A Legacy of Beauty

Lismore Castle, County Waterford 

Killruddery, County Wicklow

Ireland’s country house gardens are too often one of our lesser known, and insufficiently appreciated, assets. Developed from the 16th century onwards, they reflect the history and evolution of Ireland, changing and evolving as did the country and reflecting not just alterations in taste but also the developments in horticulture, and the introduction of new plant species. Country house gardens were often the places where early scientific research took place, as owners sought better understanding of the terrain, what might grow there, and to what use it could be put. But they were also places of beauty, where rare trees, shrubs and flowers were cultivated with the purpose of captivating the eye and soothing the mind. Whether it be the formality of the gardens at Killruddery, County Wicklow (the finest surviving example of this style in Ireland and Britain) or the classical landscape of Ballyfin, County Laois, the grandeur of Powerscourt, County Wicklow or the Robinsonian romance of Mount Usher, County Wicklow, Ireland has a wealth of spectacular historic gardens, all of which benefit from our rich soil and temperate climate, as well as ample rainfall.
A new two-part documentary, Ireland’s Historic Gardens, written and presented by the Irish Aesthete, begins on Irish television, RTÉ One, tomorrow evening (Sunday 26th September) and tells the story of these sites across the centuries, featuring interviews with many gardeners and garden historians who help to explain how extraordinarily blessed we are with the legacy bequeathed to us by our forebears. And even without any words, the filming of the gardens demonstrates their inherent magic. Do watch, and enjoy, if you can. The second part will be shown the following Sunday, October 3rd, and brings the story up to the present day.

Portumna, County Galway

Abbey Leix, County Laois 

Ireland’s Historic Gardens (Part One) can be seen on Sunday, September 26th on  RTÉ One, 6.30-7.30pm. Part Two will be screened the following Sunday, October 3rd at the same time. 

Step Inside

Doneraile Court, County Cork by Andrea Jameson

Larchill, County Kildare by Alison Rosse 

Tomorrow, Thursday 23rd September, sees the opening of an exhibition in Dublin curated by the Irish Aesthete. Stepping through the Gate: Inside Ireland’s Walled Gardens features specially commissioned paintings by four artists on this theme, the quartet being Lesley Fennell, Andrea Jameson, Maria Levinge and Alison Rosse. All of them are lifelong gardeners and they bring horticultural understanding to the subject, as well as their inherent artistic skills. Garden historian Terence Reeves-Smith has estimated that there are some 8,000 walled gardens on the island of Ireland, in varying states of repair and use. Many have been lost altogether – one can see their crumbling walls in fields around the countryside – but others still serve their original purpose and some have been brought back to life in recent years. The exhibition includes examples of walled gardens in all conditions and sizes, and gives an understanding of how important these sites were – and are – for producing fruit and vegetables across many centuries. But the pictures also show how different artists can respond to the same theme and, in a few instances, to the same gardens, demonstrating how each of us approach a place with our own interpretation of its appearance. 

Enniscoe, County Mayo by Maria Levinge 

Burtown, County Kildare by Lesley Fennell

Stepping through the Gate: Inside Ireland’s Walled Gardens takes place at the Irish Georgian Society, City Assembly House, 58 South William Street, Dublin 2 and opens to the public on Friday 24th September, running for two months.
For more information, please visit www.igs.i

In Circles


In the gardens at Castlewellan, County Down: a large stone circular pool with fountain at its centre. The grounds here were laid out during the second half of the 19th century by the fourth Earl Annesley and then by his brother, the fifth earl who succeeded to title and estate in 1974. Both were keen plantsmen, responsible for establishing many of the rare species which can still be found on the site today, although some of its other features have since been lost, such as a series of 19 greenhouses, five of which were set aside for the cultivation of orchids. Below is a photograph of another pool, this one at the centre of the walled garden which has undergone extensive restoration in recent years.

Highly Idiosyncratic



‘We are situated on the southern shore of the narrow peninsula of the Ards… The House faces almost due south and is but a stone’s throw away from the salt water Lough Strangford…The eastern shore of the Ards is on the Irish Sea and Belfast Lough sweeps right round the northern shore far inland. So narrow is the space between the head of Strangford Lough and that of Belfast Lough that Mount Stewart…experiences island conditions. The climate is sub-tropical…in hot weather we always have extremely heavy dews at night. We do not have an excessive rainfall…we get all the sun of the east coast with its drier conditions…the Gulf Stream running up the Irish Sea washes the shores all round the promontory.’
From a Foreword to The
 Mount Stewart Garden Guide Book written by Edith, Lady Londonderry, 1957.






