Rewind - Dublin Zoo

By Sean Heffernan

“Oh thunder and lightning is no lark, when Dublin City is in the dark, so if you’ve any money go up to the park and view the Zoological Gardens”.

So warbled the late great Ronnie Drew about this venerable Dublin institution and national treasure based in The Phoenix Park, practically next to last weeks’ topic, Áras an Uachtaráin.

Rewind dublin Zoo compressor

Dublin Zoo was first opened on a four-acre site in 1831, There was much excitement across the city when in 1836 an elephant made its debut after being gifted to Dublin from London Zoo.

Would you believe the thatched entrance to this famous attraction is nearly 200 years old having been built in 1833.

It has grown bigger and bigger over the years and is now the third most-visited tourist attraction in Ireland with over 1.25m visitors a year. The Cliffs of Moher and Guinness Storehouse lie in second and first positions respectively.

It is now also home to over 400 animals, a position its founders would have scarcely believed it could reach at the official opening.

Initially it was run on a voluntary basis with members of the Society taking turns to ensure the animals were looked after, as well as actively working to get more visitors throughout the doors.

However the admission price of six pence was a price the vast bulk of the city’s inhabitants could not in anyway afford.

The decision in 1840 to allow people to visit for just a penny, proved a great success, as the vast increase in visitors actually led to an increase in revenue, which in turn meant the Society could buy more animals from other zoos, thus making it an even more attractive place to visit.

In the 1860s, revenue from visitors, and donations from rich supporters meant they were able to build a Lion House, Monkey House and Aquarium.

As the years past and its reputation grew, it began to receive ‘gifts’ of giraffes, baboons and snow leopards amongst others, from Irishmen in influential positions in UK colonies abroad.


Sadly, with poaching on the rise, the issue of conservationism was ever more on the rise, and Dublin Zoo played a leading role in the international conferences and discussions that were taking place on how best to save species from becoming extinct.

All these sterling efforts are continuing and being led by Director Leo Oosterweghel, who joined from Melbourne Zoo in 2001. 

For many a person born and reared on this emerald isle, one will often think about this venerable institution alongside another from our television screens.

For it was here that Bosco the lovable red-haired puppet, with presenters Frank and Grainne, would tell us in song that “We’re all going to the zoo tomorrow, and you can come along too”.

He would then leave his cosy little box and the camera would cut to one of the many enclosures as Bosco said hello to the tigers, Penguins and many other animals in segments of this very popular children’s show broadcast on RTÉ 2.

Another story of note is that of the elephant who escaped of its own accord, due a famous event over Dublin startling her no end.

In 1941 a number of bombs were dropped by German warplanes over Dublin, with the bulk of them falling in Dublin’s North Strand, killing 28 people, injuring 98 others and damaging if not destroying over 300 buildings.

One of the bombs landed in the Phoenix Park leaving one hell of a crater in the aftermath.

The noise and the vibrations of the explosion startled the nearby animals in the zoo so much the place erupted in pandemonium.

Well, one of the elephants was quite the clever clogs and managed to open the gate to her enclosure with its trunk before trampling over a fence to freedom . . . or so it thought.

It was found cowering in one of the ponds in the Phoeno, but a large bag of nuts soon coaxed the fear out of the giant animal, and it walked with its keeper back to the enclosure without much difficulty.

Zoo sits on 70 acres 

The much-loved facility now takes over approximate 28 hectares or 70 acres of the Dublin 8 Park, and it stretches from Chesterfield Avenue to beside Blackhorse Avenue at one end, and Áras and Uachtaráin (which has ceded many acres of land to it over the years), and the headquarters of An Garda Síochána at the other.

I must say that despite my advancing years, I still jump at the opportunity to go with my sister, brother-in-law and their two kids to the zoo.

Seeing the baby monkey or gorillas annoy the living daylights out of the grandad is a joy to behold, and worth the admission fee alone; as yet again the elder of the group moves to another part of the enclosure, lets off another loud “hrrrmph!”, and sits down.

However, it is not long before the cheeky babies are once again causing him all sort of annoyance with their hilarious mischief!

With the 25/66/67 buses dropping you just a stone’s throw from Dublin Zoo, isn’t it time you rekindled your childhood fascination and make another visit?

For more information on the zoo, or to find out information on ticket prices, please visit

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