From Country Life, 1903:
“Though Ireland is now perhaps the worst wooded country of Europe, it at one time was rich in forests. Before the invasion of the English, splendid woods were to be found round Eblana, as Dublin was then called. The fair green of Oxmantown was once covered with woods that extended westward over the whole of what is now the Phoenix Park, that William Rufus drew the timber for the roof of Westminster Hall, where, as the chronicle of Dr. Hanmer has it, no English spider webbeth or breedeth to this day.’’
Oxmantown, of course, was what we now know as Dublin 7, comprising the Four Courts, Church Street and Smithfield back as far as Grangegorman. A millennium ago, it must have looked something like the image above.
Nathaniel Burton, in his History of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (1843) confirms the Westminster Hall story, and adds another: “It is certain that some of the shops in Old Church Street a few years ago, possessed heavy oak bars for securing the windows, which were of Oxmantown growth.”
Some attribute the preservation of the bodies in St Michan’s crypt, Church Street, to its location on the edge of this ancient oak forest. There has been a church at St Michan’s since 1095, and its curtilage – and possibly even its graveyard – was originally much larger than today, extending up Church Street to the edge of May Lane, where skeletons were discovered during pipe-laying works in 2011.
Bow Street, onto which the main entrance of the current church fronts, is far older even than St Michan’s itself – rumour has it that it follows the route of a very old road which once ran down the east coast of Ireland – the Slighe Midluachra. Archaeological investigations have uncovered a Bronze Age mound in the vicinity of Hammond Lane, near where the river’s edge would once have been.
By the 16th century, Oxmantown Forest was long gone, but the tradition of trees in Smithfield continued, with lessees of land in the area being required to plant trees. Fruit trees were everywhere, and there was a Great Orchard at Grangegorman.
Subsequently, the town dump at Phoenix Street was replaced by a bowling green and gravel walk shaded by elms and sycamores. Things were now on the up for Smithfield, intended for development as an elite residential quarter with its very own cattle and horse market. An interesting combination which never quite took off, although some aristocracy had houses there for a brief time before the livestock superseded them.
More on the development of Smithfield, including the Earl of Bective’s house at 33 Smithfield (above) here.
Westminster Hall, built of Oxmantown oak, remains in place to this day!