In an Irish Garden (1986) reviewed by Marie McLeish

April 11, 2013

in Book Reviews, Reviews

You may wonder why we are reviewing a book which was published in 1986. Well, now that we can search and find books from any time on line, instead of only on dusty bookshelves in second hand bookshops (though that has its own charms, of course) it occurs to me there must be a lot of great books you may never have heard of, but which you could still find and read. And enjoy. So I hope to help you hear of them.

Besides full reviews of  books, like this one, we have added a new page on the site with a list of recommended thinkingardens type books, which I hope you will add your favourites  to.   (It is listed under ‘Good Garden Writing’ on the top bar, for future reference.)

So if you know of a great garden book – or even, perhaps, one with real curiosity value – which you’d recommend and review for thinkingardens, that would be a valuable contribution. Usual proviso – strengths and weaknesses…

Or you could just send a short line about it for the new page. I’d be grateful for either.

Meanwhile, this is  Marie McLeish’s choice, which is of particular interest to Irish readers. It is available from many sites online.

Anne Wareham, editor 

In an Irish Garden by Sybil Connelly and Helen Dillon reviewed on thinkingardens

Marie McLeish:

In an Irish Garden is an engaging invitation to experience, not one but twenty seven Irish gardens.  (there is a list of them below this article. ed.) The editors Sybil Connolly and Helen Dillon set out to create a book about the unknown private gardens of Ireland, and were determined that a diverse array of garden styles be included.

From the grand rugged demesnes of Donegal to the outstanding plant collections of Cork and Kerry, to compact yet powerfully designed gardens of Dublin town houses, the garden making story of each is elegantly told through the private eye of its gardener. These gardeners cum writers are often as colourful in character as the gardens they describe. Therein you have the allure and charm of this book.

Featured gardens have belonged to castles, and are culturally rich historic features in themselves, while others are the result of spadework, an insatiable curiosity for growing and conquering the land, and a lifetime’s commitment to making a garden on a human scale. Charles Nelson in the prologue offers an informative potted history of the evolution of the gardening hierarchy in Ireland. It certainly left me curious to know more.  He says that ‘fine gardens do not happen by chance; skill and art together are needed’, and who could disagree with that?  I could sense the knowing smile in his eye in the way he describes that some ‘gardeners are essentially solitary and secretive…happiest alone, digging in their patch’, and ‘some of the very best gardeners quake even at the thought of someone wanting to visit their secret pleasances’.

Some have written from the perspective of trusted custodian to an Irishman’s historic garden as in Castletown Cox, Co Kilkenny, and Charleville, Co Wicklow.  In contrast others offer a deeply personal account of gardens created despite misfortune, circumstances and the vagaries of life, as in 45 Sandford Road, Dublin and Shiel, Co Dublin. I was charmed by Mrs Olive Stanley-Clarke of Shiel – ninety at the time of writing, with a piercing honesty acknowledging that her gardening days were almost over and in her own words said ‘I hope I shall be found dead one morning under my beautiful white tea tree’.  Curiosity got the better of me and I checked up on her.  She went on to garden for a further ten years.

I particularly liked those gardens that evolved in tune with their landscape setting, namely Stramore, Co Wexford and Kilbogget, Co Dublin.  I was fortunate to work for Sydney Maskell at Kilbogget as an undergraduate, and it really was a plant paradise that beautifully framed the distant Wicklow hills. A highlight of my time there was a walk on the terrace to chat about plants with himself, on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

My favourite garden Glenveagh, Co Donegal defied its rugged landscape in the creation of this outstanding pleasure garden. It’s a garden of contrasts and surprise.  Lanning Roper and nurseryman James Russell influenced this garden. A flight of 67 steps  12 feet wide takes you up the mountainside to a terrace overlooking the castle and lake, a combined act of both genius and folly. I spent a summer working here, demented by midges in the early morning mists and held in the balmy mid-morning spell of the exquisitely scented Magnolia tripetla in equal measure. It was an inspiring garden to work in.

And so what, readers you may well ask. Indeed this book was produced in 1986, and sure what good is it to anybody now?  Despite the intent to include all types of Irish gardens, a quick look at the map at the front of the books makes it clear that no gardens from the Atlantic west coast have been included at all.  I wonder why? Surely Sligo, Mayo and Galway had something to offer too?

