Peter Dowdall: A garden heaven in the Kingdom

Every so often, you come across a publicly owned garden that is that bit exceptional
Peter Dowdall: A garden heaven in the Kingdom

Everything's coming up roses: Michael Doyle, head gardener, Killarney House and Gardens, pruning this year's roses at Killarney House. Pictures: Valerie O'Sullivan

Cork is known as the Independent Republic whilst Kerry is referred to as the Kingdom. Within this Kingdom, there are many, smaller fiefdoms and chief among them is the town of Killarney.

Killarney seems to exist and thrive all on its own, not taking into account whatever is happening in the rest of the country. It goes from strength to strength.

It doesn’t allow itself to be constrained by the fact that it is a small town in a rural county on the periphery of Ireland and Europe, rather it uses this to its advantage, serving up some of the best restaurants, hotels, and tourist amenities in the country. One of the latest such amenities to be added that list is Killarney House and Gardens.

The 2021 roses at Killarney House and Gardens.
The 2021 roses at Killarney House and Gardens.

Killarney House and Gardens is a relatively recent addition to Killarney National Park. It now houses the fabulously impressive interpretive centre for the entire National Park behind a magnificent hedgerow of Rosa Wild Edric, along with recently restored pleasure gardens which act as a gateway from the town centre into the larger National Park. I couldn’t help but admire them with more than a hint of jealousy.

The cherry blossom walk.
The cherry blossom walk.

In the 1550s, the first member of the Browne family, Valentine Browne, came to Ireland to serve as auditor general of Ireland for England.

In the 1680s the family were gifted Ross Castle, which had been confiscated from the O’Donovan Ross Clan. In the 1720s the Brownes built Kenmare House on the grounds, in the style of a French chateau.

In 1861, when Queen Victoria stood and admired the view in Knockreer, in another part of Killarney, she decided that this position would be a fantastic spot to build a house.

Everything's coming up roses: Michael Doyle, head gardener, Killarney House and Gardens, pruning this year's roses at Killarney House. Pictures: Valerie O'Sullivan
Everything's coming up roses: Michael Doyle, head gardener, Killarney House and Gardens, pruning this year's roses at Killarney House. Pictures: Valerie O'Sullivan

As a result, the original Kenmare House was demolished and a new one constructed by the Browne family at Knockreer.

The stable block at the original Kenmare House remained and this was later converted into living accommodation. This house and the fantastic gardens remained in the Browne family until 1956, when Beatrice Grosvenor, niece of Gerald, the 7th and last Earl of Kenmare, sold the estate to an American syndicate.

Irish Americans John and Mary McShain purchased it from the syndicate in 1960 and renamed it Killarney House and later, in the 1970s, the McShains donated a large part of the estate to the Irish people as part of the National Park.

Drone footage of Killarney House and Gardens. Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan
Drone footage of Killarney House and Gardens. Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan

The gardens had merited reference in Queen Victoria’s journal where she wrote: “The view from the bedroom over the lake with Islands and two long borders of flowers on either side of the grass and walks is quite lovely.”

But they had fallen to neglect during the latter part of the 20th century and, as she does, nature had recolonised the space for herself. Until 2016 what had been ornamental gardens of some repute were now behind a railing under grass, being grazed upon by Kerry cattle.

In 1998, Mary McShain passed away and the entire estate was handed over to the Irish people. Elizabeth Morgan, retired, senior landscape conservation architect with the Office of Public Works, spent many years researching the history of the gardens.

On behalf of me and the cherry trees, well done, everyone! Michael Doyle, head gardener, Killarney House and Gardens.
On behalf of me and the cherry trees, well done, everyone! Michael Doyle, head gardener, Killarney House and Gardens.

Using old Ordnance Survey maps, pictures and even some aerial photographs from the 1960s, she began to gain an understanding and an idea of how the gardens were laid out. The archaeological process of trenching confirmed her findings and the original paths and outlines of many of the original beds were found, remarkably close to the surface.

The first planting project to be initiated was the Cherry Walk which flanks one side of the garden, note to self, I must remember to visit during April and May when these cherry blossoms are in bloom.

The garden restoration project, which quite literally brought the past back to life, began in 2014 when the flower beds and paths were re-instated and planted up before the official opening in August 2016.

