The hidden history of our landscape
When walking through the countryside, it is not uncommon to come across rows of daffodils or a line of fine beech, oak or lime, unconnected with any buildings or earthworks and surrounded only by open pasture. It can be fascinating to ponder on their origin for they are often all that remains of what was once a fine garden or estate.
The only surviving evidence of its former existence might be the trees and bulbs that were planted perhaps three or four hundred years ago.
Some of these properties were vast covering over 40,000ac and most of our farmland must have originally been connected in some way to them. Tracing the true history of the Irish landscape can be difficult, but one well-researched, factual account of our old demesnes is the recently published Irish Demesne Landscapes, 1660-1740 by Vandra Costello.
This book contains excellent illustrations and plans of long lost gardens, while covering a period whose rich social and economic history tends to be overlooked because of the emphasis on the aftermath of Oliver Cromwell's campaign in Ireland.
"What is particularly striking about Ireland in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, is just how cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic it was," writes Ms Costello.
"Those living in coastal towns were continually exposed to foreigners and exotic produce, as everything imported into the country was channeled through the ports. Cargo ships from the West Indies and Americas, along with slave ships regularly dropped anchor in the western seaboard ports. Others from Europe arrived in the southern and eastern ports and thousands of English, Dutch and French Huguenot families settled in Ireland, encouraged by the offer of employment and housing on arrival."
New wealth provided a group of landowners with the means to lay out their estates and the rigid design of French and Italian gardens with long straight avenues, lines of trees and rectangular flower beds was then considered the height of good taste. The more relaxed and "natural" looking gardens only became fashionable later.
An interest in plants had become so advanced in Ireland that by the 1690s, Arthur Rawdon of Moira, Co Down, had one of the best botanical collections in Europe. While many of those gardens are long gone a few fine examples still survive such as the splendid demesne at Kilruddery, Bray, Co Wicklow,