The fact that the book pre-dates the instant make over garden era, where the dull tick list of water feature, perfunctory border and decked seating area can be achieved in a weekend with absolutely no knowledge of gardening or plants at all is a plus for starters.  It also pre-dates all the mumbo jumbo garden design speak and allusions to grandeur that can spoil a good read leaving, you with no more than a pain in the head.  In An Irish Garden offers a jargon free snap shot of garden making at a time when the expectation was that at least a generation of effort, mistakes, and plant acquisition went into the creation a garden.

This is a book about real gardener’s and their gardens.  It would make an encouraging read to those contemplating the making of a garden of distinction. Seasoned gardeners will nod their heads in understanding to the frequent references to the workload in managing a garden and will be in awe of the extensive plant lists cited.  I have to warn you though, not every garden story is perfect.  An occasional one is a laborious chronicle of ‘I did this, then I did that….’ However, these mostly are saved by the photography, which in all cases captures the essence and structure of the gardens. I struggled to get a true sense of the garden in only one of the stories, but I am not going to say which one.  Happen that that gardener was not going to let his secret out.  I wonder if you will guess which one?

I wonder too how many of the gardens remain today, given the turbulence of both the Irish economy and the impact  of a changing climate.  Time for a second book, perhaps and a second look….in the meantime why not look this book up as you would an old friend, and enjoy perhaps over a glass of whiskey. Irish of course.

Marie McLeish 


Marie McLeish copyright Marie McLeish portrait thinkingardens

In an Irish Garden (1986) 160pp.  Edited by Sybil Connolly & Helen Dillon. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.  ISBN 0-207-78929-5

Garden List   CASTLETOWN COX, Co Kilkenny Baron de Breffny GRAIGUECONNA, Co Wicklow  Mrs John Brown  GARINISH ISLAND, Co Kerry  Shamus Browne  71 MERRION SQUARE, Dublin  Miss Sybil Connolly  LAKEMOUNT, Co Cork  Brian Cross  45 SANDFORD AVENUE, Dublin  The Hon. Mrs Val Dillon  KILGOBBBIN, Co Limerick  The Dowager Countess of Dunraven  ARDSALLAGH, Co Tipperary  Mrs Betty Farquhar  GLIN CASTLE, Co Limerick  Madam Fitzgerald  HILLMOUNT, Co Antrim  Mrs John Frazer  OLD MILL HOUSE, Co Down  Mrs Henry Garner DARGLE COTTAGE, Co Wicklow  The Hon. Lady Goulding  PRIMROSE HILL, Co Dublin  Mrs Cisely Hall  GUINCHO, Co Down  William Harrison  STRAMORE, Co Wexford Mrs Dorothy Jobling-Purser KILBOGGET, Co Dublin  Mr Sydney Maskell  GLENVEAGH CASTLE, Co Donegal Henry P McIlhenny  KNOCK-NA-GARRY, Co Cork  Mrs John Minchin  KILMOKEA, Co Wexford  David Price  8 CLUNE ROAD, FINGLAS, Co Dublin  Mrs Kitty Reardon  CASTLEMARTIN, Co Kildare  Mrs Tony O Reilly  BUTTERSTREAM, Co Meath  Jim Reynolds  CHARLEVILLE, Co Wicklow  Mrs Kenneth Rohan  ISHLAN, Co Antrim  Mrs Noel Sanderson  BEECH PARK, Co Dublin  David Shackleton  SHIEL, Co Dublin Mrs Olive Stanley-Clarke  COOLCARRIGAN, Co Kildare  John Wilson-Wright




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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Virginia Farmery April 11, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Must look up this book for my next visit to Ireland.


Marie McLeish April 11, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Thanks for that. In an Irish Garden is a lovely book I agree. Its scary to think that some of those gardens have been trashed by developers. What a shame, and thankfully the true record exists in the book.



Jack Holloway April 11, 2013 at 12:40 pm

I’ve had this lovely book on my shelves since the mid-nineties and often revisit it. When some years back I had a flight stopover in Dublin I decided to make use of the opportunity… After much research (in which Helen Dillon’s own ever-changing garden stepped in and out of favour) I decided to visit Butterstream. I couldn’t find it… Eventually a man at the next village in a broad accent said he thought it was being replaced by a housing estate, but gave me indicators to find it. I found it. Or enough of it to know that this had been it. The new entrance to the ‘estate’ passed right through the middle of the most densely planted part of the garden, as though the ‘designers’ reveled in ripping out the heart of Butterstream. I have never been back to Ireland. Jack


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