A view of the formal gardens at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, lying directly below the building’s north face. The hospital’s minutes in 1695 note, ‘The garden walls to be arranged so the garden may lie open to the north part…for the greater grace of the house.’ Although the design here is a 20th century reconstruction, it gives an idea of the style of classical garden once common in Ireland but now rarely seen. A recently published book by Vandra Costello, Irish Desmesne Landscapes, 1660-1740 gives an idea of what has been lost, as well as what remains. She rightly chooses 1660 as her starting date, since that was the year Charles II was restored to the throne and his supporters, including James Butler, first Duke of Ormond, returned from mainland Europe. During their years in exile, these royalists had observed the French fashion for gardening epitomised by the work of André Le Nôtre and in due course introduced these ideas to their own countries. These gardens, as Costello observes, were guided by the principle of utile et dulci: the notion that landowners, in addition to following contemporary fashion and devising idealised landscapes in which to enjoy themselves ought at the same time ‘to make their fruit growing endeavours, timber plantations and parklands economically profitable and sustainable as well as aesthetically pleasing.’ Thus the garden at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham – the building of which had been initiated by the Duke of Ormond – was expected to provide not just elegant surroundings for the main structure but also produce for its occupants. In the course of her highly informative and elegantly written book, Costello also explodes a few well-cherished myths, such as the notion that the 17th century formal gardens at Kilruddery, County Wicklow, the finest such example remaining in this country, were designed by a Frenchman called Bonnet, possibly a pupil of Le Nôtre himself: this error, she points out, has arisen from confusion over a reference in the papers of Sir William Petty. And she discusses how it was that the classical garden fell out of favour with Irish landowners in the 18th century, noting the process was less attributable to politics – it is often proposed that Tories liked formality while Whigs preferred the ‘natural’ – than to straightforward changes in taste. In her garden at Delville, County Dublin Mrs Delaney, who was unquestionably a Whig, incorporated many elements of the formal style including a bowling green, terrace walk, parterre and orangery. As so often in Irish history, the simple interpretation is rarely correct. A terrific read, and definitely worth adding to every library.
Irish Demesne Landscapes, 1660-1740 by Vandra Costello is published by Four Courts Press, €50.