage iconic sites like this one, visit our facilities management department here.