Saturday at the Aras

Saturday morning and we arrive at Phoenix Park early to inquire about tours of Áras an Uachtaráin. Tickets are only available in person and on the day (Saturday tours only). It’s 9.30am. The next available tour is at 3.15pm. The welcoming OPW staff, who we meet again in the afternoon, speak with great pride at showing citizens and visitors alike the president’s official residence.
The guided tour of the Áras shows you the rich architecture and interior design of a house first completed in 1751 by Phoenix Park ranger and amateur architect Nathaniel Clements. We’re shown the State Dining Room, where new governments have their first cabinet meeting after ministers receive their seals of office. The table was used for cabinet meetings in Leinster House until 1960. The State Reception Room – recognisable as the scene of presidents being photographed with visiting dignitaries, newly appointed ambassadors, Taoisigh, ministers or judges – contains four inspiring paintings by 17th century artist Thomas Mullen depicting Killarney at different times of the day.
In the State Withdrawing Room we observe the original ceiling, a magnificent chandelier of entwined shamrocks, roses, thistles and leaks commemorating the 1801 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland and Louis XIV couch and chairs gifted from the Palace of Versailles. The mahogany library in the President’s Study lies below a ceiling depicting Juno and the four seasons.
The house has seen much change since the original two-storey brick house was built. It was residence to British viceroys from 1782 to 1922, extended after the Act of Union to reflect its increased official and social importance. The portico and ballroom were added. Formal gardens were laid out in the 1840s, the decade a visit from Queen Victoria prompted the addition of a dining room and drawing room. George V’s visit in 1911 prompted the construction of a west wing.
After independence, it became the home to Britain’s governor-generals to Ireland. After a brief idle period in the 1930s, it became the residence to holders of the new office of president. Yet the house has continued to evolve, sometimes reflecting presidential preferences.
After walking through the house we’re greeted by two new guides, Shadow and Bród. Serious looking, ebullient, they charge towards the back of the house and talk at a policeman they clearly know. These are the president’s two Bernese mountain dogs. They’re friendly and approachable, but the dog-wary tourists among us are initially startled.
They guide us along the walk of the formal gardens, leading on to the upper walled garden, full of colour and precision at this time of year. Standalone 25 minute garden tours began for the first time last month. The president’s garden is full of organic fruit and vegetables, the apples used to make juice for visiting guests. The dogs, who clearly escort tourists outside all the time, wait when we stop to listen to the guide, then grow impatient and charge on to lead the way.
Surely the head of State is around if the dogs are?
‘No, he’s gone west for the weekend,’ explains the guide. ‘Galway United were playing last night.’ The incumbent is a big fan and former club president.
At the end of the tour the canines lead us back to the house, a poetically informal ending to an informative tour.

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