Ensuring that the gardens here are being maintained, planted and expertly cared for, is head gardener Michael Doyle. Hailing from Beaufort in the Kingdom, Michael, who trained in Kildalton, spent time in Garinish Island as well as the world-renowned Hillier Gardens in England.

Every so often, you come across a publicly owned garden that is that bit exceptional. This is one and it is always due to the head gardener. If they don’t feel it, don’t love it, don’t understand the garden then it is less than exceptional.

THE gardens at Killarney House are being maintained to a very high level. We are lucky to have someone like Michael steering the ship, for the experience he must have gained in tending and managing herbaceous beds at the Hillier Gardens is an intangible asset when running a garden such as this.

Seeing the gardens in full summer colour it is hard to believe that it is just two gardeners, Michael along with Martin Crowley, who are maintaining it so well.

These gardens aren’t huge, they open into the greater landscape of the vast National Park of course, but the maintained pleasure gardens around the house contain the Cherry Walk, a long herbaceous border, and a series of parterre style beds around the central bed.

Autumn flowers at Killarney House and Gardens.
Autumn flowers at Killarney House and Gardens.

Of particular note, is the presence of a “goose foot”, a typical formal garden feature of the time in French gardens, correctly referred to as a “patte d’oie”. This is of note due to its peculiarity in Ireland. I’m not aware of any other existing here.

There is a magnificent Castenea sativa, Spanish chestnut, growing alongside the house which to my eye must be over 200 years old and possible dates back to the 1700s when the original house was built and on the other side of the house is a Walnut tree which possibly dates back that far too, certainly older than any I have seen anywhere.

It is the herbaceous bed though which is of most note here. Running to 215m, is this the longest herbaceous border in Ireland? I certainly think so.

Killarney House and Gardens, Autumn. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan
Killarney House and Gardens, Autumn. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

Fabulously planted colour combinations run seamlessly into one another. Complementary colours of Thalictrum Hewitts Double planted alongside Verbena bonariensis are the tallest flowering plants here and they mix with thuggish anemones and acanthus along with some more genteel garden guests such as veronicastrums and dahlias. This doesn’t happen by accident. The bullies need to be kept in check and the less aggressive need to be given space to thrive.

These, along with rudbeckia, Agapanthus anaphylis, Geranium rozanne and osteospermum were providing the bulk of the colour in the bed when I visited, fabulously punctuated at intervals by the airy and stately Stipa gigantea. Other grasses too are used a lot in this planting such as various varieties of molinia and miscanthus providing texture, movement and form in amongst all the colour.

Aster Little Carlow has clumped up nicely here too and is full of bud, ready to do its thing as others fade. It is a plant prone to powdery mildew but a good mulch with leaf mould and composted garden waste over the winter months has paid dividends as it looks in rude health right now.

The parterre beds in the more formal area of the garden contain many colours which are more shocking and vibrant.

Many of the dahlias with mahogany coloured foliage are used to provide colour right into early winter. Bishop of Llandaff, Bishop of Auckland and Bishop of York along with Dahlia Fascination are jaw-droppingly
beautiful right now. Planted in amongst them are clumps of the very dramatic Canna Tropicana black form with its dark-chocolate-coloured leaves and bright red/orange flowers only beginning to bloom when I visited.

National parks throughout the world tend to be in isolated and remote locations. When the British built mansions and palaces they knew how to do it and where to do it.

The gardens here were preened to within an inch of their lives in the weeks and months running up to August 26, 1861, for the visit of Queen Victoria. I imagine the only members of the public that would have had access to the gardens were those employed on the estate.

It is fitting that these gardens were opened up completely to the public on August 26, 2016, exactly 155 years later.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge and into the lakes in that 155 years and it is thanks to the philanthropy of two Irish American families, the Bourn Vincents of Muckross and the McShains of Killarney House that we, the Irish people, now own and can enjoy these remarkable places. 

Where else in Ireland could you walk such a short distance from a town centre, or a hotel bedroom to an area immediately around Killarney House which is a protected architectural area, and on into a Biosphere Reserve, a category two national park which is the highest level of protection that a park can have, and a special area of conservation? Only in the Kingdom.

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