The islands of Ireland: Paradise found on Garinish

This Garinish at Glengarriff Co Cork, is one of four to share the name in the country.

The islands of Ireland: Paradise found on Garinish

By Dan MacCarthy

This Garinish at Glengarriff Co Cork, is one of four to share the name in the country.

There is another exotic Garinish near the Parknasilla Estate at Sneem, Co Kerry and two others on the Beara peninsula: one is near Dursey Island and the other a little west of the most famous one. Garinish is a sufficient title as the addition of ‘island’ here provides a tautology and renders it Near Island Island. Garinish (near island in Irish) is also known as Ilnacullin or the island of the hollies. The island is perfectly situated in Glengarriff Harbour and overlooked by the Caha Mountains.

The development of the gardens was part of a 19th and early 20th century trend inspired by the gardener William Robinson. At Parknasilla for instance, successive lords Lansdowne planted thousands of rhododendrons, myrtles, and tree ferns transforming the landscape into a little bit of Kenya.

For these exotic gardens to succeed certain conditions had to be fulfilled.

First, a microclimate was needed which provided the necessary amounts of sunlight and rainfall to allow tropical plants to flourish. Second, an Anglo-Irish class with connections to British military figures who sojourned in the farflung corners of the empire would definitely help. Third, a suitable empty space, preferably part of a large estate. Garinish fulfilled all criteria. The result, though the plants are obviously alien, is a magnificent achievement.

The Garinish project was undertaken by John Annan Bryce MP in 1910 who employed over 100 men to bring the soil and plants to the island.

After Bryce died his widow Violet and then later his son Rowlands continued to develop the gardens. The gardens were willed to the state in 1953 from when they have been in the care of the OPW. Bryce had business interests in India and Rangoon and was exposed to tropical plants and jungles throughout his travels.

He engaged the services of Harold Peto of Somerset, the famous landscape designer and the dedicated gardener Murdo MacKenzie. The Garinish project included the construction of a clock tower, Grecian temple, and an Italian casita.

The short boat ride from Glengarriff is a pleasure. Playful seals frolic on the rocks.

Strolling through the gardens the nostrils are intoxicated by a myriad of botanic perfumes: The approach to the Grecian garden is thronged with exotica such as the red and yellow trumpets flowers of the Chilean holly or the celery-top pine from New Zealand. The informative information boards pop up discreetly. One advises you to turn around as you approach this garden and take in the Drimys winteri which is an evergreen native to New Zealand and Chile.

The rhododendron macabeanum is an impressive specimen which hasn’t been allowed to run rampant like its cousins in Killarney National Park. It is native to Manipur in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas. The Walled Garden has several species of clematis, petunia and rambling roses. Another board advises to the uninformed that the herbaceous border has dahlias, delphinium, and aster. Though smaller in scale, Garinish can be described as one of Ireland’s great gardens up there with Powerscourt, Co Wicklow or the Japanese Gardens in Co Kildare.

The sunken garden is a feature within the Italian garden. It has a tea-house known as the casita which is built from Bath stone and whose floors are decorated in Connemara, Greek and Turkish and marble no less. In the centre of the pool the wingéd figure of Mercury, charged with carrying a message to the gods, seems to dance in homage to the Sugarloaf. In the adjacent lawns guests of yore would play croquet or tennis. Peto reputedly designed this garden after a visit to the Alcazár in Granada, Spain in the late 19th century.

Garinish also has a Martello Tower which is the oldest in the country and was the first of watchtowers built by the British. Prior to the development of the gardens by the Bryces a widow and her four sons lived in a cottage on the island.

How to get there:

- bluepoolferry.com

- harbourqueenferry.com

- Ellen’s Rock Boat Service 027 63110

- Admission €5. Private boats can dock

- Other: heritageireland.ie.

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