One does not, as a rule, associate the late Knight of Glin with gardens (although his wife, Olda FitzGerald is a very fine gardener who has done much splendid work at Glin Castle). However, in 1976 with Edward Malins he co-authored a wonderful book called Lost Demesnes: Irish Landscape Gardening 1660-1845. The fact that an architectural historian should have been involved in this project draws attention to a crucial and often overlooked fact: that any examination of a country house needs to involve an exploration also if the building’s setting. Also, and just as importantly, it is extremely challenging to appreciate properly the layout of a country house demesne if the property which once stood at its centre – and indeed gave reason for its existence – no longer stands: one thinks of sites like Rockingham, County Roscommon and Heywood, County Laois which are like beautiful frames missing the picture which they once surrounded. Rather like books on country houses, both before and since, there have been publications looking at Irish gardens. A book of that name, for example, written by Edward Hyams, appeared in 1967. But this focussed on individual places, as have many of its successors. What set Lost Demesnes apart was that while naturally containing descriptions of many gardens – most of them, as the title indicates, long gone – the book contained a chronological account of the evolution of horticulture in Ireland across almost two centuries. And, as was so often was the case with the Knight’s work, underlying this scholarly investigation was a plea for better understanding and preservation of what country house gardens remained.
In his Foreword to Lost Demesnes, Desmond Guinness noted that ‘the life expectancy of a garden is short, shorter by far than that of the buildings in whose shadow it may chance to lie. And memory of it is shorter still, for if those who described Irish country houses are few and far between, fewer still are those who had anything at all interesting to say about their gardens.’ What makes Lost Demesnes both so significant, and engaging, was precisely that it gathered together all surviving fragments of memory and knowledge, and for the first time presented them to the reader in a coherent narrative. The text is also complemented by an abundance of illustrations (and this is where, one suspects, the Knight played a leading role) that further help when it comes to understanding the specific characteristics of the Irish country house garden and how this evolved over time.
In 1980, four years after Lost Demesnes had appeared, a companion volume was published, Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830, again involving Edward Malins as one of the co-authors but this time working with garden historian Patrick Bowe. The second book was intended to continue the story begun by its predecessor, as the two writers make plain in their introduction, bringing the story of Irish gardens up to what was then the present day but is now more than 40 years ago. Indicative of how quickly circumstances can change, the book closes with a discussion of four ‘modern’ gardens largely created in the second half of the last century by private individuals. These are Birr Castle, County Offaly; Malahide Castle, County Dublin; Glenveagh Castle, County Donegal; and Mount Congreve, County Waterford. Of this quartet, only one remains in private ownership (Birr Castle), the other three now being in the care of either the state or the relevant local authority. And as Malins and Bowe noted, such ‘majestic paradises of concentrated immensity’, displaying singular vision and grit in their creation, would likely ‘never again be made by private individuals if taxation continues at the present penal level.’
At least part of the fascination of Lost Demesnes and its successor lies in discovering places which have since disappeared, which of course is implied in the former work’s title. The earliest, Baroque-style gardens have fared especially poorly in this country, with only a handful surviving, of which the one in Killruddery, County Wicklow is the most notable example, although fragments of others remain in places like Antrim Castle, County Antrim. Otherwise we must rely on a variety of sources, such as contemporary topographical paintings of the likes of Howth Castle, County Dublin, Carton, County Kildare, Stradbally Hall, County Laois and Mount Ievers, County Clare, all of which show what was later swept away as fashions in garden design changed. Another fascinating resource, especially for famous but now vanished gardens such as that created by Viscount Molesworth at Breckdenstown, County Dublin, is John Rocque’s map of County Dublin produced in 1757, Another invaluable resource, much cited by garden historians, is Mrs Delany’s correspondence; it helps that she was herself a keen gardener at Delville (another sadly lost demesne) and an excellent draughtsman, so that she provides both verbal and visual descriptions of sites around the country. Later, painters and engravers began to produce their own images of Irish gardens and once photography became reasonably common in the 19th century, these places were also widely recorded, not least because by that time gardening was of interest to a wider section of society than had earlier been the case. So the Malins/Bowe volume is replete with photographs from c.1860 onwards offering us an idea of how those great Victorian gardens looked at a time when labour was cheap: included, for example, are two pictures taken in the 1890s of the parterre and terrace gardens at Woodstock, County Kilkenny which demonstrate the enormous work required to maintain such spots in pristine condition. The singular combination of interest and effort are required both to establish and sustain a garden, and this is what makes them so vulnerable to loss, especially in Ireland where our temperate climate means Nature will quickly reclaim any ground she has surrendered to a gardener. Lost Demesnes and Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830 were both pioneers in the field, and since then much more research has been undertaken, and published, on the subject of Irish garden history, not least by Drs Finola O’Kane and Vandra Costello. But here, as in other fields of study, it is always worth noting trailblazers who prepared the ground for those who followed.