Most Dubliners get their first glimpse of exotic wildlife in the Phoenix Park, the city’s glorious 1,750-acre green lung. It’s there they first encounter elephants, tigers, cheetahs and that other endangered species, Cricketus dublinensis.

Most days in summer those white-clad players can be seen on two neighbouring grounds just off Chesterfield Road which runs for 4km through the Park. The historic clubs have been long in the shade but both see hope of significant progress this season and in the years ahead.

Of course, cricketers have roamed the park with only deer for company long before the Zoological Gardens was opened in 1831. It was precisely 100 years prior to that date that the Dublin Journal reported that the sons of the lord lieutenant had been seen playing cricket in the park. This reference pre-dates the foundation of the famous clubs at Hambledon and Marylebone in England. The boys’ father, Lionel Sackville, was the Duke of Dorset and served twice as King George II’s man in Ireland. The brothers’ game in the Phoenix Park – no other players were mentioned – is the earliest credible report of cricket in Ireland.

As the game grew here, the Phoenix Park was at the centre of much of the action, with the first game for which a score and report survives taking place there in 1792 – a youngster from Meath called Arthur Wellesley took part and was hailed by the Freeman’s Journal as “active and remarked for a promising player”. Wellesley grew up to become a celebrated general and prime minister, known better as the Duke of Wellington.

The oldest club, Phoenix, was formed there in 1830 by a group including the father of Charles Stuart Parnell, and Ireland played its first international on their ground in 1855.

The club moved around a bit, even spending a season or two near Baggot Street, before the road was built through the park and they moved to their current home in 1847. The park authorities first insisted that the fence was removed out of season so as not to impede horse riders, but after the ground was badly cut up over its first winter, they were allowed build a permanent enclosure.

The golden era for cricket in the park was the last half of the 19th century when successive viceroys acted as patrons from the Vice-Regal Lodge, now Áras an Úachtaráin. In 1856, the 7th Earl of Carlisle asked Charles Lawrence, the Phoenix professional, to build a ground for him which was soon described by Lillywhite’s Annual as possessing a “velvet sod”. Carlisle was quite an eccentric and would insist on keeping the scorebook; he hosted at least two games a week all summer long.

The Earl also provided a ground across the road from his home for a new club, Civil Service, when it formed in 1863, and the number of grounds grew until by 1910 there were 19 cricket squares in the park.

Phoenix and Civil Service are the only ones to survive, and they co-exist today on either side of the Citadel Dog Pond, which provides a target for ambitious six hitters. There were three other grounds within a hundred metres of Phoenix, homes to the Royal Irish Constabulary, Workingmen’s, and Garrison clubs. Near where the Papal Cross and the Polo Grounds are now there were several public grounds where junior league games took place, but the arrival of independence meant changed priorities and by 1926 these were in a poor state. Alfie Byrne, the independent TD, raised the matter in the Dáil, asking the Minister for Finance would he “make arrangements for their restoration”. Ernest Blythe replied, “The demand for cricket facilities was not found to be sufficient to justify the maintenance of the enclosure referred to, and the surrounding fence which had been falling into disrepair was accordingly removed.”

Other grounds were based in the Ordnance Survey HQ, the Royal Hibernian Military School (RHMS) – which is now St Mary’s Hospital, and close to the Magazine Fort.

The Leinster Senior League, currently celebrating its centenary, kicked off its first season with a Phoenix Park derby match between Civil Service and the RHMS, which educated the orphaned children of members of the British armed forces in Ireland from 1771. With the withdrawal of the crown military apparatus in 1922 the school moved to Kent.

It wasn’t the end of the Park’s cricketers and men of war – a 1941 Luftwaffe raid on Dublin killed 28 people, but also had a small effect on the sport. A bomb fell in the vicinity of the Dog Pond, blowing a crater 20 feet deep, uprooting trees and smashing most of the Phoenix pavilion windows. Several large rocks crashed through the roof but the groundsman Foley and his family survived, although his wife was treated for her injuries.

The playing area was given a complete top dressing of soil and stones, meaning that afternoon’s game against YMCA was postponed and for the next week dozens of members set about clearing the ground. The roof of the clubhouse was repaired mostly with cardboard and broken slates – new ones were scarce in wartime – but they couldn’t source the glass to repair the windows until the season was over. Some years after the war ended the government of West Germany sent Phoenix a cheque for £219.

There are bigger cheques floating around these days, and one senior club member admits that a high five-figure sum has been spent assembling a star-studded XI which next Saturday takes on Merrion in the IBI League Cup semi-final. Internationals James Shannon and Simi Singh, the Phoenix marquee players, are in the runs, sparking hopes of a new era of success up in the Park to add to the rich story of Ireland’s cricketing birthplace.