Luxuriance of Growth


‘In the autumn of 1868 the late Lord Lansdowne, accompanied by his uncle, the Hon. James Howard, paid a visit of ceremony to the various Irish estates to which he had recently succeeded. After inspecting his property in other parts of Ireland, he came in the month of October to Kerry, travelling via Cahirciveen and Killarney to Kenmare, and finally to Derreen…It was not long after this that Lord Lansdowne became engaged to Lady Maud Hamilton, youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. He soon determined to make Derreen his summer residence, and came over in 1870 to superintend the necessary alterations. In the following year he spent several months with his wife in their new home. Thenceforward a visit to Derreen became an annual affair, looked forward to with eager anticipation by all concerned. But from 1883 to 1894 he was abroad, first in Canada and afterwards in India, as Viceroy, and he was only able to snatch a few weeks in Kerry in 1888 during his few months at home between the two appointments. During his absence in India the place was let to the late Duke of Leeds, for whom as a gardener, a keen fisherman, and a good shot, it held a strong appeal. Meanwhile the new line from Headford to Kenmare had been completed and the drive of forty miles over the mountains from Killarney was shortened to one of seventeen miles on the flat, while the train service had been improved; after 1895 more frequent visits thus became possible.’






‘Derreen had by this time greatly changed from what it was when [historian James Anthony] Froude spent his “Fortnight in Kerry.” The clearing and planting, which had been systematically carried on for twenty-five years, had borne fruit. The scrub of hollies and brambles with which the ground had been for the most part covered had given place to green lawns and winding paths through groves of bamboos, tree-ferns and shrubs of all kinds. The peat bank, from which McSweeny used to draw his household turf, had become a bog garden, and the existence of the numerous small inclosures which constituted the former farm was only betrayed here and there by traces of a bank or ditch amidst the sub-tropical vegetation. Indeed the principal gardening difficulty in Kerry is the rapidity and luxuriance of growth. Shrubs, which in England would take years to make a show, here under the influence of the Gulf Stream soon develop into trees, and many are to be sacrificed if the rest are to have room. When my father first came over, he put in about a hundred plants of hybrid “arboretum” rhododendrons. They grew to such a size that it became apparent they would exclude all light and air from the narrow paths. One by one, they have almost all had to go; of those remaining there are today one or two specimens quite fifty feet in height.’






‘The year 1903 was made memorable at Derreen by a visit from King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. Their Majesties made in that summer a tour of Ireland, partly in the Royal Yacht and partly overland. The original intention had been that they should come to Derreen by water from County Clare, but weather conditions made this inadvisable, and the journey was eventually made by motor-car. They arrived on the afternoon of July 31. A Union Jack had been floated on the top of Knockatee and a triumphal arch was erected outside the Derryconnery Gate, where an address of welcome was presented by the assembled tenantry. On the lawn in front of the house the children of Lauragh school had been marshalled and they presented a bouquet to the Queen. Then there was a walk around the gardens where two commemorative bamboos were duly planted in the glade now called “the King’s Oozy”. After tea in the new dining room, which had been added to the house that year, the party went down to the pier, where Queen Alexandra was initiated into the mysteries of prawn fishing. The ground had been lavishly baited in advance and the fishing was such a success, that in spite of the obvious impatience of His Majesty, she could scarcely be persuaded to relinquish her net when the hour came for departure.’


Extracts from Glanerought and the Petty-FitzMaurices by the sixth Marquis of Lansdowne (1937).
To visit Derreen, County Kerry, see: http://www.derreengarden.com

Awaiting Salvation


No site looks its best in torrential rain, but under these circumstances there is something especially melancholic about Kilmacurragh, County Wicklow. Over the past couple of decades, the historic gardens here have undergone a wonderful and welcome rebirth, but the house which has formed the centrepiece of the estate for over three centuries now stands a roofless shell. It is located on the site of an early Christian settlement, based around a hermitage established by St Mochorog, said to be an Englishman of royal birth who came to Ireland at the start of the 7th century. A monastic community remained here until Henry VIII’s dissolution of all such religious establishments, but some of the building’s foundations have been found under parts of the present garden at Kilmacurragh. Ownership of the lands were then disputed between the local Byrne family and various settlers. However, in 1697 Thomas Acton secured a lease on the property from the Parsons family, then as now based in Birr, County Offaly (where their gardens are likewise renowned). The original Thomas Acton – grandfather of the one already mentioned – is believed to have come to Ireland in the mid-17th century with the Commonwealth army, and like so many other of its members to have stayed because rewarded for his service with property here. In 1716 the younger Thomas Acton obtained from the then-Viscount Rosse ‘leases for lives renewable forever’ at Kilmacurragh; twenty years later his son William Acton married the Viscount’s cousin, Jane Parsons. Thereafter successive generations of Actons would live at Kilmacurragh and develop its gardens until the opening decades of the last century.





