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In the north-west corner of the garden are tall stalks of black bamboo with shiny green leaves.
Wooden sliding doors surround the north and east sides. An image of a long-legged crane bird is laid out in coloured pebbles in the tiled floor.
The design and landscape are modelled on the classical gardens of Suzhou in eastern China. Only, this is in Clontarf.
“This is a great little secret in the park,” said Noel McEvoy, Dublin City Council’s executive parks superintendent last Thursday.
Tucked in at the eastern end of St Anne’s Park – past the walled rose garden and beside the old clock tower – Dublin’s Suzhou garden is closed at the moment to the public.
But the council has plans, albeit farish in the future, to renovate the park with the help of Chinese counterparts.
A New Home
McEvoy walks into the rose garden beside the clock tower in St Anne’s Park, and onwards under a brick arch.
McEvoy lifts the railings to the garden and slips in. It’s closed for maintenance right now, he says.
“The garden was brought over for the Bloom festival in 2012,” McEvoy says.
It was donated by the People’s Republic of China and opened by the then Chinese Ambassador Luo Linquan on 4 February 2012.
Workers in the Suzhou Garden Bureau in China had designed it and put it together.
“After the festival, the council was looking for a home for it. I instantly got onto them to say that we wanted it,” he says.
McEvoy thought that St Anne’s Park was the ideal place for it.
“You have the Austrian pines and the birch trees,” he says, pointing around. They enclose the garden giving it a sense of peacefulness, he says.
McEvoy then looks at the clock tower.
“You got the old western empirical architecture blending with the eastern oriental garden. It works really well,” he says.
Turning right past the arch, the Suzhou garden sits through an opening in a bush.
Gardeners transplanted magnolias, bamboo, osmanthus and plum trees as they moved the garden over from the Bloom Festival in Phoenix Park to St Anne’s Park.
Gardeners from Suzhou also brought over wooden pavilions and intricately tiled floors for their Dublin garden.
The garden was fenced off in timber at the Bloom Festival, he says. “We needed to surround the garden in something better lasting.”
McEvoy slaps the top of the granite wall which now encloses the garden. “We got this from the floozie,” he says.
McEvoy used the granite stones that used to surround the reclining Anna Livia monument, also known as the Floozie in the Jacuzzi.
The first of China’s Suzhou gardens date back to the 11th century, says Isabella Jackson, an assistant professor in Chinese History at Trinity College Dublin.
“There’s over 60 still there but at their height, there was apparently 200,” says Jackson.
She would hop on the bullet train to Suzhou from Shanghai when she lived there in 2010, she says. “It’s a bustling city but they have all these areas of calm in it.”
These gardens – which are a UNESCO world heritage site – aren’t like a typical European park, she says. “Even the big gardens are made up of small interlinking spaces.”
They’re connected by round doors or arches. “It makes each section feel quite private,” she says.
These days, wealthy business people and politicians retire to Suzhou, she says.
The gardens are means for them to show off their wealth to one another, Jackson says.
“It shows that they weren’t caught up with money or worldly things, that they had their minds on a higher culture,” she says.
Some of these gardens are used as venues to host poetry parties. “Some of these gardens would have almost mazes of slowly moving water,” says Jackson.
“One game they would play is to have one glass of wine drifting along this little stream. When the wine glass reaches you, you would take a sip and read a line of poetry,” Jackson says.
The biggest garden in Suzhou is about half the size of St Stephen’s Green and ironically called the Humble Administrator’s Garden, says Jackson.
“I was there with my mother and we both agreed there was nothing very humble about it,” she says.
In the Future
McEvoy stands in the centre of the St Anne’s Suzhou garden and points to the weathered wood in the surrounding three pavilions. “They weren’t made for Irish weather.”
The wood is rotting, he says. That’s why St Anne’s Suzhou Garden is closed at the moment.
But Dublin City Council is working with gardeners from Suzhou to renovate the garden – although it’s been delayed somewhat.
The Suzhou gardeners will be helping out with building of the roofs and restoration of the pavilions, McEvoy says. The methods, means and materials aren’t familiar to industry here in Ireland.
Renovations won’t start until at least 2022, he says.
“People were supposed to come over from Suzhou at the start of this year but then, of course, Covid stopped all of that.”
“The plan is to take down the wooden roofs of the pavilion and put this on instead,” McEvoy says.
He slides a photo out from an envelope. It shows a roof that curves sharply to a peak, lined with turquoise tiles.
“Then it would really look the part,” he says.