IRELAND'S SECRET GARDENS
by Anne de Verteuil
Perfect peace and a clear blue sky. Sitting warmed by the sun, I’m enveloped by the sights and scents of an old-fashioned cottage garden flowering at full tilt. All around me fragrant roses clamber up walls, over pergolas, and into trees; flower-lined paths await exploration.
No, this is not a passage from a 19th-century romance, but the blissfully real garden at Rathmichael Lodge just outside Dublin, where I found myself on a mid-June afternoon, drinking tea with the hospitable owner-gardeners and falling utterly under the spell of a country where time travel of this kind happens all the time.
This was the second day into an eight-day tour of Irish gardens run by The Irish Connection. We’d explore gardens in the southern counties of Wicklow, Dublin, Meath, Louth and Kildare. Then, crossing the now non-existent border, we would carry on up to Belfast and County Down in the North. In addition to well-known large estates, we’d visit select private gardens like this one at Rathmichael Lodge, where the owner or head gardener would personally show us around.
Gardens being my off-duty passion, as well as my day job, I’d done my research and knew I’d be bowled over by the parks and grounds we were to see. But the truth is, nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of the countryside and the overwhelming hospitality, charm and good humor of our hosts, guides and fellow-gardeners in both the north and south. We had wonderful food, sunshine and showers in equal measure — and, yes, the gardens were absolutely magical.
Ireland’s gardens are as much a part of its rich cultural heritage as its literature, music, architecture, and its ancient and mysterious sites. The big estate gardens with their lawns, borders and walled kitchen gardens are frequently associated with elegant 18th- or 19th-century houses that may be visited as well. The natural beauty of the surrounding landscapes usually supply a backdrop of mountains or a view over a lake. Once you add to the wonderful lushness the intense greens that a high rainfall produces, you understand how the Emerald Isle got its name.
But what really makes these Irish gardens something of a holy grail for garden-lovers is the enormous diversity of plants they contain. The climate of the east-coast side is sufficiently mild for a wide range of plants from both the northern and the southern hemispheres to grow and flourish. Rare and tender rhododendrons, plus acacias, eucalyptus, cordylines and palms, all grow like natives amongst the more familiar trees and shrubs.
On day one, we headed out of busy, buzzing Dublin to the gently rolling landscape of the Wicklow hills and into another time frame. Our first stop was Corke Lodge, a private garden with a woodland walk that wound through lofty subtropical plants. Lush tree ferns and grasses concealed tumbled stone columns and antique fragments, a path framed the unexpected view of a ruined gothic folly, and on the lawn near the house “the biggest cork tree in Ireland” — planted in 1880 and too venerable to stand upright any more — reclined majestically.
Garden-as-theater describes nearby Powerscourt, replete with parkland, terraces, statuary and walks. The magnificent formal landscape gardens were laid out in the 18th and 19th centuries. From the south façade of the imposing house, a series of wide stone steps and grass terraces descend to the lake. Here, a fountain sends a perpendicular jet of water high into the air against the distinctive outline of the sugarloaf mountain beyond.
The next day, a glorious sunny Sunday, we drove to Mount Usher, a ravishing garden of meandering paths and glades. Wide foot-bridges cross and re-cross the River Vartry as it flows down from the Devil’s Glen on its journey to the Irish Sea. “Irish time” stole over us all as we wandered, entranced, through a succession of woodland walks and clearings, each one planted with rare and tender plants, and always following the gentle swing of the river.
The sensation of having entered a lost world was further confirmed by our visit to Hunter’s Hotel, just up the road from Mount Usher. One of Ireland’s oldest coaching inns, Hunter’s exudes a casual intimacy. In its pretty, rambling and slightly careless garden of lawn and cottage-garden flowers you feel you could happily sit down to rest and just take root there.
In the afternoon, with the sun still shining, we arrived at Rathmichael Lodge where generously planted beds of old cottage-garden favorites — peonies, alliums, delphiniums, sisyrinchium and pinks — jostled, flowed and spilled out colorfully onto every surface. A magnificent rambling rose, “Adelaide d’Orleans,” clambered into an old apple tree, smothering its branches in a sea of creamy blossom. The simple secret of its vigour was, we were told, “no feeding, no pruning.”
The next day we drove from Dublin out to Ranelagh to visit plantswoman Helen Dillon’s town garden. The Dillon Garden is justly celebrated for its design, described as “a necklace of secret rooms,” and its remarkable collection of plants, which in scope and variety approaches that of a small botanical garden. Beneath a brilliant noonday sun and Mediterranean-blue sky, platoons of superbly healthy, well-behaved plants, amongst them richly colored roses, rare clematis, soaring delphiniums, cannas and crocosmias, were giving a dazzling performance with grace and enthusiastic vigor.
Ferns and an assortment of unusual woodland perennials are grown in special areas of shade, while raised scree beds contain jewel-like alpines — and here lies the clue to the success of this garden. “Right plant, right place” is the principle that underlies its ordering, with every group of plants given the specific conditions it requires to thrive. Helen’s skills as a plantswoman blossom right here in front of one’s eyes.
The Dillon Garden changes frequently too. A clean-cut rectangle of water edged with slate paving has recently replaced the original lawn, and a new area for bold-leaved plants is taking shape elsewhere. Color combinations change annually.
This past summer clashing pinks, reds and oranges in the hot border provided a sizzling counterpoint to the cool blues and purples across the water.
And all is immaculate. Peering with envy into the area set aside for compost, one of our group remarked, “It’s better than my whole garden.” Over a delicious and entertaining lunch with the Dillons, we tried to imbibe as much horticultural wisdom as possible.
