Peter Dowdall visits the famed island in West Cork and marvels at the range of plants on offer.

Some trips are all about the destination and some are all about the journey. The best of them, of course, are about both. 

The journey should be a story in itself, whetting the appetite for the final destination.

I recently hopped on the Harbour Queen Ferry in Glengarriff to begin my journey to Garnish Island in Bantry Bay. 

The day started off in typical Irish summer form, so cloudy and wet on the way that we thought seriously about turning back and abandoning the idea.

Thankfully, we persevered and, by the time we arrived at the pier, the sun, while not quite splitting the stones, was visible in the blue sky. 

Glengarriff is one of my favourite towns in West Cork and I always arrive there after the essential stop in Mannings in Ballylickey for the best coffee and scone you’re likely to find in Ireland.

I must have driven this road a thousand times, but I never tire of it, the life in the hedgerows and ditches, the beautiful inlets and harbours.

Arriving in Glengarriff, the sunshine bouncing off the Eccles Hotel, brings to mind much earlier times, the seasonal colours in the gardens and planted displays adorning nearly every business, showing themselves off at their best. It’s impossible not to fall in love with the place.

Then, to step aboard the ferry and see the countryside smothered in sunshine, could there be many places in the world more beautiful. Of course, this isn’t just a ferry journey to visit the world-renowned gardens at Garnish. 

No, this journey is something special all in itself. If there was no destination and it was just a trip around the bay alone, it would be worth the fee, but there’s more than that.

When your out there admiring the natural beauty all around, it’s then that the magical part begins. 

It’s then when you’re not expecting it that you realise you’re not alone, in fact you are travelling through the home and breeding waters of many magnificent seals. 

At first you see one or two sunbathing on the rocks looking bloated as if they had too big a breakfast and need to just chill out for a while. 

Then, before you know it, they’re everywhere. It really is a privilege to be at such close quarters with these beautiful creatures.

I wonder how John Annan Bryce felt when he first made this journey, for it was he who in 1910 bought the island from the war office who had built a Martello Tower here due to its important position during the failed French invasion over a hundred years earlier.

Annan Bryce and his wife Violet employed the renowned architect Harold Peto to design a mansion and garden on the island. 

Peto was a great advocate of the Italian and more formal school of garden design and, though the more informal Robinsonian school of design was en vogue at the time, Peto felt that the two could co exist side by side, a more managed garden within a wilder surround. What better place than Ilnacullin, the Irish name for Garnish, to illustrate his belief.

Peto designed the stunning and quite formal Italian Garden in the midst of a wild and thus far untamed island. 

The literal translation of Ilnacullin is Island of Holly, which gives an idea of what was here before the landscapers arrived.

Standing in the picture-postcard Italian Garden, one can see the Atlantic. In between is wild planting, which illustrates Peto’s point of order among nature.

It interesting that this year, over a hundred years after the garden was created and over 80 years since Peto died, the winner of the Best in Show Garden at RHS Chelsea was the Telegraph Garden, designed be Andy Sturgoen. 

It represented a ‘captured landscape’ in which a gently gardened space exists within a larger, wilder setting. Quite a bit before his time was Peto.

The Italian Garden is what is most photographed in Ilnacullin, but there is so much more to see. 

I love the classic herbaceous beds, which are being maintained impeccably by Finbarr O’Sullivan and the OPW, the owners of this jewel. 

Magnificent stands of stately delphiniums command centre stage among watsonias of different colours, rodgersias, phlox, and crocosmias. 

Dahlias the size of soup plates are here in this walled garden, big blousy irises too, probably finished flowering by now, grow nearby. 

I love the sheer scale and showmanship of these dahlias, but I can understand they could be too much for some.

Better to visit and experience this magical place than to read about the semi-tropical climate that Garnish enjoys, thanks to its location in the warm Gulf Stream of Bantry Bay which allows plants to grow here that you won’t find in other part of of Ireland.

* On September 10, I will be taking a group to visit Garnish as part of the Taste of West Cork Food Festival. 


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