Almost from the moment of arrival at Kilmacurragh, the Actons seem to have been particularly interested in the improvement of their demesne. Presumably around the same period that he built the present house at the close of the 17th century, Thomas also laid out a formal Dutch-style park, with canals and formal avenues. He also created a forty-acre Deer Park. In turn his son William Acton laid out a two-mile beech avenue to celebrate his marriage to Jane Parsons in 1736. Fourteen years later she received a premium of £10 from the Dublin Society (founded less than two decades before) for the planting of ‘foreign trees’ and accordingly large numbers of these were given a place on the estate. In 1780 her son, another Thomas Acton, married Sidney Davis who would in turn receive grants from the same society for growing small plantations, using the money to acquire further rare species. Lt. Col. William Acton inherited the estate in 1817 and he undertook further work, both in the demesne and on the house. With regard to the former, he is believed to have built the walled garden with an orangery and ranges of glasshouses, as well as providing employment during the Great Famine by the restoration of the ha-ha that surrounded the old deer park. He also further added to the planting at Kilmacurragh, buying trees from a nursery established nearby at Dunganstown in 1780. When he died in 1854, the estate was inherited by his eldest son, once more Thomas, who did most to give the gardens their present appearance, not least by sweeping away the formal layout created by his forebears more than a century and a half earlier. Thomas Acton and his sister Janet worked closely with David Moore, then curator of the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin, Dublin, and with his son and successor in the position, Sir Frederick Moore. It has been noted that Kilmacurragh during this period became an unofficial outpost for the Botanic Gardens, thanks to its climate and soil but also to its sympathetic owner who with his like-minded sibling travelled the world in search of plants to bring home to County Wicklow.





The fourth Thomas Acton never married and when he died in 1908 Kilmacurragh was inherited by his nephew Captain Charles Annesley Acton, another bachelor. He had little time to take care of the place since on the outbreak of the First World War he signed up for service and was killed in September 1915 while assisting another wounded soldier. Kilmacurragh duly passed to his only brother Major Reginald Thomas Annesley Ball-Acton who in turn was killed just eight months later at Ypres: his heir was a two-year old boy Charles (later a well-known music critic for The Irish Times). During his youth the house stood empty and the grounds lay neglected, but in 1932 the place was taken over by a German, Charles Budina, who successfully ran an hotel there. Unfortunately, following Charles Acton’s sale of Kilmacurragh in 1944 a legal dispute seems to have arisen over possession of the property which was eventually acquired by the Land Commission thirty years later. More recently the gardens have come under the care of the National Botanic Gardens, an ideal association given the long links between the two sites. Since then much wonderful work has been undertaken in the grounds to bring them back to peak condition. However the house, which suffered the consequences of two fires in 1978 and 1982, has fallen into a ruinous state. Much has been written about the building of Kilmacurragh, traditionally dated to 1697 when Thomas Acton first took a lease on the land here. However, a few years ago in the Irish Arts Review Peter Pearson, who had examined relevant family papers including Thomas Acton’s account book, proposed that the house was constructed about a decade later. Nevertheless it would still have been one of the first unfortified residences in this part of the country and it appears likely that William Robinson, the Surveyor General (who was paid £1.1.3d by Thomas Acton in 1704 for unspecified work) had a hand in its design. Stylistically Kilmacurragh is suggestive of Robinson’s work, not least a handsome doorcase that once provided access to the building which was originally of five bays and two storeys (with an attic window in the pedimented breakfront). Photographs of the interior when still intact show it to have been extensively panelled, with a staircase featuring barley-sugar balusters not unlike those found in the Red House, Youghal, County Cork and other contemporaneous houses. The wings on either side of the main block were added in the 1840s by Lt Col. William Acton. Alas, nothing of his work on the house, nor that of his predecessors, remains. Today only the outer walls survive to look especially dispiriting in the rain…