In the care of the National Trust since the mid-1950s, Mount Stewart, County Down contains one of the most famous, as well as one of the most idiosyncratic, gardens in these islands. The land on which this stands were first purchased by Alexander Stewart in 1744. Both house and owners were gradually aggrandised, the latter eventually becoming Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, Marquesses of Londonderry. Thanks to their ownership of collieries in County Durham, they became fantastically rich in the 19th century, with Mount Stewart being just one of many properties they owned, the best-known being Londonderry House on London’s Park Lane. Mount Stewart was thus only intermittently occupied by the family and Edith, seventh Marchioness would recall that when she first visited there at the start of the last century ‘the dampest, darkest, and saddest place I had ever stayed in, in the winter. Large Ilex trees almost touched the house in some places and sundry other big trees blocked out all light and air.’ She would be responsible for transforming the site into the extraordinary gardens that can be seen there still today. Although her own designer, she was ably assisted in the enterprise by a small team, not least Mount Stewart’s head gardener Thomas Bolas, who had trained at Chatsworth and who, as she noted was ‘able and willing to carry out designs from the roughest plans, and together he and I have worked out the designs, whether of buildings, walls or flower-beds, on the actual sites.’ It was Bolas who understood the particular climate conditions in this part of the country – ample sunshine and not too much rainfall – and knew how best to exploit them. As Neil Porteous – who has been responsible for a sensational restoration of the gardens in recent years, thanks to the mild climate, Edith Londonderry and her team were able ‘to amass an unrivalled collection of rare and tender plants from across the globe, and experiment with bold and exuberant planting schemes.’ Bold and exuberant might be a polite term for eccentric, since Mount Stewart is quite unlike any other garden and yet, like all true eccentrics, convinces thanks to the courage of its own convictions. But before these could be put into effect, the place first had to be made ready. Fortunately when this transformation got underway in the years following the end of the First World War, Edith Londonderry was able to provide work for the demobilised locals who would otherwise have faced unemployment, and she thus found the ample manpower needed to embark on such a large-scale project.






Mount Stewart is divided into a series of compartments (they really are too large for the currently fashionable word ‘room’ to be applicable here) each with its own distinctive character. Outside the west side of the house and approached across a generous flagged terrace is the sunken garden, laid out in the early 1920s and in some respects the most traditional part of the site. A pergola runs around three sides of the lawn reached via flights of stone steps, with the corners shaved off to provide densely planted beds of flowering plants. Beyond the sunken garden one begins to get a better sense of Edith Londonderry’s highly distinctive approach to horticultural design. This is the Shamrock Garden, centred on a 14 foot high topiary harp in yew. The space is enclosed within a hedge of similar height, the top of which featured a range of fantastical topiary creatures, since lost although there are plans to recreate many of them. Meanwhile, laid out on the ground in annual bedding plants is a giant red hand of Ulster. Moving to the rear of the house, one reaches the south-facing Italianate garden, inspired by those Edith Londonderry had seen on visits to such Renaissance sites as the Boboli Gardens in Florence and those at the Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola. Immediately below is the Spanish Garden, the source of its inspiration being the Moorish palaces of Andalusia; one of the most distinctive features here are the flanking arcades of cypress, evoking memories of the ancient world’s aqueducts. The break between Italian and Spanish Gardens is marked by a number of herms, also inspired by those found in classical and Renaissance gardens but in this instance featuring the faces of Circe, the mythological sorceress who bewitched sailors and turned them into the animals – also portrayed here. In 1915 Edith Londonderry and her husband had founded the private Ark Club, its membership composed of friends and admirers who would meet weekly in their London house. As a result of the power she exerted over this group, Edith came to be known as Circe, hence her presence in the grounds of Mount Stewart. Similarly, the other participants in the club were given names, and they are likewise found around the gardens in these whimsical guises, especially on the Dodo Terrace which was developed to the east of the Italian Garden. Here can be seen many well-known figures of the inter-war years. among them, Lord Londonderry as Charley the Cheetah, Winston Churchill Winston the Warlock, while Lady Lavery became Hazel the Hen, John Buchan John the Buck and Sir Philip Sassoon Philip the Phoenix. All of them were portrayed by another of the Mount Stewart team, Thomas Beattie, a local stonemason who in this instance used an early form of cast concrete for his work. The employment of such a material rather than something more orthodox unlines the decidedly unconventional, and yet successful, character of Mount Stewart.


