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Independent.ie

Tuesday 6 December 2016

The Garden County's best kept secret

Joe Barry

Published 14/10/2015 | 02:30

A view of the gardens and ancient pond at Kilmacurragh Gardens, Co Wicklow
A view of the gardens and ancient pond at Kilmacurragh Gardens, Co Wicklow

Wicklow is frequently referred to as the garden of Ireland. It is a place of great natural beauty and also contains some of the finest gardens that are open to the public, which include Avondale, Kilruddery, Mount Usher, Powerscourt, and many others.

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Perhaps one of the county's best kept secrets however is Kilmacurragh, now part of our National Botanic Gardens and the centrepiece of an 18th Century estate that originally extended to over 5,000ac.

Like so many other large estates throughout Ireland, in more recent times it was broken up by the Land Commission and fell in to disrepair. But in 1996, a 52ac portion of the old demesne comprising the house, arboretum and woodlands officially became part of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland.

By then the building was in ruins due to a series of fires and the following 10 years were spent rescuing specimen trees from a tangle of invasive species such as cherry laurel, sycamore and Rhododendron ponticum. And what a valuable collection of trees they are, with wonderful and varied species gathered from the furthest corners of the globe over the previous centuries.

Being relatively close to the sea, the milder climate, higher rainfall and deeper acidic soils of Kilmacurragh provided conditions that were ideal for growing a huge range of plants from the Himalayas and Southern Hemisphere, unlike the drier and more lime rich soil at the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin.

Kilmacurragh's history dates back to the Seventh Century when a monastic community settled there and built an abbey. This remained until the 16th century when it was abandoned during the dissolution of Irish and British monasteries by Henry VIII.

The new owner, Thomas Acton, arrived in Ireland as part of Oliver Cromwell's invading army and in lieu of wages was granted a substantial parcel of land in the area, including the remains of the Abbey that he had torn down in 1697. From the salvaged stones, he built a fine house overlooking a small man-made lake that the monks had originally installed to provide themselves with carp.

A landscaped park was then created and some of this, such as the remains of canals, avenues and sweeping vistas, survive in the present garden. The property then passed to Thomas Acton II who installed a 40ac deer park in the ancient oak and alder forest and completely surrounded it by a six-feet deep Ha-Ha garden feature.

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It is astonishing to think of the money and power the Actons and their counterparts had in those days and to visualise what must have been a terrifying sight as Cromwell and 12,000 men marched through on their way to Wexford on the old Dublin to Wicklow road. This road passed close to the front of his house and Acton had it moved later to further down the valley. Remains of the original road, lined with great oak and complete with a toll gate are still in place.

In 1750, the Actons received a premium from the Royal Dublin Society for the planting of 'foreign trees' and in the following decades these were planted within the demesne in tens of thousands. It is these, along with later plantings and the wonderful collection of rare shrubs and others, that now draw visitors to Kilmacurragh.

I was fortunate to first view the estate during a visit with the Irish Garden Plant Society and we were doubly fortunate to have Seamus O'Brien, the curator at Kilmacurragh as our guide.

Seamus has an encyclopedic knowledge of plant species and has travelled widely to China, Tasmania and elsewhere on plant hunting expeditions. He and his fellow gardeners are testimony to the great unsung heroes of our times who work quietly in the background, advancing our knowledge and preserving and enhancing our heritage of gardens and landscapes.

All of this is funded by the OPW whose achievements, on a limited budget, are exemplary. The best time perhaps to visit Kilmacurragh is in spring and early summer when the spring bulbs, rhododendrons and magnolias are at their peak, but any time is good to enjoy this remarkable place.

Entry is free but do try to join a guided tour. This details the history of the trees and the grounds and the names of the many species we all aspire to have growing in our own gardens.

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