We are so lucky to have Irish country house gardens: go visit one now

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Everyone loves a garden, especially in May with its blooms and vibrant new green leaves. The book Digging New Ground: The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1900 took shape in the pre-Covid-19 era, when people were generally not as aware of the natural world as they are now. Those closed few years spent dreaming up gardens or tinkering around in any available open space have left many convinced of their fundamental importance to humanity.

Ancient gardens contain a wealth of environmental knowledge, observed, studied and manipulated for generations and Ireland has many great surviving examples from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Oakfield Park, County Donegal. Photography: Robert O’Byrne

Our location on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean where we benefit from the proximity of the Gulf Stream encourages a rich and extraordinary plant palette. Where else can the highlands of heather and wild ferns soar above the lush, semi-tropical valleys of New Zealand’s Dicksonias, except in gardens such as Kells Bay, Co Kerry? While places like Derreen, Co Kerry benefit from wild Atlantic backdrops, they also have to contend with formidable rocky foregrounds and need not remind any Irish gardener of our many slugs.

But how do Irish gardens differ from other national and geographical examples, and how much is this due to a mix of climate, topography, soil, society and individual choices and inclinations? What gives the Irish country house garden its distinctive character? Situated at a hub of nature, culture and history, it continues to be a place where Irish, British and European horticultural traditions collide powerfully. It gives the garden of the Irish country house an eerie beauty, as memory, pleasure and tragedy creep along its avenues and weave their way through its glades.

The book celebrates this complex character by examining garden design in all its many dimensions – plan, section, and relationship to buildings and natural elements, as well as the color, massing, and individual habits of trees, shrubs, and flowers. . The chapters are devoted to the vegetable garden, crazy rustic constructions, greenhouses, neglected landscapers, plant hunting, the design of modern country house gardens and the fundamental importance of trees. The writers – historians and designers Terence Reeves-Smyth, Vandra Costello, Ruth Musielak, Stephen Daniels, Laura Johnstone, Jonathan Phibbs, Thomas Pakenham, Séamus O’Brien and Catherine FitzGerald – celebrate with us the great cultural achievement of the house garden of Irish countryside.

Rowallane, County Down.  Photography: Robert O'Byrne

Rowallane, County Down. Photography: Robert O’Byrne

Many chapters of the book ask how Britain and Ireland’s long and often reluctant embrace of the north-east Atlantic Ocean region has affected landscape design patterns – and not just for the small Isle. Landscaping and gardening were eighteenth-century forms of improvement—and often the most revered, because they directly improved agriculture, then the most important economic activity.

Although highly desirable during the early periods of Irish gardening, improvement became an absolute necessity in the 19th century when the presence of gripping rural poverty and the social and political urgency of a society in agricultural crisis forced questions uncomfortable in elite Irish gardens. A model example, produced to meet this urgency, was Kylemore Castle, housed in a most unexpected location – Connemara, then one of the poorest parts of 19th century Europe – and at one time apparently inopportune, namely in the aftermath of the Irish crisis. Great Famine of 1845-49. But Mitchell Henry didn’t just want to build himself a big house and a designed landscape: his intention was to improve the form, management and wider real estate landscape of a very disadvantaged environment, even if he also expressed worrying inequalities. today.

During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Catholic religious orders frequently became unofficial successors to defeated nobility, retaining many of Ireland’s great gardens, if altered for new purposes. However, the many interesting and nuanced gardens that these orders preserved or created have hitherto received little or no attention, and their intricate contributions have too often been lost to redevelopment.

A noteworthy initiative from the state has been the Great Gardens of Ireland Restoration Program which did much to conserve some key gardens and landscapes in the late 1990s and could be revived. It would have to fight effectively against the predilections of former gardeners for specific plants (notably rhododendrons) while responding to pressing ecological imperatives and the challenges of biodiversity.

Bantry House, County Cork.  Photography: Robert O'Byrne

Bantry House, County Cork. Photography: Robert O’Byrne

The different priorities of the “planter’s garden” and the “aesthetic/design garden” are often difficult to reconcile, a situation made more difficult by a pronounced professional divergence in the training of “landscapers” and “gardeners”. Shouldn’t professional training be made more interdisciplinary, which is surely a matter of substantial urgency? Couldn’t we send architects and engineers to interns at the National Botanical Garden and horticulturists to architecture and engineering firms?

In 2009, the Irish State began publishing an inventory of gardens and designed landscapes for the first time (National Architectural Heritage Inventory of Gardens Survey, see buildingsofireland.ie). Another innovative initiative, it has given Ireland a new way of thinking about landscape heritage because it is less governed by this ancestral obsession of the Irish: the artificial limits of property.

With the inventory, Ireland has begun to recognise, embrace and use its substantial heritage and tradition of landscaping, as overwhelmingly represented in the country house garden – by far the designed landscape easiest to identify on a map. This belated discovery was made despite the irony that Ireland is renowned and recognized worldwide for the quality and importance of its landscapes to a far greater degree than for its cityscapes and, arguably, its architecture. Yet it is still much simpler to enhance and maintain an Irish urban or architectural environment than its landscape counterpart.

Gardens have always been designed to support a life engaged with the natural world by creatively and holistically adapting the environment. This is the potential of the history of the garden: it contains a database of past solutions to many environmental, landscape, gardening and planning problems that plague us today. Development has supported the landscape rather than exploiting it. The designers started with the outdoor space rather than adding it as an afterthought. The extraordinary landscape assets of Ireland are highlighted by these exceptional gardens. We are so lucky to have them – go visit one now.
Digging New Ground: The Irish Country House Garden 1650-1900 is available online at www.igs.ie or from all good bookstores. In Harmony with Nature, the Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900 exhibition exploring the history of the Irish Country House Garden is free at the City Assembly House, Dublin 2, from 20 May until the end of July.

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