Dublin's Phoenix Park has been the venue for a madcap series of races which have been a highlight of the Irish racing scene, providing a true flashback to a different era. Each year, race organisers would transform the spacious park into a temporary circuit, although this was no Monaco; think instead of tree lined-avenues in a lush setting, complete with narrow roads, ornamental lampposts and hardly a stretch of armco barrier in sight.
Home to some of the most important races of the season for Irish scene, the parkland setting meant for good spectator viewing, but with a course lined with obstacles, from boulevards of trees to lamp posts and even a fountain.
It couldn't last in a more safety conscious-era and the engines fell silent after the 2012 edition.
The park was first used for motorsport way back in 1903, when the Gordon Bennett speed trials were held along Chesterfield Avenue, the main road which bisects the park. Competitors raced along one mile and flying one kilometre stretches between Mountjoy Corner and the Gough Monument. Among the hazards en route was the Phoenix Memorial, a giant statue on stone columns, which sat on a plinth slap bang in the middle of Chesterfield Avenue. Part of the base had to be dismantled to allow cars to speed past on either side, which must have made for quite a sight!
Motor races proper did not get under way until 1929, however, when the Irish International Grand Prix took place. The course comprised a 4.25-mile loop along the interior roads of the park, heading out from Chesterfield Avenue to Mountjoy Corner before turning right onto the return loop along North Road. The Phoenix Memorial was less of a hazard on this occasion, as the authorities had dismantled it and re-erected it outside the gates of Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the President of Ireland, also located within the park (in more recent times the monument has moved back to its original spot).
The sight and sound of pre-war Grand Prix machines hurtling through the park must have been quite a sight and no expense was spared in the preparation for the event. Wooden pit buildings were created at one end of Chesterfield Avenue, while large grandstands also overlooked the course.
The Grand Prix was actually two separate handicap races held under a single banner of the Irish International Grand Prix. Friday's race was for cars up to 1500cc, whose drivers competed for the Saorstát Cup, while on Saturday the drivers in the more powerful cars raced for the Éireann Cup. The overall winner of the Irish Grand Prix was decided by the driver who completed the 300-mile race distance from either race in the fastest time over the two days.
The first year's event was dominated by Russian driver Boris Ivanowski, a former Imperial Officer of the Russian army, who won both races in an Alfa-Romeo 6C and was thus declared the overall winner. In 1930 Germany's Rudolf Caracciola dominated in the Éireann Cup race to claim the Irish Grand Prix for Mercedes. In 1931 Norman Black took the Saorstát Cup in an MG Midget and the overall win, while Henry Birkin took the Éireann Cup in an Alfa-Romeo 8C. Thereafter the Grand Prix circus went elsewhere, though local races continued to be held in the park up to the outbreak of World War Two.
Racing resumes on shorter courses
It wasn't until 1950 that racing resumed, this time on a new course, dubbed the Oldtown Circuit. This used only a portion of Chesterfield Avenue and headed in the opposite direction to previous running, turning right onto Furze Road and down to a hairpin before turning back towards Mountjoy Corner along Ordnance Survey Road. The triangular course measured around 1.75 miles and was among the more used of the various routes over the years, becoming the mainstay in the 1990s and for its more recent events.
A 2.6 mile course named after Mike Hawthorn was introduced in 1959, using the western end of the 1929 course, departing the course at Ratra Corner and rejoining Chesterfield Avenue at the site of the Gough Memorial (though this has been removed a few years earlier after being badly damaged in an IRA bombing). The Hawthorn Circuit is the second most used, having seen action (with various modifications) on no fewer than 21 occasions over the years.
The only other variations to see action was the relatively short-lived Dublin 100 course, which was a mildly shortened variation of the original Grand Prix course used between 1962 and '66, and a revival of the GP circuit itself in 1969.
The heyday of the Phoenix Park races was undoubtedly the 1970s, coinciding with the rise in popularity of Formula Ford and Formula Atlantic in Ireland. A crop of brash new youngsters was coming through the ranks and with Phoenix Park then a part of the regular season calendar, fireworks were guaranteed. In 1975 Mountjoy witnessed a multiple pile up in the Atlantic race with several cars ending up upside down – among the luminaries in the field were Tony Brise and Gunnar Nillsson. On another occasion Tommy Byrne sideswiped one of the gas lamps at Mountjoy in a Formula Ford and split the car in half, luckily with no injury to himself.
The crowds enjoyed the spectacle and the festival atmosphere was enlivened by demonstrations of even more potent machinery. Derek Daly took a swift lap in an Ensign F1 car in 1978 and reckoned on hitting 180mph heading along the Ashdown Gate arc, though he couldn't be sure as his speedometer was rendered unreadable because of the undulations of the road surface. Some years later Jean-Christophe Boullion demonstrated a Williams-Renault F1 machine (Rothmans was the event sponsor for several years) at similar speeds, only to give himself a back injury from the bumps...
Financial woes see grids thin
The days of tobacco sponsorship naturally came to an end and it became increasingly difficult for the organisers to make ends meet. The impracticalities of fencing off the public park in order to charge admission fees meant that the whole event had to somehow pay for itself each year. Increasingly, the Irish racing championships pulled out, leaving the Phoenix Park races as stand-alone events and grids began to thin accordingly.
By 2010, it was clear that the the situation had become untenable and Motorsport Ireland pulled the plug on that year's races. After staying silent throughout 2011 as well, organisers gave it one last short in 2012. The races came on the 110th anniversary of the original speed trials and during the 350th anniversary celebrations of the park itself. Once again the Oldtown Circuit was called into use, though by now a number of chicanes slowed competitors along the tree-lined sections of track.
Sadly, 2012 appears to have been the last of the races – no further efforts to revive the event have happened since. In truth it was perhaps inevitable; safety standards were way short of what would be considered acceptable on any other course and the races really were a throwback to another age, where starters dropping a national flag to commence racing was the norm and every circuit housed its race control in an old double deck bus...
One possibility might be to revive the race as a historic meeting, perhaps along the lines of Goodwood's Festival of Speed, but that would lose the thrill of side-by-side competition with modern machinery. Still, there will always be the memories...
This is a historic circuit which is no longer in operation.
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Phoenix Park is located to the west of Dublin city centre in the Republic of Ireland. Dublin's Airport is about a 13 minute drive away.
By public transport from the city centre, Dublin Bus route 37 from Hawkins Street to Blanchardstown Road South will take you to the park entrance at Castleknock Gate, from where it is a short walk along Chesterfield Avenue to where the Oldtown Circuit was based. By rail, Heuston Station it is a short walk to the Parkgate Street entrance of the Park.
Car parks are provided for visitors to the Park and are situated at the Papal Cross, the Lord's Walk and the Phoenix Park Visitor Centre.
Open year round, the park is home to Dublin Zoo and a wide range of other attractions.