Ireland Tour - 2003, Dublin and Cork

Des Kennedy is our hand picked host for our Ireland tours...following is his recap of the tour along with two pictures sent in to us by Pat, our guide on the tour. We will put up others as they arrive...

Thirteen avid gardeners - from the Maritimes, the Prairies and the West Coast - formed an extremely companionable group for last August's 2003 Gardens of Ireland tour. Included were a mother and her daughter, an aunt and her niece, and a marvelous older couple one of whom had spent her girlhood in Dublin. As with the previous year, we were lucky to again have local tour guide par excellence Pat McColgan and coach driver Dermot Geary - two characters of classic Irish wit and charm.

For our first four nights we were headquartered at the Hilton Dublin hotel on the Grand Canal in Dublin. First morning out, we began with a coach tour of Dublin, taking in many of the city's great landmarks - Saint Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin Castle, Merrion Square, Trinity College and all the rest. Then we proceeded to the National Botanic Gardens, spread over 49 acres and containing more than 20,000 plant species. Our guided tour focused on the spectacular glass houses containing cacti, orchids, succulents and numerous tropicals, including an astonishingly large Amazon water lily, and on the many choice tree specimens in the arboretum.

After lunch we journeyed out to Trim in County Meath to visit Butterstream Garden, hailed by House and Garden magazine as "the most imaginative garden in Ireland." Jim Reynolds, its owner and creator, personally toured us around, engaging us with humourous tales while showing us the thirteen different compartments that compose his sprawling masterpiece of canals, pools, topiary, herbaceous borders and colour-themed garden rooms.

Our second day offered another two highly refined private gardens. The morning was spent at the brilliant walled city garden of Helen and Val Dillon. Despite a busy schedule, Helen accompanied us through the garden, discussing its design and identifying many of its rare and exotic specimens. Val took several of us into the heart of the garden - the composting area - where he showed us his shredder and we all compared notes on the beauty of shredding.

Heading south through the rolling hills of County Wicklow, we stopped for lunch at the National Garden Exhibition Centre in Kilquade. Here nineteen separate display gardens, each with clearly-labeled plants, offer a range of design concepts from traditional to contemporary.

The afternoon was highlighted by a visit to the Bay Garden in County Wexford. This is the creation of Frances and Ian MacDonald who have transformed a derelict farm yard into a place of extraordinary beauty. Like Butterstream, the garden has a series of distinct compartments - a rose garden, pool garden, a funereal border of sombre colours, a hot coloured border and more. I particularly loved the silver and grey foliage border in front of an old brick stable whose doors have been painted a vivid deep blue.

On Wednesday morning we were treated to two exquisite smaller city gardens in Dublin, each designed by an accomplished plants person. First we met Carmel Duignan who welcomed us graciously and showed us around her marvelous compositions of mixed borders, trees and shrubs, including many unusual varieties grown from seed.

Equally charming, Anna Nolan's suburban garden is likewise home to an intriguing display of unusual species, including many miniatures such as her barely-visible dwarf Gunnera. Like Carmel, Anna was most gracious in explaining her approach to garden design and methods of plant propagation.

Our heads by then swimming with plant names and gorgeous gardens, we had "free time" on Wednesday afternoon and went our separate ways to explore Dublin's attractions. Many of the group ended up in the Abbey Theatre that evening for a production of Oliver Goldsmith's 'She Stoops to Conquer'.

On Thursday morning we packed our bags and boarded the coach for the trip south to Cork City. The heat wave that was at this time wreaking so much havoc in continental Europe was also pushing temperatures in Ireland well above average. During the trip south we hit patches of hot sticky roadway where the tar was melting from the sun's heat. The good news for us was that we enjoyed brilliantly blue skies and clear sunny days throughout the tour.

We stopped en route at the magnificent Rock of Cashel, Ireland's premiere ecclesiastical ruin. A bit farther south, the haunting ruins of Bridgetown Abbey, nestled in a lovely rural valley where the Aubeg and Blackwater rivers conjoin, offered us another glimpse of mediaeval ecclesiastical Ireland minus the swarms of tourists at Cashel.

That evening we checked into Jury's Cork Hotel, a venerable old establishment on the banks of the River Lee.

Friday we explored the charming town of Cobh with its historic harbour and hilltop cathedral, and then Fota House and Grounds on Fota Island. The garden and arboretum here are of international importance because of the wide range and diversity of plants, including many southern hemisphere exotics, that flourish in the garden's Gulf Stream microclimate. Again we were fortunate to be guided around the estate by head gardener David O Regan who set more than a couple of hearts throbbing amongst our group.

Saturday morning we visited two lovely Cork City gardens - Ann Moloney's beautifully designed 2-acre formal garden and Catherine McHale's joyfully exuberant small city garden. Next came one of the tour's unsurpassed highlights - a visit to Lakemount Gardens in the hills above Cork with its creator Brian Cross. An accomplished painter, Brian has created what is described as "one of Ireland's foremost gardens." And indeed it is. Artistic in its arrangements, lush in its growth, inspiring in its beauty, this is a truly marvelous garden. We pulled ourselves away only with the greatest reluctance.

On our way home we visited Blarney Castle, but I don't believe any of our stalwarts kissed the Blarney Stone. There appeared to be no appreciable diminishment of eloquence as we chatted in the coach on the way home.

Our final day (oh, woe!) Was taken up with a journey to the lovely hills of County Kerry where we visited Muckross House and Garden near Killarney. The gem of the 10,000 hectare Killarney National Park, the Muckross estate is one of Ireland's most popular attractions. And with good reason. Completed in 1843, the house itself is marvelous, containing a stunning collection of original antique furnishings, draperies and artifacts, and situated on the impossibly picturesque shores of Muckross Lake. The 20 hectares of garden are informal in layout with expansive lawns and woodlands that blend perfectly into the surrounding vistas of lake and mountain.

After a farewell dinner that evening, at which we celebrated the grand time we'd had together, we bid each other farewell and went our separate ways with the memory of gorgeous Irish gardens and landscapes vivid in our imaginations.

Donna's Note - please be sure to visit our ICanTravel area for the upcoming tours!



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