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It has been an exciting - sometimes painful - challenge to select only 20 out of the many gardens that are open to the public. I have selected gardens that are not just personal favorites, but ones whose designs clearly illustrate a particular period of garden history, and whose plantings demonstrate an almost obsessional love of plants and the Irish landscape.
Many of the gardens featured have benefited from the extraordinary number of exotic plants that became available on the return of the great planthunters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by the theories of naturalistic gardening propounded by the Irishman William Robinson. Others have combined the formal with the informal, and others have concentrated on the discovery and preservation of gardens that had either been hidden for many years or were about to disappear into the jungle. Every garden featured has a story to tell, and the gardeners who created or resurrected them are the heroes and heroines of these stories. All the gardeners I met or researched in the writing of thisbook combine an iron determination with a wild but discriminating enthusiasm.
Much has been lost in the turbulent passage of time, but, in remarkable instances of tenacity, the gardens of Killruddery, Birr Castle, Derreen, Altamont, Armes Grove, Glin Castle, Ballinlough Castle, and Woodfield have been saved and, in some cases recreated by the families who have always owned them. The National Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin and the gardens of Glenveagh Castle and Ilnacullin have been taken into the fostering care of Duichas, the Heritage Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, while those at Mount Stewart and Rowallane are in the dependable hands of the National Trust. Ardcarraig, Butterstream, and The Dillon Garden are gardens made by the living owners, while Mount Usher, Creagh, Ballymaloe Cookery School and Kilfane are gardens of the past, cared for by the people who have imaginatively resuscitated them.
Gardening in Ireland has a long and checkered history. In the Iron Age, the Celts made a list in severe hierarchical fashion of the trees and shrubs they considered to be the chieftains, commoners, and peasants, according to their usefulness and strength, from the great oak down to the completely disregarded wild rose. Standing in my own garden at Glin Castle, I take great comfort in the fact that, looking around, I can see each tree on the early Celtic list flourishing happily, either within the trimmer boundaries of cultivation or growing wild in hedge and woodland, and I feel a curiously visceral link with those first stubborn cultivators of this rich but sodden soil.
The Romans called Ireland Hibernia (Winter), but never crossed the Irish Sea to find out if this assumption was true. It is safe to assume, therefore, that gardening began to filter through from Europe with the advent of Christianity and the arrival of the Roman-educated followers of St. Patrick. The Venerable Bede (673-735AD) wrote: "Ireland is far more favored than Britain by latitude and by its mild and healthy climate ... no need to store hay in summer ... snow rarely lies more than three days ... nor reptiles, no snake can exist here ... milk and honey ... no lack of vines." The effect of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream washing the coasts of the island was clearly making itself felt then as now. The warm southwest winds maintain the mild, damp climate, which means that plants and trees from all over the world do spectacularly well.
Early monastic settlements in the seventh and eighth centuries were surrounded by enclosures, within which were grown peas, beans, and leeks, as well as staple agricultural crops of wheat, oats, and barley. There were apple trees and beehives and "proper, rich, edible nuts," according to Maedoc of Ferns. Maolan, an early Irish lyricist, sings of the nuts and berries and apple trees near his hut and of the honeysuckle and strawberries. In Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, a gardener was surnamed Fionnscolaigh because of "the abundance of white flowers in his tyme."
The early missionary monks must have brought seeds and plants with them after returning from their studies in the great schools of learning in continental Europe. Woad, for example, was used to produce the blue dye for the scribes to use in their meticulously illuminated manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures. When looking at the ruins of the great monasteries and abbeys, it is easy to imagine their sheltered fruitful gardens and self-sufficient communities. Our Lady of the Fertile Rocks at Corcomroe in the Burren is a Cistercian abbey, where the beautiful limestone capitals of the columns are carved, each with a different flower. These, the earliest botanical carvings in Western Europe, date from 1205. The Irish medieval complex would have included different enclosures for vegetables, flowers, and herbs. In addition to beehives, fishponds, a dovecote, and an orchard of apples and pears, the abbots' and scribes' gardens would have been surrounded, if possible, by a deer park. Hunting wild deer was a favorite sport, and the medieval Irish deer park was the precursor of the eighteenth-century Irish landscape park, such as Ballyfin, County Laois.
After the Norman Conquest, the Norman families built their tower houses and settled down, becoming, as the saying goes, "more Irish than the Irish themselves," their military experience reflected in the efficient organization of their estates. Fishponds and warrens teemed with life, deer ran in the oak fenced park, and there were walled falconries. In 1238, a gardener at Old Ross in County Wexford was paid for bedding out herbs and leeks, and one has the impression of a complex of enclosed gardens surrounding the great central court of the manor.
The first written work on gardening in the English language by "Master Jon Gardener" was copied by a fourteenth-century scribe in County Kildare. It mentions lilies, roses, lavender, camomile, and rosemary, and "all the herbs of Ireland." Although gardening was well established by the mid-sixteenth century, it took a while for interest in native plants to spread. In the 1580s, Lord Leicester and Mr. Secretary Walsingham began to grow saplings of the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), a newly discovered rarity, sent to them from Killarney. Legend has it that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato into Ireland. He is also said to have brought sweetly scented wallflowers from the Azores and the tobacco plant from America, and grown them all in the walled garden at his Elizabethan house, Myrtlegrove in Youghal, County Cork (which still exists). The Great Earl of Cork, ancestor of the present owner, the Duke of Devonshire, bought Lismore Castle from Sir Walter in 1626, and created what is now one of the oldest gardens in the country.
Text Copyright © Olda Fitzgerald 1999 </ font>