Now this is a blog title I can work with.
For the non-Irish readers of this site, Áras is an Irish language word meaning ‘House’. The President of Ireland lives in a big stately manor called Áras an Uachtaráin (the President’s House) in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. It was built as a private home for the Phoenix Park ranger Nathaniel Clements in 1751, before being purchased and extended in 1781 as the summer residence of the Viceroy of Ireland. The Viceroy was the monarch’s representative in Ireland. He kept his winter residence in Dublin Castle.
The problem with Dublin Castle was that it was also a jail, housing those pesky Fenian Republicans who allegedly were rowdy and disrupted his efforts to have summer high tea. It was also rife with disease and pestilence. He needed somewhere more convivial to company.
After independence it was maintained as a British house in the Irish Free State from where British concerns in the newly independent Ireland were managed. When Ireland got her first President – Douglas Hyde – in 1938, he moved into the house temporarily. Because it was the living embodiment of colonial rule a decision was taken that it needed to knocked down and replaced with something more Irish. However then came 1939 – known elsewhere as World War 2, but as Ireland remained neutral during the war it was called ‘The Great Emergency in Europe’ over here). Hyde decided that the house was just fine, and with a lick of paint and a bit of spit and polish it would do perfectly.
It has remained the official residence of the President ever since (the current incumbent Michael D. Higgins is our ninth president). And it’s open to the public.
Say what? Well on Saturdays if you are hardy enough to haul your bones to the Phoenix Park Visitors’ Centre at 9.30am, tickets for guided tours of the house throughout the day, will be handed out. They are limited in number. My friend who lives beside the park obtained two tickets for the 3pm tour today. Who was I to refuse?
So we were picked up at 3pm in the blue minibus with the presidential logo and driven by our tour-guide to the mansion.
At the gate security refused us entry, and we were told to clear the roadway. Three stately black cars with the Irish flag on the bonnet drove past at speed. The President had clearly been out to the Spar, and was now returning with a six-pack of Heineken and a spice-bag for his Saturday evening dinner.
We were finally allowed in, and deposited on the east wing of the house into the garage. It was the cleanest garage I have ever seen. There sitting resplendent on a slightly raised stage sat the presidential 1947 Rolls Royce. It is currently resting, as repairs are being carried out on it. It looked stateswomanlike (for nearly all of my adult life the Irish President has been female so this seems like the appropriate word).
Then onward into the main house and the staterooms. The president’s private apartment was off limits, although I was hoping Michael D. would need to charge his phone and call downstairs to say hello.
The inside of the house was, as you would expect – ornate, extravagant, stately, sombre and plush. I have been in many stately homes over the years in my travels as a tourist, so there’s no real point in getting too descriptive. It just felt slightly special as it was the house of the head of state. My head of state.
The gardens are truly beautiful though – so rich and verdant. The visitors’ book was open on the page where Queen Liz had signed – we were warned specifically however not to sign this book – we were not official visitors – we were merely the plebs who were paying for this beauty.
Rumours state that the White House in Washington DC was based on the Aras. Or vice versa. I can see why – they are similar in design, colour and style, and were built around the same time. Maybe that was just the fashion in architecture at the time. Who knows? (A historian probably.)
The President of Ireland is a figurehead. He has no real political power – and in fact is banned from membership of any political party. His role is apolitical. Although of course, until Mary Robinson was president, and she revitalized the role, the presidency was a retirement home for the grandees of the Irish political establishment.
I saw the ‘diaspora lamp’ on the upstairs window at the front of the house, and it made me smile. When Mary Robinson became president in 1991 she put the lamp there as a beacon to Irish emigrants abroad that they would always be welcome at home. And that the lamp would only be extinguished when they had all come back. It’s been burning ever since. I felt like it was my lamp. Well I’ve come home, haven’t I?
The tour took an hour. The guide was friendly, knowledgeable and clearly passionate about his job (although if I was to give him notes I’d tell him to use the word ‘essentially’ a bit more sparingly. I gave up count at number 29.)
It was a wonderful afternoon. Go check it out yourself if you get a chance. It’s free you know.