Thanks to the Gulf Stream, an Atlantic Ocean current originating in the Gulf of Mexico, there are portions of Ireland’s south-west coastline that enjoy a more temperate climate than might otherwise be expected. As a result, the area has long attracted garden enthusiasts keen to exploit the opportunities provided. One of those was Belfast-born John Annan Bryce, who having enjoyed a successful business career in Asia, retired to become a Liberal MP and to spend more time in his country of origin. Bryce and his family had already visited this part of County Cork on many occasions when in 1910 he decided to buy a small island called Garnish or Illnacullin (meaning island of holly) off Glengarriff Harbour in Bantry Bay. Until then owned by the British War Office, the island runs to just 37 acres and at the time of its purchase was composed primarily of rock with a Martello Tower erected at the highest point in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. Otherwise Ilnacullin had little to recommend it as a site, and certainly bore no resemblance to its appearance today when visitors can easily gain the impression they have somehow stumbled into a garden in Italy.
Bryce’s first task was to make the island capable of supporting plantlife. For three years until the outbreak of the First World War, some 100 workmen were employed to bring over soil from the mainland, as well as to detonate explosives in the rock so that trees could take sufficient root in the cracks created. A large number of Scots and Austrian pines together with wind-resistant Californian conifers were placed around the outer perimeter of the island, thereby creating a shelter for the inner portion where the more formal gardens would be established. Thanks to the protection this dense belt of trees offers camellias, magnolias, azaleas and tree ferns now all flourish in abundance. While Bryce was a highly knowledgeable plantsman, he was not a designer. Therefore he called on the expertise of the English landscape architect Harold Peto who produced a master plan for the island. Not all of Peto’s work was eventually executed: the most notable missing element is a five-storey house meant to have been build adjacent to the Martello Tower (one floor of which was to serve as a music room). Instead the gardener’s cottage was adapted as a residence for the family.
The outstanding aspects of Peto’s design to have been accomplished and still visible are the walled garden and the formal grounds beyond. With stone towers at each corner (one climbs higher than the others to act as a bell tower) the walled garden is entered through a series of gates at mid-point of each wall, those at the top and bottom being more elaborate in design than the other two. That at the lowest point provides access to a wide expanse of lawn at the far end of which is an Italianate pavilion called the Casita, built of Bath stone with oak beams. Loggias on either side lead to the central tea house in which Bryce originally hung his collection of old master drawings. Similarly many pieces of antique sculpture were once generously scattered about the site but many of these had to be sold by the next generation: sufficient remain in situ to give a sense of how it must originally have looked. Meanwhile beyond the Casita lies a sunked garden focussed around a lily pool beyond which steps lead to an open-air gallery where Rosso Antico columns with white marble Ionic capitals frame a view across the bay towards the Caha Mountains. Ilnacullin remained in the ownership of Bryce’s son Roland until his death in 1953 when the island was bequeathed to the Irish state, in the care of which it has remained ever since.