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Gardens of Ireland
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

December 29, 2002

Last August I enjoyed the great good fortune of hosting a tour of fine Irish gardens. I had never been to Ireland before, other than in imagination, nor had I ever hosted a tour of this sort, so I felt a thrill of anticipation as our jetliner descended through thick clouds and landed at wet and windy Dublin airport. Ireland was, we soon discovered, suffering through the wettest summer ever recorded. And yet, within hours of our arrival, the thick clouds dispersed and tentative sunshine bathed old Dublin City. It was as fine an omen as might be hoped for.

Gradually our tour group assembled in the lobby of Buswell’s Hotel, a converted old Georgian townhouse on Molesworth St. in the historic centre of the city. Whatever the hotel may have lacked in North American-style opulence it more than compensated for with charm, friendliness and fine food.

Our tour group was composed of eleven persons from virtually all corners of Canada, and a finer gang of avid gardeners you’d be hard pressed to assemble. Our first order of business was to meet our local guide, one Pat McColgan, who proved herself throughout the week a person adept at combining tremendous helpfulness with a wicked wit. Our coach driver, Dermot, added his own droll counterpoint to Pat’s patter.

The first morning, after a traditional Irish breakfast, we clambered aboard Dermot’s coach and were wheeled off for a tour of the city’s grandest sites. Then it was on to visit Helen Dillon, renowned plantswoman, author and broadcaster. One of the finest private gardens in Ireland, the Dillon garden is an inspiration – an almost ½ acre walled city garden containing an impressive array of exotic plants brilliantly combined with familiar old favorites. The garden is handsomely formalized by a long reflecting pool with paved edges that serves to accentuate the fulsome plantings on either side. Meeting Helen and her husband Kay and having tea in their lovely Georgian home completed the experience.

After a pub lunch we pushed on to visit Anna Nolan’s compact suburban garden in Cabinteely. Anna grows a marvelous diversity of plants, including a number of South African species, and specializes in dwarf species, things like miniature gunnera and dwarf rhododendrons growing in troughs. Again the experience was enriched by having Anna herself lead us around the garden, explaining her design ideas and her passion for certain plants.

Then, as we did throughout the week, we retired to Buswell’s for dinner, with the group all eating together and discussing the day’s discoveries.

The second morning saw us travel south from Dublin down into beautiful County Wicklow to tour Mount Usher Gardens, the famous Robinsonian wild garden planted along the banks of the Vartry River. A particular highlight here was seeing the eucryphia trees in gorgeous white bloom – one of many species encountered on the tour that had us muttering “Sure wish we could grow those back home.” The salmon quiche and apple tart with cream at the Mount Usher Gardens Tea Room also went down well.

In the afternoon we made a short hop over to Bray where we met Rosemary Brown, an astonishingly active 86-year-old whose gardens at Craigueconna House cover three lush and lovely acres. Though the rain was back again, it failed to damped Rosemary’s enthusiasm or our admiration of her sumptuous mixed borders and her ‘startling jungle’of shrubs and ferns.

On Wednesday we went south again, into County Wexford, to view the inspiring Bay garden created by Frances and Iain MacDonald around a 19th century farmhouse and yard. Over the span of 15 years Iain and Frances have created an extensive series of garden ‘rooms’ – a classic cottage garden in front; a serpentine garden of island beds and borders; a cruciform rose garden blending old and modern roses in formal box-edged beds; a hot border of brilliant red, orange and gold plants; a unique funereal border of dark purple and almost black flowers; a pool garden; and a new garden inspired by European perennial plantings. Accomplished and knowledgeable, the MacDonalds were entirely gracious and informative hosts.

Still in County Wexford, we stopped for lunch at Marlfield House, a magnificent rural regency mansion which, besides providing a truly memorable lunch, afforded an opportunity to wander its walled gardens and woodlands.

Proceeding from one beauty to the next, we were able to include an unscheduled stop at magnificent Powerscourt Gardens, one of Ireland’s finest examples of the grand estates of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. Nestled in the Wicklow Mountains, the estate contains numerous features – an elaborate Italian garden of terraces, grand steps and statuary, a walled garden containing the longest herbaceous border in Ireland, a Japanese garden, lakes, fountains and gorgeous woodlands.

And thus the week continued as we visited Ram House garden, a magical romantic garden in Coolgreany village, maintained by Mrs. Lolo Stevens, a diminutive lady of immense charm whose cakes completely undid the best intentions of our most diet-conscious members. Then on to Knockcree, a fascinating hillside garden of rare and unusual plants placed masterfully amid natural rock outcrops by owner Shirley Beatty. And equally entrancing Knockcree, a Palladian house with hillside gardens, long banks of lavender and fuchsia, a marvelous potager, pools, a wild garden and a lovely woodland. The owners, John and Ruebelle Ross – she’s a noted garden author – gave us the history of the place and toured us about, pointing out particular features. And, finally, Lodge Park Walled Garden, an 18th century walled garden in County Kildare being restored to its former glory by owners Sarah and John Guinness.

Our last group activity was a traditional Irish evening at the historic Abbey Tavern in Howth, a picturesque fishing village just north of Dublin. Here the food was surprisingly good and the music excellent. I was contentedly sipping my Irish coffee as the evening was winding down when I found an arm thrown familiarly around my shoulders and a somewhat tipsy American matron declaring “Hey, you’re a cute one!” and requiring that I stand to have my “authentic Irishman” photograph taken with her by a battery of her camera-wielding cronies.

And so it was that our tour came to an end. The following morning our group members bid one another a reluctant farewell and went our separate ways. It was, to my mind, a truly memorable week and one I hope we can duplicate in the 2003 version of “Gardens of Ireland” in which we'll explore some of the finest gardens of Cork, Kerry and Dublin.


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