Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens was founded on the grounds of the Willsbrook Estate in the southern part of Dublin city. Willsbrook was an early 18th century house that stood just off the old road to Milltown, which is now Ranelagh Road, the main road through present-day Ranelagh. This was the primary route into Dublin from the south and can be seen on Rocque’s map of 1753 as the ‘Dublin Road’. It is clearer still on Rocque’s map of 1773, just before the establishment of the gardens.
Willsbrook originally stood within the boundaries of the medieval farm of St Sepulchre. Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the estate became Church of Ireland property, and in the 1750s was leased to Rt Rev. Dr William Barnard, Bishop of Derry. As the seat of the richest diocese in the country, the estate’s reputation as a place of hospitality for Dublin’s high society was born. When Dr Barnard died in 1768, the grounds were taken over by William Castel Hollister. Hollister came from a family of church organ tuners and was himself a harpsichord maker. Tales of the success of pleasure gardens in London must have influenced his decision to utilise Willsbrook as a place of public entertainment, and in 1775 Dublin’s Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens came into being, over thirty years after the formation of its namesake in London.
It is interesting to note that Ranelagh Gardens in London derives its name from the estate owned by the Earl of Ranelagh, an Irish peer descended from an area around Glenmalure in Co. Wicklow. These gardens were considered ‘one of those public places of pleasure which is not to be equalled in Europe’ and ‘the resort of people of the first quality’. It was a space representative of an era during which the pursuit of cultural repertoire outlined the growing emergence of a new identity – a public person of taste and refinement.
There are invariably strong links between London and Dublin pleasure gardens. This was primarily due to influential visitors that were consistently revolving between both cities. London’s Ranelagh was generally open from April through to the end of July, a time when the House of Parliament was sitting, thus ensuring that the attendees included serving parliament ministers. Similarly, the frequenters of Dublin’s Ranelagh included the Duke of Leinster, Lord Charlemont, Lord Moir, Lord Norbury, and John Hely Hutchinson, the then provost of Trinity College, many of whom would have had business in London.
The events that took place in Dublin’s Ranelagh Gardens are playfully recounted in the following lyric, which describes the general good-will of the audience, the fashion of the time, and the ritualistic manner of promenade tied up with one’s outward appearance, both in terms of dress and behaviour:
‘Along the grass full many a group
Are pacing slow, in lightsome talk;
Full powdered wig and swelling hoop
Flutter along the velvet walk.
Coy ribands wave on breast and waist;
Rings flash, and laces’ golden glow
Display the deep matured taste
Of blooming maid and brilliant beau.
Now comes a light-heeled gallant by,
In ruffles, sword, and curled toupee;
While glitters in his anxious eye
The jest he’ll give the world to-day.’
It should be noted that Ranelagh was not the only pleasure garden in Dublin, with its most notable competitor being the Rotunda Gardens. The Rotunda was first laid out in 1749 by Bartholomew Mosse to facilitate funding for the construction of a new hospital in the north inner city, and went on to become a fixture of the Dublin cultural scene in the second half of the 18th century. The construction of the Rotunda’s hall in 1767 defined their reputation as a place of concert and promenade, with these social events attracting ‘a third of the members of both houses of parliament’. Although the well-off were the chief guests, the mix of attendant classes ensured a convivial atmosphere at most events, where the nobility (in particular their dress) were openly admired by the plainer citizens, who enjoyed sharing company with high society.
The Rotunda’s hall was large enough to rival Dublin’s main musical venue on Fishamble Street, and it hosted concerts from some of the finest composers of the day. By contrast, Ranelagh’s popularity suffered from the lack of a similar venue, where it was subjected to the unpredictable whims of the Irish climate.
Competition between Dublin’s Ranelagh and Rotunda Gardens is evident through their involvement with the spectacle of hot-air ballooning, which was popular at the time. In 1784, an air balloon was exhibited in the grounds of the Rotunda. However, it was at Ranelagh Gardens that Richard Crosbie made his famous ascent on 19th January 1785. This was a major cultural event at the time, occurring only two years after the Montgolfier brothers’ first flight in France, and was said to have drawn at least 20,000 spectators.
The timing of the balloon flight coincided with a decline in the popularity of pleasure gardens during this period. There is a suggestion that there was a general change in English society in the 1780s, brought about by enlightened thought across a broad spectrum of public life, from literary subjects to political ideas. The transition from beer to wine at the table is but one example of a change in fashionable taste that is emblematic of this. It is reasonable to conclude that the fall in popularity of pleasure gardens falls in line with this general shift in public taste.
Ranelagh Gardens was shut by Hollister in 1787, and while briefly re-opened by an entrepreneur named Kolleter shortly after, never came back to life. It lives on today as Ranelagh Gardens Park. It is much smaller than it was in the 18th century, and far less exuberant, but it has nonetheless had a major impact on the development Ranelagh – not least in giving the area its present-day name.
 Kelly, Deirdre Four Roads to Dublin (Dublin 1995) p. 40-60.
 Dodsley, J. London and its Environs Described v.5 (London 1761) p. 59, 243.
 Kelly, Deirdre Four Roads to Dublin (Dublin 1995) p. 44.
 Gerard, Frances Picturesque Dublin: Old and New (Dublin, 1898) p. 359.
 Campbell Ross, Ian (ed.) Public Virtue, Public Love (Dublin 1986) p. 20.
 Peter, Ada Sketches of Dublin (Dublin 1907) p. 46.
 Kelly, Deirdre Four Roads to Dublin (Dublin 1995) p. 40.
 Campbell Ross, Ian (ed.) Public Virtue, Public Love (Dublin 1986) p. 118.
 Campbell Ross, Ian (ed.) Public Virtue, Public Love (Dublin 1986) p. 72.
 Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Archive, Volume 55, Year 1985 (London 1785) p. 72.
 Brown, P.A. The French Revolution in English History, (London, 1918) pp. 2-8.
 Kelly, Deirdre Four Roads to Dublin (Dublin 1995) p. 47.
Sources of Illustrations
Illustration 1: Glucksman Map Library, Trinity College Dublin.
Illustration 2: Kelly, Deirdre Four Roads to Dublin Dublin 1995 p. 4.
Illustration 3: Kelly, Deirdre Four Roads to Dublin Dublin 1995 p. 13.