By Design


Derrynane, County Kerry

Regular followers will be aware that for the past couple of years, the Irish Aesthete has undertaken much research into the evolution of Ireland’s country house gardens, the evolution of which has not always been sufficiently appreciated. One of the areas where such gardens can be seen to best advantage is County Kerry, which enjoys the benefit of lying adjacent to the Gulf Stream as it passes this island’s Atlantic coast. In consequence, historic gardens of quite astonishing fecundity can be found throughout Kerry and these will be the subject of a one-day seminar – Designed Landscapes & Demesnes of Kerry: Their History and Conservation – to be held next Friday, September 30th in Killarney. The Irish Aesthete will be speaking at this event, offering an overview of the country’s designed landscapes (with a particular emphasis on those found in Kerry, of course). The seminar is free, but booking required, and further information can be found here: Designed Landscapes & Demesnes of Kerry: their history & conservation seminar | Irish Georgian Society (igs.ie)


Kells Bay, County Kerry 

The Lonely Passion of Augusta Magan


In Umma-More, a wonderful history of his family published in 1983, the late William Magan writes of one forebear, the eccentric Augusta Magan who in 1880 at the age of 55 became ‘the sole, unencumbered and unfettered owner of virtually all the ancient Magan estates and wealth – twenty thousand acres of some of the best land in the world, valuable houses, parts of Dublin, treasures and riches.’ Alas, over the next twenty-five years until her death in 1905, the unmarried Augusta managed to squander away the greater part of her inheritance: according to William Magan, ‘She lacked drive, energy and will-power to a marked degree. She was devoid of managerial capability. She grossly mismanaged the estates. When she died they were found to be in a dreadful state of neglect. Her houses, likewise, were a shambles.’ By way of confirmation of the last observation, he quotes an official report into the condition of one such property: ‘Every passage and every room to which access could be gained was packed with parcels and packages of all descriptions. Piled on top of the furniture, underneath furniture, piled on the floors, were packages, deed boxes etc., on top of one another. The litter on the main stairs and vestibule was almost knee deep. It took the valuers three whole days to clear the deceased’s bedroom alone of papers and rubbish which had been allowed to accumulate there. Every apartment in the mansion was in the same condition. The most astonishing discovery was that amongst this accumulation were found money and securities for money, jewellery, and valuables of all description. Bank notes for small and large amounts were found adhering to old newspaper wrappers, or thrown carelessly aside in wastepaper baskets. Sovereigns and coins of lesser value were picked up on the floors of the several rooms, or were lying about in tea cups and kitchen utensils and in the most unlikely places…’ 





Augusta Magan’s peculiar behaviour is often attributed to unrequited love. It appears that as a young woman, she had met Captain Richard Bernard, of Castle Bernard, County Offaly (now known as Kinnitty Castle), and conceived a passion for him. Her feelings, it appears, were not reciprocated since Captain Bernard, three years after returning from the Crimean War, in 1859 married a widow, Ellen Georgiana Handcock; he died in 1877, three years before Augusta Magan came into her great inheritance. Family legend had it that his death was due to an accident while he was participating in a race but given that Bernard, by then a colonel, was 55 at the time this seems unlikely. He was duly buried in his local churchyard, inside the family mausoleum, a four-sided pyramid in the grounds of St Finnian’s church, Kinnitty: dating from c.1830, this building is supposed to have been designed by a member of the Bernard family who some time earlier had visited Egypt. However, the colonel must have died in another part of the country, since at one stage prior to burial, his body was wheeled along the platform of Mullingar station and, according to William Magan, the trolley bearing the deceased’s corpse was afterwards acquired by Augusta Magan who kept it in her room for the rest of her life. As he wrote in Umma-More, it is curious that ‘she should have been so deeply affected emotionally as to have felt unable for the rest of her life to be parted from so unusual, hideous, cumbersome, and useless a piece of furniture as that railway station barrow’. She also possessed a small portrait of Colonel Bernard, likewise discovered after her death. 





What has any of the above to do with today’s pictures? They show the grounds of Corke Lodge, County Dublin which were once part of Augusta Magan’s inheritance (her grandmother, Hannah Tilson, had been a great heiress whose family owned considerable estates both in this part of the country and elsewhere, and whose home was the long-since demolished Eagle Hill in Killiney). Commissioned by either Hannah Tilson Magan or her son William Henry, the present house dates from the second decade of the 19th century but, as so often, incorporates an older structure. Its design is attributed to Dublin architect William Farrell who was responsible for Conearl, a large neo-classical house built for the Magans in County Offaly but destroyed by fire only a few decades later. A church at Crinken, close to Corke Lodge, was also designed by Farrell. Augusta Magan seems to have spent little time here, preferring to become a recluse in another family property, Killyon, in County Westmeath. At the beginning of the last century, it was acquired by Sir Stanley Cochrane and today is owned by his great-nephew, architect Alfred Cochrane. He has been responsible for creating the gardens shown here, and for interspersing through them granite stonework which once formed part of Glendalough House, County Wicklow, a vast Tudor-Gothic mansion dating from the 1830s, the greater part of which was demolished half a century ago. Their presence not only enlivens a visit to the grounds of Corke Lodge, but – as souvenirs of a lost world – seem to recall the lonely passion of Augusta Magan.