The End of the Line

The Irish Yew Walk at Hillsborough Castle, County Down has a south-facing vista that concludes in Lady Alice’s Temple. The walk was laid out in the late 1870s by Colonel Arthur Hill who was then living in the house, although it belonged to his nephew, the sixth Marquess of Downshire. Col. Hill is also believed to have erected the temple on the site of a former summer house in honour of his sister Lady Alice Hill who had married Thomas Taylour, Earl of Bective in 1867. The ten Ionic columns supporting a masonry entablature & copper-clad masonry dome are made of cast-iron.

Tea and Team


Taking its name from the immediately adjacent rath (a circular fortification), Rathcastle House near Rathconrath, County Westmeath is a house likely dating from the late 18th century, although http://www.buildingsofireland.com proposes c.1815 for its construction. Originally built for the Banon family, its facade features an especially handsome limestone doorcase with fan and sidelights. On Sunday May 13th from 2-7 pm the gardens of Rathcastle House, together with those of neighbouring Balrath Lodge will be open to the public to raise funds for TEAM (Temporary Emergency Accommodation Midlands). Admission €5 per person includes tea.

Another Perspective


Inside the walled garden at Powerscourt, County Wicklow: a view of the Bamberg Gate, its upper section of ironwork designed to give the illusion of a lengthy vista beyond. This work of art was originally constructed in Vienna in 1770 and installed in Bamberg Cathedral, Northern Bavaria. Probably in the late 1820s, when all Baroque additions were stripped from the building, the gate was removed and sold: around 1870 Mervyn Wingfield, 7th Viscount Powerscourt bought it from a London dealer and placed it in the present position. On the opposite side of the walled garden is the so-called Chorus Gate, the design supposedly based on a 17th century original (although this has not been found) and likewise purchased in London. Its intricate ironwork features myriad winged seraphim blowing trumpets. Both gates have recently been cleaned and re-gilded.

Italy in Ireland


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.


Making a Splash


A summer morning at Ballyfin, County Laois. When the house and demesne were restored some years ago, this cascade and pool were added by gardener Jim Reynolds on rising ground immediately behind the main building. In the foreground a river god reclines on a plinth while the vista is closed by a Doric temple designed for the site by architect John O’Connell.

Et in Arcadia…


Closing the fifteenth annual Historic Houses Conference at Dublin Castle last week, Professor Christopher Ridgway urged the importance of ‘moving the narrative beyond the litany of loss and destruction.’ This site might sometimes seem to deal only in the latter currency, to offer a ceaseless round of bad news, of historic properties fallen into disrepair, of estates permitted to slide into ruin. On occasion however, a more cheerful story can be told, one that has nothing to do with loss and destruction. Such is the case this week at Oakfield, County Donegal.




Oakfield is of interest for many reasons, not least its links to one of the loveliest estates in England: Rousham, Oxfordshire. The main house at Oakfield, built in 1739 at a cost of £1,680, was commissioned by William Cotterell, then-Dean of Raphoe. Cotterell was a younger son of Sir Charles Lodowick Cotterell who, like his father before him (and several generations of the same family thereafter) held the court position of Master of Ceremonies. In 1741 Dean Cotterell’s brother, Sir Clement Cotterell who performed the same role in the royal household, inherited the Rousham estate from a cousin. William Kent had already been working on the gardens at Rousham but now also undertook improvements to the house. Clearly the Cotterell brothers were men of taste and this can also be seen at Oakfield even if Kent did not work there. In fact the house’s elevations are stylistically somewhat anachronistic and seem to harp back to the late 17th century. Nevertheless, tit is a handsome building in an admirably chosen setting: on a bluff offering views across to Croaghan Hill some five miles away. 




Oakfield remained in use as a deanery until the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 when it was sold to Thomas Butler Stoney, another younger son (this time of James Stoney of Rossyvera, County Mayo). A Captain in the Donegal Artillery Militia, Stoney also occupied all the other positions expected of someone in his position: County High Sheriff, Deputy Lieutenant of the county, Justice of the Peace. Following his death in 1912 Oakfield was inherited by his only son, Cecil Robert Vesey Stoney, a keen ornithologist who eventually moved to England in the early 1930s. The house and surrounding lands thereafter passed through several hands before being bought twenty-one years ago by businessman Gerry Robinson who together with his wife Heather has since undertaken an extensive restoration of the property. 




