In Harmony with Nature


‘Ireland is far more favoured by latitude than Britain, is healthier and has a much milder climate, so that snow rarely lasts for more than three days. Hay is never cut in summer for winter use nor are stables built for their beasts. No reptile is found there nor could a serpent survive; for although serpents have often been brought from Britain, as soon as the ship approaches land they are affected by the scent of the air and quickly perish…The island abounds in milk and honey, nor does it lack vines, fish, and birds.’
The Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed c.731 A.D.
‘The Irish climate is favourable to many plants which, though neglected, do better in Ireland than the countries from which they are imported.’
Dr Peter Lombard, De Regno Hiberniae Commentarius, 1600. 





Across the centuries, observers have remarked on the kindly character of the Irish climate. While conditions vary somewhat from east to west, and from north to south, this island does not, as a rule, suffer from extremes of temperature: despite being on the same latitude as Newfoundland in Canada, our winters are generally mild (only dropping a few degrees below 0 °C) and our summers cool (even at their highest they seldom exceed 25 °C). Although winds are plentiful, they are rarely extreme and rainfall is abundant: the eastern half of the country averages 750-1,000 mm of rain per annum, that to the west 1,000-1,400 mm. These circumstances are further aided by the character of Irish soil, much of it rich and fertile. We enjoy a temperate climate perfect for the cultivation of a wide diversity of plants. And yet the cultivation of those plants and the creation of gardens in which to enjoy them, came relatively late to Ireland. 





During the last century, in the aftermath of the First World War and the War of Independence, many Irish country house gardens were lost. The breaking up of the great estates, together with increased taxation and rising labour costs, combined to make the maintenance of these sites unfeasible for owners. Just as many country houses fell into dilapidation and ruin, so too did their surrounding demesnes and gardens. But it was not entirely a story of loss. From the late 19th century onwards, a number of Irish houses and estates had been taken over by Catholic religious orders, for use as schools, seminaries and so forth. Often the new owners sought to maintain the grounds of their property, thereby ensuring the survival of their predecessors’ work. Furthermore, in the early 1990s, growing public awareness and appreciation of our historic sites led to the establishment of a Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Programme. Grant-aided by the European Regional Development Fund and with a £4 million allocation, this scheme oversaw the restoration of some 24 gardens throughout the country.
Despite straitened circumstances, throughout the 20th century some country house owners continued to maintain their gardens and, in addition, a number of spectacular  new ones were created. Across the millennia, gardening has been a passion exerting authority over some property owners and from which, as a rule, they never wish to be released. Happily, this remains the case in Ireland. And while, in the past, that passion might have been largely private, to be shared only with family and friends, today more and more of our finest gardens are open to the public, permitting all of us to revel in their outstanding qualities.


In Harmony with Nature:: The Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 is now open at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, the City Assembly House, South William Street, Dublin and will continue to the end of July. For further information, please see In Harmony with Nature, the Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)


 

Drumcondra Urns



In a small garden to the rear of Drumcondra House (now part of Dublin City University) can be found three much-weathered stone urns. Originally they stood on the parapet of the building’s south-facing front, thought to have been designed by Sir Edward Lovett Pearce: the east-facing Baroque facade of the same property has long been attributed to Florentine architect Alessandro Galilei (see An Italian in Ireland « The Irish Aesthete). Photographs of Drumcondra House from the late 19th/early 20th centuries, when it as All Hallows College (a training centre for Roman Catholic priests) show the urns still in situ, one in the centre and one at either end. At some date they were taken down, probably because of their condition but it is still possible to see their pedestals on top of the building.


A Gardener’s Legacy


This week marks the first anniversary of the death of architect and garden designer Angela Jupe at her home at Bellefield, County Offaly, where the Irish Aesthete had paid a visit just a few weeks before that unhappy event. After graduating from university, she worked for a number of architectural firms before heading up a design team at the Industrial Development Agency (IDA). But by the mid-1980s she had established her own practice and begun to follow her personal passion for gardening. She created two businesses, the Traditional Gardening Company which specialised in garden design and construction, and the Garden Furnishing Company, a retail outlet. 





As the name of her garden design business indicates, Angela Jupe loved old-fashioned gardens: an obituary in the Irish Times quoted her observation that ‘Some modern landscape architecture feeds only the eyes and forgets that we have noses for scent and hands for touch…Not only is there too much hard landscaping but it leads to plants that grow into a little circle requiring no pruning, care or attention.’ The first country garden she created for herself was at Fancroft Millhouse, County Tipperary which had stood empty and neglected for 12 years before she bought it in 1997 and embarked on a thorough restoration, not just of the grounds but also the house and outbuildings. Then in  2004 she took on a fresh challenge, moving to Bellefield, where the stables and walled garden had stood unused for the previous three decades.





Bellefield is a charming small gentleman’s residence dating from the first years of the 19th century. A keen believer in conservation and architectural salvage, Angela Jupe filled the house with decorative items brought from other buildings, as she also did when restoring the stableyard to the rear. And in the two-acre walled garden, which again benefitted from her attention and experience, she constructed both a charming little onion-domed folly and a large glasshouse from various pieces of salvage. The garden itself, formerly completely overgrown, displays her various passions, not least for snowdrops, of which there are more than 300 different varieties, one of the largest such collections in Ireland. In addition, there is an abundance of old French roses, rare daffodils, Chinese peonies and old fruit trees. Following her unexpected death, it emerged that she had left the Bellefield, the house and its garden, to the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (RHSI) of which she had been a long-standing supporter and board member. The process of transfer of ownership is still ongoing, but the RHSI is currently maintaining the site and hopes to open it to the public next year.

Digging New Ground




As regular readers of this site will know, the Irish Aesthete has of late become much preoccupied with Irish country house gardens and their evolution across four centuries. At the moment, much of the investigation into this subject is being undertaken under the auspices of the Irish Georgian Society, part of a year-long project of which some elements (a recent two-part television documentary on some of the gardens, an exhibition of paintings of country house walled gardens) have already taken place, but others are yet to happen. One of the latter is a day-long conference scheduled to be held next week on Wednesday 17th November, The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1950: Digging New Ground. Organised in conjunction the Office of Public Works and taking place in Dublin Castle, the conference will feature a wide variety of speakers investigating different aspects of Irish country house gardens, from the history of walled kitchen gardens to the development of arboretums. The event is open to the public, but places must be booked in advance: it promises to be a most stimulating occasion, and will in turn lead to a new book on the subject to be published next year.



For more information on next week’s conference, please see: The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1950: Digging New Ground | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)

The Walled Garden


For a long time they merely left it there.

They were too full of pity and distress
To breathe again that choked and choking air.
The rusty gate closed on a wilderness.
The walled garden, an old dying princess
From a lost country, had grown very strange.



A snow of petals fell on the rich loam,
Caroline Testout, Star of Holland, Night,
Ladies in waiting in a spacious room,
Those roses dressed in small clouds of light.
All, all destroyed, invaded, overthrown,
The formal beauty gone, formal delight,
And none to reclaim now, to heal, save
Order and beauty buried here alive.



‘Where are the roses gone?’ they whispered, shaken,
On those rare, sad occasions when they stood
Remembering the safe land of childhood
And saw this feverish ruin, overtaken
By squitch and groundsel and the woody nightshade.
‘Where are the goldfish, where the pond?’ And fled,
As children do, this world grown out of range.
‘The times have changed. We cannot help the change.’


The Walled Garden at Clondalkin by May Sarton (1955). Pictures show a walled garden in County Wexford

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).