The Gardens of 19th century Connemara

The end of the 18th century and the early 19th century was the boom time for Irish gardens. Before this the situation within the country was not conducive to the construction of gardens. Obviously there would have been some gardens and most houses would have had vegetable gardens, but the idea of pleasure gardens was novel.

As the large estates began to be developed the formal park and walled garden came into vogue, you can find these estates all over the country, a good many are open to the public. Connemara on the other hand had no such large estates. Certainly the Martin estate was large, in fact one of the largest in these islands, but they were chronically short of money and probably enjoyed the rugged outdoors rather than any formality.

Trees and shrubs as well as herbaceous plants began to sweep the country, this plant material arrived from the four corners of the globe. The British empire was beginning to expand and many Irish were amongst those working or soldiering in foreign lands. On top of that the professional plant hunters were sending vast amounts of plant species back to the homelands. Naturally some of these trees and plants, moved west and the various landlords would have tried to outdo each other with their exotic plants. There are some fine old specimen trees in different estates in the area outside of Galway, and even a few in Connemara.

I like to think that John D’Arcy of Clifden Castle would have been one of the first landowners to have created a garden, in this area. When he built his castle in the early years of the 1800’s he planted trees to act as both shelter belts protecting him from the westerly gales, and to beautify his park. He would have been familiar with good horticultural practices from his estate in Kiltullagh in east Galway, which was surrounded by other model estates.

According to Hely Dutton in his “A Statistical and Agricultural Survey of the County of Galway” of 1824, Mr D’Arcy is an improving landlord who carries out all the best practices in land management. Hely Dutton should know about these things as he is described as a landscape gardener and land improver.

He mentions John D’Arcy frequently as in this section on the cultivation of green crops. “I may have omitted the names of others who know the value of green food, but I trust the good sense of the gentlemen of the county will before long, prompt them to pursue this very profitable branch of rural economy.”

Later he praises him on horse breeding. “Mr D’Arcy of Clifden has acted more judiciously; he procured a very beautiful small sire, who I am informed has left a very improved breed in Cumamara (sic). It is thought that the general breed of horses in this county is far from improving.”

He is also full of praise for Thomas Martin, well almost full. “The country about Ballynahinch the seat of Thomas Barnwell Martin Esq. is extremely bold and highly picturesque, totally different from any thing to be met with in any other part of this county. I am grieved to say, that nature has all the merit; she has had little assistance, though an almost constant residence for upwards of fifty years would lead one to expect that a small part at least of a large income would have been annually expended in improvements. Mr Thomas Martin, who is a young man, and has only lately got possession of Ballynahinch, is, as I am informed making preparations to plant extensively …….. But from Mr Thomas Martin’s love for planting, and every improvement, we may hope Ballynahinch may become what it should have been.”

Getting back to Clifden Castle, we find a reference to the gardening skills of John D’Arcy in Samuel Lewis’s A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland from 1837. “At a short distance, on the northern side of the town, is Clifden Castle, the delightful residence of John D’Arcy, Esq., the proprietor of the district, by whom it was erected. It is a castellated house standing on the verge of a fine lawn sloping down to the bay, and sheltered behind by woods and a range of mountain; the view to the right embraces a wide expanse of ocean. The pleasure grounds comprise about fifteen acres, and are adorned with a grotto of considerable extent, through which passes a stream, and with a shell-house or marine temple, composed of shells, spar, ore, &c.; though on the shore of the Atlantic, the trees and shrubs flourish luxuriantly.”

This description gives us a picture of a typical 18th century parkland setting, John was obviously influenced by the style of gardening in vogue at the time of his birth. It is fascinating to see that some of the structures mentioned in the above description are still standing. Sad to say very few of the trees mentioned are still in existence, but a number are of great age. As we can see from the map of the castle, albeit from a much later time, these features are still visible.

One plant Valerinia Pyranica, or Pyrenean Valerian, which still grows in the area and in my garden in particular, dates from that time. According to the book, Plants of Connemara and the Burren, by David Allardice Webb and Mary JP Scannell, the first mention of this plant is growing at Clifden Castle in 1835.

A number of other gardens in the area date from the early years of the 1800’s. Cashel House Hotel, has one of the oldest and most distinguished gardens in the area. Some of the exotic trees growing here are reputed to have been planted in the late 1700’s. The present house and garden date from the middle years of the 19th century. It has always been fortunate that the various owners have been passionate about gardens, and the collection of trees and shrubs have grown since those early years.

The D’Arcy houses, Glenowen, now the Abbeyglen Castle Hotel has a number of fine trees from the early years, Malmore is a well wooded estate and Glen Ierene, now Gleann Aoibheann, has many original trees and plants. A quick tour of Connemara, will show you the places where these old estates were built, as they are the few places where you will find trees. Errislannan Manor would be contemporary to these other gardens.

Of course the great era for gardening in Connemara, was the late 19th century, with the most important garden ever constructed in the area, this is of course Kylemore Castle, now Kylemore Abbey. This large and interesting garden was built by Mitchell Henry in the late 1860’s, At some other time I will give more time to this marvellous garden which is being restored.

Breandan O Scanaill.

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