Diarmuid Gavin on Rory McIlroy's wedding garden
Golfer Rory McIlroy picked the alluring grounds of Mayo's Ashford Castle as a fitting backdrop to his A-list nuptials
I have often wondered about Ashford Castle, and its gardens, which seemed relatively near on this small island… but also so remote and unobtainable for us ordinary folk. The formal lawn terraces, parkland and lake seemed too idyllic to really exist.
Recently I got to visit and savour its very real delights - walking through the grounds that would soon be filled by international glitterati at the wedding of golf star Rory McIlroy and Erica Stoll.
The first thing that strikes you is the utterly magical setting. The castle stands majestically on the edge of Lough Corrib, mirrored in the water and framed by greenery. I can understand how the location has captivated Guinnesses, princes and celebrities. Every view is special - from the approach across a picturesque bridge, past the moored Isle of Inisfree boat, which takes visitors on tours that glimpse the lake's famed 365 islands, one for every day of the year.
There's been a castle here since the 13th century, originally a Norman tower built by the De Burgos. In the 1800s, the Guinness family set about creating a Gothic-inspired castle and gardens on a 22,000-acre plot.
The gardens as they exist today were laid out around 1868 by Lady Ardilaun, formerly of Bantry House. Together with her husband, Arthur Guinness, in the 1880s she employed Andrew Campbell as head gardener. They laid out the bones of the garden, which remain the basis of the structure we still enjoy today: garden terraces, walks and the gorgeous walled garden.
A visit to the gardens is all about walking, drinking in the views, stopping to marvel at features, gazing at the majesty of the trees and discovering the next surprise.
The primary tree species on the estate and in the woodlands include Sitka and Norway spruces, Scots pine, silver fir, American redwoods, oak, beech, lime and ash. The Long Terrace and Broad Walks showcase wonderful sequoias. They're a magnificent collection - I was told that one recent US visitor commented that they were "better than the sequoias back home in California!".
My favourite part is the walled garden. You enter rather magically through a curving stone service tunnel (created, it seems, to obscure the gardeners from the view of promenading visitors). It's a beauty - more intimate and relatable than many other walled gardens, and now planted with fruit, vegetables, herbaceous perennials and a gorgeous hornbeam tunnel which has just burst into leaf after its winter slumber.
The estate garden has been lucky to be loved by owners, visitors and those charged with its development, restoration and ongoing maintenance. In the 1990s, it benefited from the Great Gardens Restoration Fund and the same team of Arthur Shackleton and Martin Slattery have been responsible for its most recent overhaul under the ownership of the Red Carnation Hotel group.
The two men gave me a guided tour, explaining the history while showing off some newly introduced features and marvelling at the opportunities they've enjoyed to enhance the gardens under successive owners.
Their love for Ashford Castle is infectious, and it's clear that the grounds are in safe, caring hands.
And they are needed. Many of the trees planted through the years of Guinness family ownership have reached or gone beyond their maturity, so a big tree-care operation was undertaken. Features such as the Sunken Garden and adjacent section of the Terraced Walk were replanted with a beautiful selection of flowering trees, shrubs and some perennials.
And you don't have to be Rory, Erica or one of their wedding guests to enjoy the experience. While the castle itself does remain the preserve of hotel guests, the gardens and the estate's 350 acres of countryside are open to the public to enjoy.
Entrance to Ashford Castle estate costs €10 for adults, which includes coffee at Mrs Tea's Boutique and Bakery.
Top Garden tips from Ashford’s expert team
● Mow grass at least once a week in the growing season and, if you wish for a pristine look, up to twice a week. However, never remove more than one third of the grass height in a single mowing. Trim the edges with every mowing to keep lawn looking sharp.
● Healthy soil leads to happy, healthy plant life. Feed your soil as well as your plants/lawns by using organic or organic-based fertiliser/feed to encourage soil microbes and worms.
● For shrubs or hedges, it is good to thin out 20pc of older growth to a few inches inside the clipped line annually, to allow in air and to generate new growth from further back on the branch structure.
● Don’t let weeds produce seed and propagate another generation of weeds. As the saying goes, “One year’s seeding is nine years’ weeding.”
● Apply mulch in the dormant season to help control weeds, retain moisture and improve soils, as well as visually benefit your planting.
● Take pictures of your garden throughout the year. This allows you to look back and see where you can bring colour or interest to areas that may be missing something at certain times.
● Sow green manure seeds on any veg or bedding areas that are to be empty for a period of time. This helps weed control and improves your soil.
● Enjoy your garden and your gardening. Do not be afraid to try new ideas and indulge your passion for whichever area of gardening you most enjoy.