 

Festina Lente


The Plunket family has been mentioned here before, not least the Hon Brinsley Plunket who in November 1927 married Aileen Guinness, eldest daughter of Ernest Guinness (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). The couple were related: the grandmother of Brinsley (always known as Brinny) Plunket had been a Guinness, sister to Aileen’s grandfather. Another curiosity: the groom’s great-great aunt, the Hon Katherine Plunket, who died in 1932 when a month short of her 112the birthday, is recorded as the longest-living person in Ireland. Brinny Plunket was younger brother of Terence (known as Teddy), sixth Lord Plunket. A talented cartoonist who later turned to painting portraits, in 1922 Teddy had married Dorothé Mabel Lewis, illegitimate daughter of the 7th Marquess of Londonderry and American actress Fannie Ward. Teddy and Dorothé were intimate friends of the Duke of York (later George VI) and his wife Elizabeth; the latter was godmother to the couple’s second son Robin in 1925 while the Duke was godfather to their third child Shaun six years later. Both Teddy and Dorothé would be killed in a plane crash in California in February 1938 while on their way to attend a party at William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon estate. Their close links to the royal family meant the couple’s eldest son Patrick, seventh Baron Plunket, would serve as Equerry to Elizabeth II and Deputy Master of the Royal Household until his death in 1975.






The rise of the Plunkets had begun in the late 18th century with William Conyngham Plunket. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he became a lawyer famous for having been lead prosecutor at Robert Emmet’s trial in 1803. Two years later he was made Attorney-General for Ireland and also became a member of the Irish Privy Council. A supporter of Catholic Emancipation, in 1827 he was created Baron Plunket, became Chief Justice of the Irish Common Pleas and later served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Obviously a man of such prominence needed to have a country seat and so in the mid-1780s he took a lease on an estate to the south of Dublin called Old Connaught. Originally there appears to have been a late-medieval tower house on this site, built by a branch of the Walsh family, but this was badly damaged by a fire in 1776 and seven years later the property was leased to an Anglican clergyman, the Rev William Gore, Bishop of Limerick. He embarked on building a new house for himself but died almost as soon as it was finished, and before long the lease was acquired, and then bought out, by William Conyngham Plunket, in whose family it would remain for the next 150 years. As demonstrated by the Hon Katherine, provided they weren’t killed in plane crashes, the Plunkets tended to live long, and the first baron was just six months shy of turning 90 when he died in 1854.  His eldest son, the second baron (father of the aforementioned Hon Katherine Plunket), was a clergyman who rose to become Bishop of Tuam but had no sons, so following his death the title, and Old Connaught, passed to a younger brother. On the third baron’s death, he was succeeded by his eldest son William Plunket who was another clergyman (for generations, male members of this family either joined the church or practised as lawyers). Like several forebears, the fourth baron rose through the ranks of the Church of Ireland, eventually becoming Archbishop of Dublin where he was instrumental in establishing a teacher training school in Kildare Place. That building is long gone (replaced by a mediocre office block housing the Dept of Agriculture) but Archbishop Plunket is commemorated by a statue which depicts him pensively observing his surroundings. In 1863 he married Anne Lee Guinness, and her substantial marriage settlement allowed improvements and extensions to be undertaken at Old Connaught, with both house and gardens benefitting, the former not least by the addition of a large conservatory – since lost – to one side of the building. As mentioned, the archbishop was Brinny Plunket’s grandfather while Anne Lee Guinness was great-aunt of Aileen Guinness, hence the link between the later couple. The archbishop’s eldest son, also William, was a diplomat who served as Governor of New Zealand 1904-10.






What has all the above to do with today’s photographs? These show the restored walled gardens of Old Connaught House. Following his parents’ death in California in 1938, the estate was inherited by their eldest son Patrick, but he and his siblings were raised by a paternal aunt in London and had little to do with Ireland. But even before then the family had largely abandoned the place, leasing it in 1935 to the Christian Brothers who used the house as a senior novitiate school under the name Colaiste Ciaran. The surrounding land was run as a farm and the old gardens used for growing fruit and vegetables. Having subsequently bought the estate from the Plunkets, the order remained there until 1972 when it was decided to close the novitiate school and sell or lease sections of the estate. The house itself remained in the hands of the Christian Brothers until 1999 when finally put on the market with just 12 acres; today the building is divided into a series of flats. Meanwhile, the old walled garden, long cultivated first by the Plunkets and then the brothers, was left to fall into ruin. In 1996 the gardens and stableyard were leased to a charity founded eight years earlier to provide a range of programmes for the disabled and disadvantaged. This body is called Festina Lente (Hurry Slowly) taking its name from the Plunket family motto, and reflects the process whereby the old walled gardens, running to some two and a half acres, were gradually resuscitated, one section reflecting the character of the site in the mid-19th century when Archbishop Plunket and his family would have lived at Old Connaught. Another part of the gardens is largely divided into allotments, filled with vegetables, fruit trees and flowers, just as would once have been the case. Incidentally, the wooden platforms seen on the middle garden’s long ponds are for the sake of terrapins who live here. The gardens (which also feature a shop and cafe) are open daily to the public for free, although donations are always welcome. Well worth supporting, so do consider hurrying along there (and not slowly).

