Wednesday 28 September 2016

The hidden history of our landscape

Joe Barry

Published 13/05/2015 | 02:30

The magnificent gardens at Kilruddery Demesne in Co Wicklow were laid out in the late 17th century
The magnificent gardens at Kilruddery Demesne in Co Wicklow were laid out in the late 17th century

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.

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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,

This period also saw the beginning of the era of the great plant hunters who sent ships and botanists all over the world to gather exotic specimens for their gardens at home.

A change in thinking was occurring where creation of pleasure gardens along with good husbandry and the production of food were seen as a moral imperative to benefit all mankind rather than just to satisfy the ego of the landowner. Many books were published in Dublin at the time on agriculture and more specifically on kitchen gardens, bee keeping, wall fruit and cider making.

Great improvements in crop production were taking place and in 1694 the Dublin Philosophical Society sent to Holland for market gardeners to teach its members new techniques for growing fruit and vegetables.

Diet

Bog and scrub were reclaimed and at Castle Forbes in Co Longford Arthur Forbes successfully converted bog to "firm and good ground" enabling him to plant orchards and groves.

Sea shells were also gathered and crushed to provide lime for soil. In general, the standard of diet among the majority of the people then seems to have been better than when the potato became dominant.

Vegetables, salads and green herbs were widely grown in cottage gardens and the famous gardener and writer, John Evelyn wrote that "Lettuce allays heat, bridles choler, extinguishes thirst, excites appetite and conciliates sleep, mitigates pain, besides the effect it has on morals, temperance and chastity." Beat that for a 'super-food'!

Since we regained our independence, the Irish countryside has continued to evolve. The expansion of our towns and road networks, along with general economic activity, has greatly altered the landscape, as has the planting of trees and the restoration of hedgerows and wildlife habitat.

It is important that we do not attempt to keep the landscape frozen in the past, but it is also essential to retain our knowledge of its development. This book is both an entertaining read and a valuable record which can add greatly to the pleasure of learning the history of our own farmland.

 jbarry@ independent.ie

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