These green and pleasant lands will lift your spirits and are tribute to their pioneering, globe-trotting creators
Whatever we humans might think about our weather, for an enormous number of plants, Ireland has the perfect climate. This means we live in one of the best places in the world for gardens, as those developed over hundreds of years by country house owners proves.
In their grounds, they encouraged the development of native species and welcomed exotics brought back from Asia, South America and Australia.
All of them have thrived together, making the typical Irish country house garden a horticultural UN. Ranked among the best in the world, many of our great historic gardens are open to the public.
1 Lismore Castle
Thought to be the oldest continuously cultivated gardens in Ireland, the grounds at Lismore Castle were laid out about 400 years ago on the orders of Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork.
Surrounded by a series of defensive walls and running either side of a central path aligned with the distant medieval cathedral, the gardens feature terraces divided into plots enclosed within hedges.
Some are devoted to flowers and trees, others to vegetables and fruits. Nowhere else gives a better sense of what Ireland’s first country house gardens looked like.
The gardens at Killruddery are the best surviving example of late-17th century horticultural design in Ireland and Britain. Work there began in the 1680s when Captain Edward Brabazon, future fourth Earl of Meath, was reported to be making “great improvements” to the site.
Located behind the house, the garden is divided into three sections, the middle of which holds two canals, each 168m long. To one side is an area of woodland, a French bosquet known as The Wilderness, featuring a circular pond surrounded by high beech hedges.
On the opposite side is the more formally constructed Angles – an elaborate pattern of straight walks between tall clipped hedges of beech, hornbeam and yew, like a giant maze in which to play hide-and-seek.
For more than 200 years, these gardens were cultivated by successive generations of the Acton family. In the middle of the 19th century, brother and sister Thomas and Janet Acton undertook plant-hunting expeditions, travelling as far as California, from where they brought back a giant redwood, the Sequoiadendron giganteum (otherwise known as a Wellingtonia) which can still be seen there today.
The Acton siblings were friendly with David Moore, head of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin, and his son Frederick who took over the same position – so Kilmacurragh became its unofficial outpost, filled with plants brought from around the world, not least an outstanding collection of rhododendrons.
Today, that position has become official, as Kilmacurragh is part of the National Botanic Gardens.
4 Bantry House
The extraordinary gardens at Bantry House were designed and created in the first half of the 19th century by Richard White, second Earl of Bantry.
Inspired by what he had seen during his European travels, he divided the land in front and behind the building into seven terraces, those to the rear ascending a steep hill via a flight of 100 steps: for anyone with enough stamina, it is well worth the climb for a staggering view over the site and across Bantry Bay. Or wander immediately behind the house, where an elaborate parterre is centred on a large pond surrounded by trellis draped in wisteria.
One of the great gardens of the world, Powerscourt was almost entirely the creation of Mervyn Wingfield, seventh Viscount Powerscourt. For much of the second half of the 19th century, he oversaw the transformation of this site: just creating the terraces behind the house took more than 100 labourers 12 years.
During this period, he travelled Europe, looking at other gardens and evolving his ideas, while buying statues, urns and other items with which to fill the grounds.
The spectacular view from the top of the Italian Garden to a distant prospect of the Sugar Loaf Mountain is an Instagram moment – but it’s worth exploring the rest of the grounds, where many other great prospects wait to be discovered.
6 Garinish Island
When retired businessman John Annan Bryce bought a 37-acre island a short distance from Glengariff Harbour, it was a bare rock with a Martello Tower at the highest point. Today, thanks to Bryce and his designer Harold Peto, Garinish is an Italianate paradise, heady with the scent of myriad camellias, magnolias, azaleas and other flowering shrubs.
They share the site with a number of charming small buildings, the finest being an open-air gallery, where rosso antico columns with marble Ionic capitals frame the view across the bay towards the Caha Mountains. Standing there, it’s hard to believe you are still in Ireland.
From 1870 onwards, over 50 years or so, Henry Petty-FitzMaurice, fifth Marquess of Lansdowne, developed the demesne of his family’s estate into one of the lushest gardens in Ireland. Despite a career that included serving as governor general of Canada and viceroy of India, he tried to spend several months every year there.
Working with his gardeners, he planted an extraordinarily wide range of plants, mingling Chilean embothriums and crinodendrons with cryptomeria from Japan, Australian eucalyptus with ancient Irish oaks. Varieties of rhododendron from Bhutan and Tibet still abound, as do silver firs from Europe and tree ferns from the Antipodes.
Wandering the gardens today is like being in a tropical jungle.
8 Mount Usher
One of the most influential gardeners of the past 150 years was William Robinson, who hailed from Laois and promoted the idea of the natural garden long before it became fashionable.
Robinson’s favourite place in Ireland, the spot that best reflected his ideals, was Mount Usher – which he described as “quite unlike any other garden that I have seen”.
Originally laid out in 1870s by the Walpoles but carefully nurtured by the Jay family for the past 50 years, the 23-acre site on either side of the River Vartry plays host to 5,000 varieties of trees and plants, including the largest collection of southern hemisphere conifers in Ireland (28 species) and three world-ranking southern hemisphere tree collections, nothofagus and eucryphia (16 species each), and eucalyptus (50 species).
9 Birr Castle
The Parsons family, Earls of Rosse, have lived in Birr Castle since 1620, developing its demesne over the intervening centuries. Today this holds the world’s tallest box hedges, over 40 champion trees and more than 2,000 different plant species.
In the mid-1930s the sixth earl and his wife Anne Messel transformed the grounds at Birr, beginning with the formal garden where an elaborate box parterre was planted in the shape of the letter R, together with a series of Hornbeam allées that form a cloister running around the entire space.
Under the present earl and his wife, the gardens have seen further developments, along with the restoration of other sections such as the Victorian fernery.
10 Mount Stewart
Mount Stewart hosts one of the most famous, as well as most idiosyncratic, gardens in Ireland – thanks to Edith, Marchioness of Londonderry who began her work in the 1920s.
Divided into a series of ‘compartments’, each section has its own distinctive character. Among them is the south-facing Italianate garden, inspired by the grounds Lady Londonderry had seen in Italy, such as the Boboli Gardens in Florence. The magnificent Spanish garden, inspired by the Moorish palaces of Andalucía, is immediately adjacent.
Look out for the Dodo Terrace, developed in the 1930s. Here can be seen many well-known visitors from the inter-war years. including Lord Londonderry as Charley the Cheetah, Winston Churchill as Winston the Warlock, and Lady Lavery as Hazel the Hen, all in cast concrete.
Curated by Robert O’Byrne, the exhibition ‘In Harmony with Nature, the Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900’ is at the City Assembly House, Dublin, until late July; igs.ie