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An eye-opening tour of the grand gardens of Donegal


Ownership of Glenveagh Castle and its 16,000ha estate passed to the state in 1981

Ownership of Glenveagh Castle and its 16,000ha estate passed to the state in 1981

Ownership of Glenveagh Castle and its 16,000ha estate passed to the state in 1981

As I gazed out of my hotel window, a gale blew in from McSwyne's Bay bringing with it bursts of hail and stinging rain.

The cages of a fish farm floating in the bay appeared to suffer as the waves battered both them and the lines of floats from which were suspended thousands of strings of mussels.

Tossing and heaving in the Atlantic swell they seemed to be coping better than the ewes and lambs near the shore as they ran to seek shelter behind hedges and stone walls.

I was staying in Castle Murray House Hotel near St John's Point in Donegal and I could only pity the few suckler cows and their calves as they too sought shelter.

But bad weather never lasts long in May and the following day I joined a group from the Irish Garden Plant society on a visit to some of the great gardens of Donegal.

Our first stop was Glenveagh National Park where in 1870, John Adair from Co Laois purchased several small estates and built an imposing granite castle overlooking Lough Veagh.

Adair was loathed for evicting hundreds of tenants, many of whom were forced to flee or who died in the workhouse. He died in 1885 and was succeeded by his wife who undid much of the hardship he had caused.

In the late 1920s the estate was purchased by an American Arthur Kingsley who set about restoring the property and this work was carried on by the last private owner, Henry McIlhenny, also from the US, who presented the estate to the Irish nation in 1981.

Glenveagh now covers some 16,000 hectares of mountains, bogs, lakes and woods and is also home to a growing herd of red deer roaming wild that are causing serious damage to the woodland and gardens.

It is, however, still a magnificent place and provides endless scope for garden enthusiasts, walkers and all who appreciate rugged scenery.

But little regeneration can occur now that the deer are dominant and we were shown a small area on a hillside across the lake where they have been carefully fenced out.

The contrast was astonishing as, unlike the surrounding bare landscape, this section was green and covered in dense scrub with some pioneering species of trees that will eventually grow on in to natural woodland.

Apart from the lack of deer culling, Government cutbacks have also reduced the labour force necessary to maintain this wonderful property but hopefully more gardeners will soon be employed, essential culling will occur and the 40kms of deer fence repaired.

Seaside garden

Over a two-day period in Donegal we saw four gardens, all very different but interesting in their varied approaches to creating a garden landscape. The second on day one was Cluain na dTor seaside garden and nursery which contained many tender plants, trees and shrubs. This is the great advantage of living in relatively frost-free conditions near the coast. The overall design of the garden in Falcarragh is unusual, especially in the use of natural features, and the nursery contained some rare species that were quickly purchased by members of our group.

The next day we first travelled to Oakfield Park in Raphoe which is the sort of garden we all dream of creating if we inherited millions or won the lotto.

The present owner, having restored an 18th century Georgian deanery, set about purchasing more land, installing lakes and wetlands with flower meadows.

He also added to the walled garden and built attractive follies and commissioned many striking garden sculptures as well as planting an international collection of oaks. There is even a miniature railway to take visitors on a tour of the grounds.

Our final garden was Dunmore House, built in 1740 with a two acre walled terraced garden packed with fruit trees, climbers, shrubs, flowers, vegetables and meandering paths. Just the sort of place one could spend hours wandering around and enjoying the peace that such old gardens bestow on visitors.

It was an education to visit so many fine gardens and a great source of inspiration to take home. With all these ideas, I must now start digging, yet again!


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