At Malahide Castle and the exceptional Talbot Botanic Gardens, trees and shrubs from the southern hemisphere were imaginatively displayed within the shelter of the wonderful four-acre walled garden. We could have spent hours here but time was short, and we were due at Beaulieu House in Drogheda, County Louth by midday.
Built in the 1660s by the Tichbournes, Beaulieu House has stayed in the hands of that same family ever since. Its interiors, even its contents, have remained virtually unchanged for nearly 350 years.
We were given a personal tour of this extraordinary place with its massive hall, a full two-stories high, and its lovely walled garden, believed to have been laid out by the Dutch artist Van der Hagen in the 17th century. Now in her 90s, the present owner, Mrs. Sidney Waddington, remains spry and astute. Most inspirational to all of us visitors: she’s still gardening.
Our guide round Beaulieu House, Patrick Barrow, now directed us back to his own house at nearby Listoke. After being greeted by his wife, Patricia, and with glasses of chilled white wine in hand, we were escorted on a gentle journey around their garden of delights.
A profusion of flowers, roses and climbers leaned over the paths between the borders, seducing us with scent and color. By the time the first drops of rain began to fall, we were comfortably ensconced in the garden loggia and eating (again) an excellent lunch of salmon and home-grown raspberries.
Next day we headed north, taking in St. Patrick’s grave at Downpatrick. After the short ferry ride from Strangford to Portaferry, we made the beautiful scenic drive up the side of Strangford Lough to Mount Stewart, Northern Ireland’s jewel of a garden. Here in the north, the soils are mainly lime-free and the benign climate allows a rich and diverse range of plants to be grown, many of them rare and tender.
The garden at Mount Stewart was created in the 1920s by Edith Lady Londonderry, whose particular genius was to realize the full range of plants that could be grown on this beautiful and favored site. Laid out as a series of discrete spaces, each garden has a particular mood or theme, including the Italian Garden, the Peace Garden, the Lily Wood and the Dodo Garden.
Most extraordinary of all is the Shamrock Garden, designed in the shape of the shamrock and featuring a curious assembly of figures and emblems. From the top of the surrounding yew hedge, weird and wonderful topiary creatures emerge; in the center of the garden a table bearing a harp is carved out of yew. Most surreal of all, the legendary “Red Hand of Ulster” is laid out on the ground, given form as a giant hand planted entirely of scarlet begonias.
Another day, another sublime garden: Rowallane. Rightly regarded as a plantsman’s paradise, it offers collections of rhododendrons, azaleas and other acid-loving plants growing in a naturalistic woodland setting.
Its chief architect, Hugh Armytage Moore, was a passionate plantsman with a gift for planning as well as connections with some of the greatest plant hunters of the early 20th century. For those of us gardening on non-acid soils the sight of Meconopsis, the glorious and difficult blue Himalayan poppy, growing like weeds was inspiring and envy-making in equal measure.
On our way back south, we arrived at Belvedere House, Mullingar, just as the rains came down. But a tour around the 18th-century hunting lodge with its beautifully conserved interiors was memorable and gave us wonderful views over Lough Ennell and the spectacular folly known as the Jealous Wall.
This sham Gothic ruin, three stories high and 180 feet in length, was built by Lord Belvedere in the 1760s as an act of fraternal spite. Its purpose — to block the view of his brother’s newly built mansion, which threatened to eclipse the grandeur of his own. With perfect timing, the sun came out for our visit to the two-acre walled garden where herbaceous borders and rare Himalayan shrubs share space with an ornamental herb and vegetable garden.
At Ballindoolin, the very last garden on our tour, lambs and calves frolicked in the field by the old Georgian house, while black pigs, a turkey and several cats roamed the barnyard. Arriving in time for tea (of course) we sat eating home-made scones and brack (a fruited, spiced bread) with owner Esther Moloney, whose family have lived here since 1895. She described how they have reclaimed the garden from beneath a mass of laurel and ivy and, using old photographs as reference, brought it back to its original 19th-century glory.
Walking through the walled garden it was hard to believe that so much could have been achieved in just nine years. The borders overflowed with shrubs and climbing roses, a glorious herbaceous border extended for over 300 feet and the kitchen garden featured box-edged beds of old-fashioned annuals and vegetables.
Clocking up 150 years, the original espaliered apple trees still hang onto life, their branches mossy with age and leaning at eccentric angles. They aren't giving up the ghost just yet.
Gardens, like people, affect and move us in different ways. Some appeal to the mind, others to the senses. Ballindoolin, we all agreed, speaks straight to the heart, as does the whole of this magical island.
For more information about garden tours in Ireland, as well as itineraries focusing on golf, literature, film, or myth and legend, contact The Irish Connection: Tel: 800-420-2569 or 404-373-1420; Fax: 404-875-1457; E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org; Website:www.theirishconnection.net.
IRISH GARDENS — Travel Tips
• Ireland’s famous green is fed by the showers. Although weather is warm in summer, it rarely gets hot. Spring and fall tend to be cool with some rain. Dressing in layers will handle most weather conditions.
• Walking around gardens requires flat, sturdy shoes to handle uneven footpaths and terrain. Less able walkers can also view gardens from easier vantage points.
• Recommended reading includes The Gardens of Britain and Ireland by Patrick Taylor, O’Brien Guide to Irish Gardens by Shirley Lanigan, and The Daily Telegraph — The Good Gardens Guide.
• As the saying goes, “There’s something of Ireland in all of us,” and Americans can expect a warm welcome in the Emerald Isle. Since many Irish people have relatives of friends who live in the U.S., visitors often are greeted with questions about where they are from.