The Irish Garden, A Cultural History

What is it that makes an Irish garden different? Our gardens and what we can grow in them are most influenced by our climate and soil type. Devon, Cornwall, western Scotland and, indeed, many parts of England have basic conditions very similar to those in Irish gardens yet our gardens differ and it is this difference and the reasons for this difference that Peter Dale examines and seeks to clarify in this book.

Ireland does not have the richness of gardening one witnesses on a visit to Great Britain; there are certainly fewer gardens and much fewer grand gardens here. Factors of history and culture weigh heavily on Irish gardening. By the end of the 17th century only 15% of the land of Ireland remained in Irish ownership which left an impoverished native population and a settling population whose interests might be described as more exploitative than developing. Culturally, gardening has been viewed as something which went with the big house and the Irish cottage garden, in comparison to the fabled English cottage garden, was a place to grow potatoes and keep a pig. Gardens were Protestant and English; the demesnes had pleasure gardens while the Irish had potato gardens; gardening was not part of Catholic nationalism.

We are a young gardening nation and it has only been in latter years that gardening has become an established national pastime. This pastime, particularly in an Irish context, has been boosted by a number of factors – a wealth of plant introductions by the likes of Dr. Augustine Henry which found conditions here which suited them perfectly; a number of plant nurseries, Daisy Hill, Slieve Donard, Watsons of Killiney among them, which introduced outstanding plants for Irish gardens and the monumentally influential garden writer William Robinson whose “The Wild Garden” might be read as a template for the very best of Irish gardens, Mount Usher, Annes Grove for example.

The book brings together a number of Peter Dale’s previously published articles. Such collections are not uncommon but this one differs in that the author has reworked them to create a single narrative on Irish gardens. The articles/chapters cover visits to twenty Irish gardens, some more extensively described and discussed than others, and here gathered into a narrative on what is an Irish garden and what is distinctive about it. Illustrations are by Brian Lalor, small line drawings which are generic in nature rather than being specific to any of the gardens.

In the course of his discussions the author reflects on Irish gardens with comments and descriptions that are entertaining and insightful and, perhaps, a little contentious:

Annes Grove – “The genius of the place is Ireland itself and Ireland’s own gardener, William Robinson.”

Birr Castle: “A premium on style but with a virtual embargo on swank.”

Mount Usher: “where contrivance and artifice are altogether discounted, and so are formality and system, but not cohesion, flow, sympathetic concurrence and cohesion.”

Carraig Abhann: “One of the very first of a new generation of ambitious but generally smaller gardens whose origins lie not in a role as artfully contrived landscape for the better display and appreciation of a big house but in the horticultural passions of ordinary people, people modest in every way except that their gardens matter to them.”

Wren’s Wood: “might be considered the most pure of Irish gardens included in this book for it is a garden made entirely of its place, of its rocks and stones”.

Powerscourt: French, not Irish, a retail experience, corporate. Airfield: a theme park!

Butterstream – a fabulous experiment to develop a truly Irish garden independent of a large house though it then seemed to copy Hidcote and Sissinghurst and now, most significantly, illustrates the transience of gardens as it has vanished and is now under concrete.

Mount Stewart, Illnacullin, Derreen, Altamont, Mount Congreve, Rowallane, The Dillon Garden, June Blake’s and Huntingbrook are among other gardens included in the selection and part of the discussion. The selection is from those gardens which are open to the public, a selection which I believe presents a tainted view of Irish gardens for these gardens are designed and developed as attractions, to draw visitors and generate income. A more balanced judgement on Irish gardens might have been reached had the author visited and commented on what he himself describes as “gratuitous” gardens, those developed by the owner not for money, not to impress but simply for enjoyment.

The chapters of this book were originally individual, stand-alone essays and not written with this theme of examining what an Irish garden is in mind but have been reworked to suit this publication. In places, this re-editing is chunky and awkward – some introductory paragraphs added to preface an article but not lying well with it, too obviously a later addition rather than part of the original. Yet, despite these areas which did not appeal to me there was a great amount of the book which I enjoyed thoroughly.

There were times when reading this book when I thought it ought to be part of every gardener’s education, essential reading in all horticultural colleges, and other times when it would be cruel to inflict it on the same students. The author brings together what are obviously two great loves in his life, horticulture and literature, and he writes wonderfully on both but I find it difficult to imagine there is a wide readership with these shared interests. My interest was in the horticultural discussion and I found the frequent and, at times, in depth references to Irish myth and literature, the search for paradise, Hy Brasil, journeys of discovery, Brendan the Navigator, the search for Shangi La, Never Never Land etc and particularly a final chapter given entirely to an examination of “Ireland as a Place in the Mind”  tedious and more for the “gardener” with ink stains on the finger rather then dirt under the nails. I tend more towards the latter.

The book is, I suppose, like many a garden, even the very best of gardens, that has parts which appeal to us and parts which don’t; yet at the end of the day we are glad that we have visited and glad they we have read the book.

[The Irish Garden, A Cultural History, Peter Dale, The History Press, Dublin, 2018, Hardback, 384 pages, ISBN: 978 0 7509 8809 4]

The Irish Garden Peter Dale