The gardens of Corke Lodge are open to the public, 9am to 1pm, Tuesdays to Saturdays, until September 8th. For more information, see Corke Lodge — Alfred Cochrane

In Transition


Sixty-five years ago, in July 1957, the Irish Times announced that the gardens of Mount Congreve, County Waterford ‘are to be open to the public for the first time’ on three afternoons each week over the following two months. The unnamed writer declared that few finer gardens of their kind were to be found on either side of the Irish Sea, those at Mount Congreve including a large 18th century conservatory and a walled garden where the quarter-mile of herbaceous borders held some 15,000 plants in hundreds of varieties ‘timed to flower in the coming weeks.’ In addition, there were rare trees and shrubs, and lawns offering attractive views of the adjacent river Suir. The owner of this property, the Irish Times correspondent explained, was Ambrose Congreve, then-Chairman of Humphreys & Glasgow Limited, the London fuel and chemical engineers ‘who are marketing small nuclear power plants.’




Originally from Staffordshire (and collaterally related to the Restoration playwright William Congreve), members of the Congreve family first came to Ireland in the 17th century, one of them, the Rev. John Congreve, settling in County Waterford. His grandson, another John, was responsible for building Mount Congreve c.1760, its design sometimes attributed to local architect John Roberts but this is conjectural. As built, the house was of three storeys and seven bays, with slightly projecting two-storey wings on either side beyond which lay the service yards. Successive generations of the family lived there, alternating the first names John and Ambrose until the last of these, Ambrose Christian Congreve who died in 2011 at the age of 104 leaving no heir. Thanks to his considerable wealth, he was responsible for transforming both the house and surrounding gardens. The former he enlarged in the 1960s, not least by the addition of a substantial bow at the centre of the entrance front, centred on a rather modest Baroque limestone doorcase. Additions were also made to the wings and yards which were given cupolas and more limestone doorcases. Mr Congreve had a plutocrat’s taste: he liked everything large and abundant and almost to the end of his life he was making changes to the building and its contents, both of which might be described as plush. Outdoors, as a young man he was inspired by what he saw Lionel de Rothschild had created in his own garden at Exbury in Hampshire. From the early 1930s onwards Mr Congreve set about emulating this example, not least by planting the same species in large groups. ‘When one plants anything,’ he declared, ‘whether it involves five or fifty plants, they should be planted together and not dotted here and there’: as a result, at Mount Congreve, enormous numbers of one variety of magnolia or azalea can be found in the same location to spectacular effect. Thanks to its size – it runs to some 70 acres – Mount Congreve’s garden holds over 3,000 different trees and shrubs, more than 2,000 Rhododendrons, 600 Camellias, 300 Acer cultivars, 600 conifers, 250 climbers and 1,500 herbaceous plants. 




In 1979, recognising that he had no direct heir, Ambrose Congreve transferred ownership of his family house and some 71 surrounding acres to a charitable organisation, the Mount Congreve Trust with the understanding that all of this property would eventually pass to the Irish state. However, part of the arrangement was that 66 acres of gardens would only become national property 21 years after his death, and the house and immediate five acres only in 2059. Thus, when he died in 2011, it appeared that the greater part of the gardens would not be taken under state care until 2032 – and the house and balance of land still not for a further 27 years. Inevitably, dispute followed, with unfortunate consequences, not least that the contents of the house – including a library dating back to the 18th century – were dispersed in a number of auctions, leaving the place empty. Meanwhile, the gardens on which he had lavished so much care and expense also deteriorated – today a very large 18th century greenhouse is in very poor condition – as discussions took place over who should be responsible for their upkeep. Only in 2019 was agreement reached whereby the trust transferred both the house and gardens to the local authority, which subsequently received a grant of €3.7 million from a Department for Rural and Community Development programme targeting regional development to restore and improve Mount Congreve. At the moment, the entire site is closed to the public (the house itself swathed in scaffolding, hence no pictures of it today), while necessary work takes place. It appears a couple of rooms on the ground floor of the main building will be accessible when the project is completed, along with one of the adjacent yards used to welcome visitors. But what will become of the rest of what is a very substantial house, which for more than a decade has sat vacant and shuttered? It remains to be seen if some new purpose is proposed for the place.  

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