Robert O’Byrne celebrates Ireland’s historic gardens

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Ireland’s Historic Gardens is a new two-part documentary written and presented by author and historian Robert O’Byrne, examining the history of Ireland’s country house gardens over the past 400 years – a period in which the garden design reflected the political and social changes that took place in the country.

The documentary is accompanied by an art exhibition at the City Assembly House in Dublin. View Ireland’s Historic Gardens here, via RTÉ Player.

Below, Robert explores the “exceptional heritage” of the nation’s walled gardens …

Anyone traveling to the countryside will be familiar with the sight of the stone walls, indicating the boundaries of the Big House estates that once covered much of Ireland. But if you are able to look over the walls – getting on a double-decker bus is helpful – you’ll usually see a second set of walls, often covered with brick: these would have contained one of the walled gardens that hang for many years. many centuries were also a feature of our landscape.

Walled gardens have a long history stretching back thousands of years. Garden historian Terence Reeves-Smith estimates that there are a total of some 8,000 walled gardens in Ireland, in various states of repair, not all of which are active yet.

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Listen: Robert O’Byrne talks about Ireland’s historic gardens on RTÉ arena

One of the earliest survivors is the Upper Garden of Lismore Castle in County Waterford, created in the early 17th century in what was originally built as defensive walls protecting the castle from attack. Today, these soft stones show little evidence of their ancient function. As the assaults that Lismore Castle and many other similar properties have been subjected to wears off and more stable conditions prevailed, houses have started to replace castles as the landowners’ preferred choice of residence and gardens. clos have become more and more fashionable. Typically, the walls demarcated an area near the house, within which were various compartments or, as they might now be called, “garden rooms.”

, Andrea Jameson’s painting of the Gardens at Tourin, Co. Waterford

Another garden historian, Vandra Costello, noted how, particularly in the previous examples, “it is impossible to separate the productive garden from the decorative garden … The two were inextricably linked and each intervention on the landscape had a practical purpose”. A pond or channel could be added, for example, and while being attractive, it could also be used for breeding fish for home owners’ consumption.

The typical walled garden is surrounded by walls that rise three or four meters, although they may be even higher: those at the Ashtown estate in Dublin’s Phoenix Park are almost 4.88 meters high. Walls have several functions, one being to exclude the wind (tree breezes have often been planted nearby for the same reason). The exclusion of the cold wind helps to create a microclimate in which plants can thrive better, and brick retains the sun’s heat longer than stone, which is why the walls were frequently covered with this material. But the walls also prevented wildlife that might otherwise benefit from what was grown inside, as well as human predators tempted to sample a variety of prime delicacies.

Lesley Fennell’s painting of the gardens at Burtown, Co. Kildare

Walled gardens vary greatly in size, one factor being the number of people they are supposed to provide food to: the larger the Big House, the larger the walled garden. The now restored walled gardens of Woodstock, Co. Kilkenny stretch for 1.9 acres, but others could be larger, those at Ballyfin, Co. Laois, spanning nearly seven acres. Ireland’s largest walled garden is believed to be Shane Castle in County Antrim, which spans ten acres and was once famous for its opulence.

Greenhouses are another important feature of walled gardens. In the late 18th century in Bellevue, County Wicklow, a property owned by Dublin banker Peter La Touche and his wife Elizabeth featured a sequence of interconnected verandas and greenhouses that stretched about 500 feet from the l back of the house. When Edmund Burke visited the couple and was shown these buildings filled with exotic fruits and flowers, he exclaimed to his hostess, “Oh, ma’am, it’s absolutely Arabian Nights! “

Altamont Gardens, County Carlow, painted by Maria Levinge

The golden age of walled gardens was probably the second half of the 19th century, when relatively cheap labor allowed the employment of a sufficient number of gardeners, up to 40 of them, necessary to maintain these increasingly elaborate sites. But they continue to be created, even on a smaller scale: a few years ago my sister built her own miniature walled garden in County Westmeath, in which she grows all the fruits and vegetables necessary for the family and friends. And luckily, there has been interest in restoring older sites. In the 1990s, the Benedictine nuns of Kylemore embarked on an ambitious program to rehabilitate their six-acre walled garden, which had become completely overgrown: opened to the public in 2000, Kylemore’s garden won a Europa Nostra Award. Next year. Likewise, in 2011, the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland entered into a 25-year deal to regenerate the old walled garden in Russborough, County Wicklow, which had suffered from a long period of neglect.

An exhibition of walled garden paintings at the Irish Georgian Society’s headquarters, Dublin’s City Assembly House, reflects a revitalized interest in this ancient and interesting branch of gardening. The four participating artists are all active gardeners, as will be apparent to anyone looking at their work; these are people who really understand plants. Alison Rosse and her husband inherited responsibility for one of Ireland’s finest estates at Birr Castle, which features superlative walled gardens landscaped by her late parents. Lesley Fennell can take credit for creating a truly lovely garden in Burtown, County Kildare, now in the care of his son and daughter-in-law who further improved the family home with the creation of a popular spot, the Green Barn, where the vegetables and fruit come from Burtown’s own fertile gardens. With her two sisters, in Tourin, County Waterford, Andrea Jameson ensures that the walled garden remains as productive as ever, while Maria Levinge, having moved a few years ago, has embarked on the creation of ‘a new garden for her and her family in County Wexford. . Appropriately, each of the quartets included images of their own home, but they also ventured further to show the common and different characteristics of walled gardens elsewhere in Ireland.

Kilgobbin, Co. Limerick, painted by Alison Rosse

Like Russborough, some of them benefit from the commitment of industrious volunteers, the Colclough Walled Garden at Tintern Abbey in County Wexford being an admirable example of what can be achieved with sufficient enthusiasm and of energy. Others, attached to country hotels such as Ballymaloe in County Cork, are actively used, as is the one in Burtown, providing fresh produce to all who dine there. A number of the walled gardens included in the exhibit are what could best be described as work in progress as their owners continue year after year to bring another section to life, as is the case at Barmeath , in County Louth. Others, like the ancient walled garden of Crom Castle in County Fermanagh, are awaiting a resurgence. But whatever their condition, they remain an important part of our collective heritage. As environmental awareness grows and more and more of us appreciate the benefits of fresh, locally grown produce, now is the time to celebrate Ireland’s exceptional walled garden heritage.

Historic Gardens of Ireland, RTÉ One, Sunday September 26 & Sunday October 3 at 6.30 p.m. Through the Gate: Inside the Walled Gardens of Ireland: Paintings by Lesley Fennell, Andrea Jameson, Maria Levinge and Alison Rosse, opens at the City Assembly House, Dublin 2 on September 23.


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