 

 

The Enkindled Spring


This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up and the watery, flickering rushes.



I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, and sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.



And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.


The Enkindled Spring by D.H. Lawrence
Photographs of Balrath House, County Meath (balrathcourtyard.com)

Preparing the Ground

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.


All today’s photographs taken from Lost Demesnes: Irish Landscape Gardening 1660-1845 and Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830

For Ardent Gardeners



To the north-east of the main house at Waterstown, County Westmeath stand the remains of what was once a very substantial walled garden, running to at least four acres. Certainly one of the largest extant examples of this horticultural form dating from the mid-18th century – although now in a very poor condition – the garden consists of a series of four ascending terraces, the outer walls constructed of rubble limestone lined internally of brick, the latter material also used for the terrace walls. Some of these have curved, or corrugated, sections (thereby offering additional shelter to tender plants) while others have infilled arches. That same device also features in the main entrance to the site, which takes the form of a brick-faced triumphal arch (with Diocletian window inserted into the pediment)  flanked by single-storey pavilions. If Waterstown was designed, as is generally the consensus, by Richard Castle then this walled garden must be attributed to him also; the entrance certainly displays just the right amount of eccentrically-used architectural motifs. Today the site is partially used as a farmyard but otherwise stands empty. 


Lighting up the Night



The sad end of the main house at Loughcrew, County Meath is well-known. The building was said to be the subject of a curse: ‘Three times will Loughcrew be consumed by fire. Crows will fly in and out of the windows. Grass will grow on its doorstep.’ And so it came to pass. The house, designed in severe neo-classical style by architect Charles Robert Cockerell in the early 1820s, did indeed suffer three fires, the last occurring in 1964 and leading to the demolition of its remains a few years later, so that now the Naper family, resident on the estate since the 1650s, live in the former yard buildings. Today just parts of the facade’s great Greek Ionic portico show where it once stood, but elsewhere on the surrounding land, more active restoration has taken place. 





A short distance to the west of the remains of the old house at Loughcrew stands a late-medieval church associated with St Oliver Plunkett who was born here in 1629. The church has a large, three-storey residential tower at the west end, as was often the case with such buildings erected during the late 14th and 15th centuries when much of the country was disturbed by feuding between different families and not even religious buildings were safe from attack. Entrance to the church was via a door at the west end and the interior appears always to have been relatively simple, with a single chapel opening on the south side, the upper portion of the window here being divided in two by a central spandrel featuring the Naper coat of arms. Unlike many such sites, the church continued to be used for services throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite being renovated and re-roofed in 1818, it was abandoned 25 years later when a new place of worship was built elsewhere. 





Immediately adjacent to the old church lies the Loughcrew estate’s walled garden, parts of which are believed to date back to the arrival of the Naper family here in the mid-17th century; there is, for example, a classical arched gateway dated 1673. Over the past couple of decades, much of the garden, which had fallen into neglect has been restored and a number of the earlier features – such as a canal and a formal parterre, been re-instated. Some features of an earlier settlement on the site have also been uncovered. Meanwhile, later aspects of a fashionable country house garden, like the 19th century taste for deep herbaceous borders, can once more be found. Loughcrew and its gardens are a work in progress, but already much has been achieved and the future promises even more. 



Over the coming weeks, every evening Loughcrew gardens are hosting a musical Lightscape open to the public. Further details, and information on ticket purchase, can be found at https://loughcrew.com/loughcrew-lightscape 

Intra Muros


A gate giving access to the walled garden on Inisherk Island, part of the estate at Crom Castle, County Fermanagh. This dates from the 1830s, when the present house was built for the Crichton family. The artist and landscape designer William Sawrey Gilpin laid out the demesne here during this period, so presumably he was responsible for the walled garden also. Running to some three acres, one side – that facing south as customary – was devoted to heated green houses where exotic fruits like peaches and pineapples were grown.


At the centre of the garden stood a palm house that rose 30 feet; it has gone, but the remains of the lily pond that once occupied the centre of the building still remains (albeit bereft of lilies, or even water). The walls on all sides are of brick (more often they are of stone, except on the south side where brick was used because it better retained heat) and have undergone some repair. The best surviving feature are the handsome wrought-iron gates survive on the north and east sides of the garden.