Over the past two decades, not only have the Robinsons restored the residence at the centre of Oakfield, but they have created a 100-acre parkland around it. Some of this is based in the old walled gardens immediately adjacent to the house but the rest is spread over two areas bisected by a road. This division applies also to the spirit of the two sections, the upper garden having a more classical aspect thanks to elements such as a Nymphaeum on one side of the lake. The lower garden’s principal architectural feature is a newly-created castellated tower house overlooking another stretch of water. Between this pair of substantial structures are other, smaller buildings to engage a visitor’s interest. Oakfield is an admirable demonstration of what imaginative vision allied with sound taste can achieve. Walking around the grounds, it is hard to believe this is County Donegal. But that is what sets Oakfield apart: like Rousham on the other side of the Irish Sea, once inside the gates one is temporarily transported to Arcadia.


For more on Oakfield, see: http://www.oakfieldpark.com

A Work in Progress


Hillsborough Castle, County Down has long been misnamed since there is nothing castle-like about its appearance. The core of the house dates from the 18th century when it was built for the Hill family who were created Marquesses of Downshire. Owners of some 1115,000 acres in Ireland, it was said the Hills could travel from Larne in County Antrim to Blessington, County Wicklow without ever losing sight of their land. At Hillsborough, it appears there was a house on the site by c.1760 but this was enlarged in the mid-1790s for the second marquess to designs of Robert Brettingham. Further additions were made in the late 1820s for the third marquess who employed a local architect, Thomas Duff of Newry. It was at this time that the pedimented portico with four giant Ionic columns was added on the garden facade. This had hitherto been the entrance front, but that was now moved to face the main square of Hillsborough town. Hillsborough Castle remained in the ownership of the Hills until 1922 when sold by the sixth marquess to the British government. The house then served as a residence first for successive governors of Northern Ireland and then for Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. Since 2014 Hillsborough Castle has been managed by Historic Royal Palaces.





Over the past three years, both the house and grounds at Hillsborough have benefitted from considerable, and ongoing, attention. The gardens run to almost 100 acres and originally incorporated the main road to nearby Moira which ran in front of the Ionic portico and followed the line of the Yew Walk. However here as elsewhere the desire for privacy led the family to enclose this part of their land and lay it out for their own pleasure with the development of water features, ornamental bridges, the Doric Lady Alice’s Temple and a rusticated ice house.





When the scheme of improvements was initiated at Hillsborough in 2014, landscape designer Catherine FitzGerald, eldest daughter of the late Knight of Glin, was appointed to oversee a revitalisation of the gardens. Collaborating with her regular business partner, landscape architect Mark Lutyens, she drew up a master-plan which is being gradually implemented. So far the most notable feature introduced has been the re-working of the terrace outside the drawing room: here a harsh gravel surface has been replaced with reclaimed stone intermingled with diverse planting. Immediately beyond, the Jubilee Parterre has similarly been softened, while thousands of bulbs were planted on either side of the Yew Walk. This is very much a project in progress with much more yet to be done, as is also the case inside the house where extensive refurbishment is likewise underway. The intention is that in the years ahead, Hillsborough will receive in the region of 200,000 visitors, thereby generating revenue that can in turn be used for further developments: an excellent enterprise that merits being emulated elsewhere in Ireland.

The Promise of Summer


The gardens of Lismore Castle, County Waterford photographed last summer during the annual opera festival held here. The upper section of the walled grounds, the oldest continually cultivated garden in Ireland, was originally laid out in the early decades of the 17th century for Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork. In recent years it has been revitalised by head gardener Darren Topps and his team.



There is no better time to enjoy the gardens of Lismore Castle than in early June, which is when the opera festival takes place and this season’s production – of Donizetti’s  enchanting L’Elisir d’Amore – will be perfectly in tune with the mood of these pictures, full of light and colour and sparkle. Very much recommended.


For further information on the Lismore Opera Festival, see: http://www.lismoreoperafestival.com