The weather is growing balmy if not entirely dry, but don’t let the blasted drizzle defeat an early visit to one of Ireland’s horticultural fantasies.
The aristocratic pleasure grounds of Fota in the care of the Irish Heritage Trust, are some of the most atmospheric, accessible and beautiful in the country. The individual gardens with their distinct character, and extensive parkland surrounding any great house are integral to seeing it at the centre of an idealised landscape and ‘as was’.
The culinary engine and ambitious horticultural features developed to serve the household and impress all comers, have been meticulously restored here, and are superbly maintained by staff of the OPW. Walls, glass houses and green shelter, even poised by the scalding Atlantic, allowed a micro-climate at Fota that could coax bananas.
Chase iridescent blue dragonflies down by the lake, seek cool secrecy in the flowering shrubby walks, or simply dream hand in hand on the stepped lawns overlooking the house. Lolling around outside will cost you nothing more than a parking fee.
Children will find the mysterious, undulating kingdom of the Fernery studded with lava rock, created during the time of ‘fern fever’ (pteridomania) completely fascinating, the calls of the peacocks and cheetahs from the Wildlife Park raking the air.
Look out for the poignant pets’ graveyard of the Smith Barry family, pose by the Orangery, snuff up the exotic rarities in the fabulous plantations from as far away as the Pacific with their shifting canopy, and rest on the Georgian elliptical ‘whisper’ bench, ideal to coax flirting couples.
Tours of the house and kitchen garden are now underway again at €11 per adult and €4 per child (concessions available). The annual Plant and Garden Fair takes place on Sunday from 11am. to 4pm. €8 entry. Fotahouse.com.
In 1973, Stanley Kubrick filmed some scenes for his despised, dragging behemoth of Georgian tragedy Barry Lyndon, staring Ryan O’Neill in Ireland. Among a number of now feted locations. Kubrick used the rooms and precipitous gardens of Powerscourt House, a heady cascade of Georgian wonder near Enniskerry in County Wicklow. The following year, a fire would take most of the house (the film remains an important record of the original ballroom).
The 47 terraced acres originally planted in 1731 surrounding Powerscourt House are a walk in the clouds and recently voted No.3 in the World’s Top Ten Gardens by National Geographic. They were only beaten by Versailles and Kew. Though crowded at high tide in the summer, they never fail to impress overall, and delight in the detail, with their inventive planting, elegant architecture and jaw dropping panoramic views.
If you want to all but hear the swish of the shot silk of the de la Poer ladies, their wigged heads intoxicated with Bourbon roses, heroic rakes and fresh mountain air — Powerscourt is your place.
The Slazenger family still own and manage the estate (Alex Slazenger is head gardener) and have just introduced a fascinating new audio-visual tour this year. Again, it’s the individual kingdoms of this Renaissance masterpiece that make a visit last the hours and earn the ticket — The Walled Gardens, The Italian Garden, The Dolphin Pond, The Japanese Gardens, Pets Cemetery and Pepperpot Tower, Adults €10, Children from €5.
Having seen the gardens before the tourist buses arrive in legion, escape to Powerscourt Waterfall (unmissable) a five minute drive away. This spectacle with its picnic spots includes the scented, sylvan 3km River Walk laid out by the Viscount of Powerscourt in 1868, a lovely anecdote to all the gentile formality of the house. Adults €6, Children from €3.50. Shop on site at the waterfall.
Garinish Island or Ilnacullin (Island of Holly) compromises some 15 tamed and wooly hectares of mesmerizing Robinsonian planting tensioned to (William Robinson would have baulked, Italian formality.
Part of a swooning area of natural beauties, Garinish has always enjoyed a reputation as a gardeners’ garden, presenting ideas in the robust and tender achievable to every third of an acre, and favoured for repeat visits by Irish and foreign visitors.
This determined Edwardian vision lapped by the Gulf Stream was commissioned by owner John Annan Bryce MP (1874-1924), and English architect Harold Peto (1854-1933). The crucial input of Murdo Mackenzie the celebrated Scottish horticulturist who took over the care of Garinish in 1928 (staying on Garinish for the rest of his life), guaranteed the garden’s success and survival.
Reaching the island by a stable, enclosed water-bus skimming through Bantry Bay sets the mood for total escape, and includes a visit to the seal colony lapped by relatively calm waters — so don’t fear queasy, land-lubbers.
Formerly a British Army outpost skewered with a still extant Martello Tower, the island was bought by Bryce from the War Office in 1910 and finally gifted to the nation in 1953 on the death of Annan’s son Roland.
In hard form, Garinish is best known for its Grecian temple looking out to the Caha Mountains, the Casita (c.1915 tea-house) and mirror pool, the idealized elements dissolving in romantic walks in a delicious confection of herbaceous borders, glades and hysteric rhododendron, fragrant myrtle and sub-tropical azaleas (they do love it here don’t they?)
Unusual specimen quizzes will keep any keen gardener bent at the waist and wondering just what is that lovely thing? The garden was a learning experience for Byrce, Peto and Mackenzie, who lost much of their original enthusiastic efforts to the buffeting Atlantic before planting protective shelter belts of Scots and Monterrey pine.
Take the Harbour Queen Ferry II from the Glengarrif Pier or at the Blue Pool Ferry in the centre of the town. Wear stout shoes for the stepping stones in the Happy Valley and allow at least 2 hours to enjoy the island and its café.
Bryce House where Murdo Mackenzie and housekeeper, Margaret O’Sullivan lived, has been recently restored and opened to the public by the OPW. Self-guided. Boat €10/€12 per round trip, garden €4 per adult, €2 per child.