Tuesday 18 December 2018

First foot forward in frosty sunlight

Snowdrops: One of the first
Snowdrops: One of the first

Joe Kennedy

There seemed to be a stalling of the "vegetable snow" that had been bobbing from green shoots as if the "force that through the green fuse drives the flower" had been arrested by fluctuating temperatures and freezing air.

My straggling clumps of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) drooped their bedraggled heads, though not all. Some reflected the advantage of partial shelter of the bare branches of a silver birch.

These February Fair Maids got their wintry name from an English poet, who once lived in Glasnevin, Dublin. He was Thomas Tickell (1685-1740) whose wife was Irish and who was inspired by the little flowers he observed while strolling through a London park: "Seeds to light/ A stem that bends with flowerlets of milky white."

Tickell was a British government official here and he married Clotilda Eustace of Harristown, Co Kildare, whose uncle, Sir Maurice Eustace, was Lord Chancellor to Charles II. The couple lived at Carnalway in the countryside but their Dublin residence was what is now the Director's House in the Botanic Gardens.

Like many civil servants, then and now, Tickell found time to compose his verses and build friendships with fellow scribes such as Joseph Addison, editor of The Spectator, Dean Swift, Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson. (Addison was a regular visitor to Glasnevin and his name lives on in some local place names.)

Most of today's snowdrops are of cultivated stock - there are probably thousands of hybrids, some expensive. (The advice is to introduce this sweet-smelling flower to a damp and shady place when it is full of life rather than when the bulbs are dry.)

In the wild, these delicate growths spread by separation, multiplying having been prised usually from old monastic graveyards or along river banks. They have had a long association with holy places. Legend has it that bulbs arrived here in the satchels of monks returning from preaching the Christian message in darkest Europe.

The flowers bloom in open woodland from Switzerland to the Lebanon. The Romans brought them to Britain. The Greek philosopher and successor to Aristotle, Theophrastus, mentions them growing on Mount Hymettus in 300BC.

There are many historic species of snowdrops cultivated in some garden establishments - particularly the 40-acre country garden at Altamont in Co Carlow, managed by the OPW, which has 200 different kinds.

Near Athy, in Burtown's ancient gardens and woods, there are many clusters of rare Irish varieties - and at Primrose Hill in Lucan may be found one of the biggest and oldest snowdrop collections for the pleasure of galanthophiles, as fans may be called.

The poet Tickell was not a botanist and I doubt if he came to be living in the Botanic Gardens on the strength of a particular poem, though he may not be remembered for this, or, indeed for any of his poetry. However, there is a commemorative tablet to him in St Mobhi's Church. He lies in the nearby churchyard where his "vegetable snow" is peeping in the frosty sunlight and where, as the 20th-century's Dylan Thomas put it, "time has ticked a heaven round the stars".

Sunday Independent

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