Kilmacurragh: sourced in the wild by Megan O’Beirne. A review

A wonderful garden, an author who admires it greatly and a seriously flawed book. kilmacurragh_book_cover The National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh are significant for the historic collection of plants which are grown there, plants introduced by the most famous of plant collectors of a bygone era and because the gardens are now in a phase of their redevelopment when yesteryear’s collections are being cared for and those of today’s plant collectors are being grown. We have a past and a present together and a very promising future. Megan O’Beirne has obviously come to enjoy these gardens since she began visiting in 2009. She is a visual artist and writer and felt inspired by the gardens: “Another project was born…a resolution to fill a vacuum, to make an art book comprising words and images which attempt to capture the spirit of the place as I experienced it.” She speaks glowingly of the gardens and paints them in a positive and complimentary light: “Kilmacurragh…has a dynamic present. It is cared for to a high professional standard and there is an air of progressive planting” and later, “The unequivocal remit of the current management has been solely the restoration of the arboretum and its plant collection and they discharge this responsibility with outstanding dedication and flair.”

The book follows a logical and historic thread beginning with a general overview of the history and layout of the grounds and proceeding with chapters on the religious background to the site, the interplay with Cromwell, the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, the great plant collectors, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the glorious years of the twentieth century and latter years after the departure of the Acton family from the property. Sections of the book read very awkwardly as though the author has collected notes from various sources but has failed to work them into a smooth and coherent narrative.

The photography is generally of a style which fails to show the plants to their best with many of inconsequential and distracting detail and I found the placing of photographs which lacked relevance to the text quite a nuisance – a number of close-up photographs of tree trunks to accompany a chapter on the family involvement with Cromwell, for example, while in Chapter 5 on the Seventeenth – Eighteenth Century, there is a similar scattering of photographs which seem to serve no other purpose than to fill space.

Of greater significance is the mislabelling of photographs with even such a common plant as aquilegia (page 154) labelled as Aconitum carmichaelii or the ‘Oak in autumn’ on page 80 which is a beech tree. On 41, the plant captioned as Fascicularia bicolor ssp. bicolor is, in fact, the very distinctive Fascicularia bicolor ssp. canaliculata. On 79. The tree captioned as Cupressus lusitanica is Cupressus lusitanica ‘Glauca Pendula’. The rare Quercus robur ‘Variegata’ shown on page 84 is captioned as Quercus robur. Though stated to be Lilium henryi the plant shown on page 115 is actually Lilium leichtlinii. On page 125 the tree captioned as Quercus pyrenaica is the rare Quercus pyrenaica ‘Pendula’ and this error is repeated on page 142. The plant captioned as Pieris forrestii on page 127 is Pieris formosa from the Himalaya.  There are others!

There are many factual inaccuracies which an enthusiastic gardener would notice: Rhododendon fortunei was not collected by Joseph.D. Hooker; it is a Chinese species, not Himalayan, and has no ties with Hooker – page 21. Joseph Hooker did not source R. loderi (correctly R. Loderi Group) in the wild; it is an English hybrid raised by Sir Leonard Loder at his garden, Leonardslee, in Sussex while .  Rhododendron ‘Altaclarense’ (which appears throughout the book as Rhododendron ‘altaclarense’) is not a common species but rather a hybrid – pages 37-38  – and should be correctly named Rhododendron ‘Thomas Acton’ – see A Heritage of Beauty, page 206. There was never a Veitch nursery in Cornwall; there was one in Chelsea and another in Exeter (Devon) and the famous French missionaries David & Delavay did not collect in Japan – both on page 100.   And, again, I could go on.

There is a similar frequency of inaccuracies relating to the family history and the history of the gardens but it would be a tedious litany to list them here. However, there are a few seriously misleading, intolerable and unforgivable statements in this book which cannot be allow pass. The author questions the ethics of the Acton family’s relief work during famine times on page 51 and, again, in an interview with Sylvia Thompson (“Kilmacurragh Arboretum: Ireland’s secret garden”, Irish Times, March 7th) when she referred to the family’s “arrogance” and how she was “disturbed” by the family’s “disconnectedness from the suffering of the Famine”. The author was taken to task about this in a letter to the newspaper from Richard Pine, author of “Charles: The Life and World of Charles Acton”, a book which Megan O’Beirne’s quoted from freely in her own work. Richard Pine wrote to the newspaper: “It would be difficult to be more unjust to William Acton (1789-1854), MP for Wicklow, who in 1843 said in the House of Commons that he was “anxious to rescue the unfortunate and destitute hundreds and thousands of his fellow countrymen”. Acton was the chairman of the Rathdrum Poor Law Union; he was hailed as “the Friend of the Poor” – hardly arrogant or disconnected. In 1822 and 1845 during periods of famine he had walls and ditches made on his estate, and extensions built to his house, in order to give employment to local people and to refugees from the west of Ireland. The family diary of the time gives specific evidence of this work and comments that “absentee landlords made it worse spending their money in London instead of Ireland”. The Actons were distinguished from many of their neighbours in that they were consistently resident on their estate, and enjoyed good relations with their tenants.”  

The current Oak Avenue at Kilmacurragh was the original Dublin – Wexford road and it is heavily documented that this was Cromwell’s route to Wexford town – see Richard Pine’s biography of Charles Acton, for example – yet this is lightly cast aside by the author with the flippant assertion that it “may be imaginative speculation”. Perhaps the largest and most historically misleading inaccuracies centre on the author’s account of Thomas Acton IV. On page 110 the author, without any citation, states that it was William Acton (Thomas Acton IV’s father) who purchased William Lobb’s collection from Messrs Veitch. Thomas had being managing the estate for his father since 1851 and he and and his sister, Janet, had taken a great interest in the gardens before that date and it was Thomas Acton IV who expanded the Chilean collection at Kilmacurragh, through his purchases from Messrs Veitch. The Patagonian cypress – mentioned on page 118 – was not planted by William Acton; again this is a Thomas Acton IV plant. On page 119: Juniperus recurva, Cupressus lusitanica (by pond) and Cryptomeria japonica were not planted by William Acton; they are all Thomas Acton IV trees. Page 120: William Acton has no associations with William Lobb; again this is Thomas Acton IV. Page128: William Acton was not concerned with getting wild origin plants for Kilmacurragh; this was Thomas Acton IV through David & Frederick Moore. The same error is repeated on page 144.

In summary, this is a seriously flawed book – the lack of an index is another big failing –  which does a great disservice to the garden it wishes to describe. However, in fairness to the author, I feel she truly is an admirer of the gardens, its history, the heritage of the Acton family and the present work and future plans for the gardens yet I cannot recommend this book to you.

Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook.

Leave a Reply