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Sally Cunningham: From Ireland, with love

Last week a band of Americans flew to Ireland with me to visit gardens and historical sites. Some also wanted to experience the country from which many of our ancestors emigrated. Many of the group — from Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, New York City and Florida — had specific expectations: Perhaps we would see small, pretty gardens (that might not achieve the standards of the famous ones around London); we would meet charming and quaint (but not very sophisticated) people; and we would experience undistinguished cuisine (pub food) that would incorporate lots of potatoes and white bread.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The first lesson, which I began to absorb upon planning the itinerary, was that there is no one Irish garden style. As in England, Philadelphia or Buffalo, gardens are the product of the time period in which they were designed, the climate and plant selection available, and the personal expression of the designers or gardeners. Quite like the typical comments of people visiting Buffalo gardens, several from my traveling troop observed that seeing the gardens was a glimpse into the lives of the gardeners. Garden travel is a great way to make personal contact.

Public Gardens

Powerscourt Estate Garden (County Wicklow), designed in 1731, is one of the three greatest gardens of the world, according to a National Geographic rating (and similar other listings). The grand, formal garden, sweeping down a hillside, is Italianate — reminiscent of the Palace Gardens at Versailles. The 47 acre garden features massive statuary (Greek gods, philosophers and mythical figures), a walled garden replete with roses, espaliered pears and figs, a touching pet cemetery and several pools or lakes.

Mount Usher Gardens, founded in 1868 and maintained for 112 years by the Walpole family, could not be more different. My fellow travelers learned about Robinsonian styling — Robinson the author of "The Wild Garden" – and experienced the sense of orchestrated, enhanced nature as we walked woodland paths along the River Vartry among the eucalyptus, rhododendron and cypress groves.

The National Botanic Garden does what all great botanical gardens do: provide education, support international initiatives for biodiversity conservation, protect and display living and archival plant specimens. Founded in 1795, the garden now showcases some 20,000 plants and features Turner-designed glass houses that might remind you of our own in Buffalo.

Private Gardens

As our return motor coach waited in the Sunday evening line to cross the border, I asked my fellow travelers what struck them most about the gardens: Several commented on how dear were two sets of elderly couples who had gardened together for decades — a hint that gardening together sustains a marriage. Almost everyone said something like, "The gardeners — those sweet, dedicated people … so warm and generous — and every garden different."

The Garden of Carmel Duignan – prominent garden writer, television producer and frequent guest – was a glimpse into the artistry of a true plantswoman.  The small, immaculately groomed garden is densely packed with intricately woven plant specimens that reveal Carmel’s depth of knowledge and a collector’s passion.

Knockrose Garden, in contrast, is naturalistic, called a "healing garden." Built around a 1750 farmhouse near The Scalp, the garden is centered on high-energy lay lines and is the site of intense, historical happenings — to the extent that visitors have reported sensing ghosts or the presence of spirits. The owners offer both organic gardening knowledge and a nurturing welcome to anyone seeking respite from the pace and stresses of contemporary living.

Knockpatrick Garden is 100 years old, called "A Farmhouse Garden." It is cared for by Tim and Helen O’Brien, an older couple who appear indefatigable. We couldn’t believe they manage the 3-acre garden themselves except for one helper on some Saturdays. It is a passionate plant-person garden, with paths winding through layers of bird and pollinator-pleasing plants. It is the garden where I felt most at home.

Lambs Cross Garden on the other hand was the favorite of many. Exclamations of "pristine, immaculate, stunning" were heard upon turning the corner into the McGuire’s haven. Collections of Alpines, fragrant roses, rare tree specimens, tropicals and water garden plants manage to coexist without crowding the small space. The extreme tidiness is accentuated by a golf green-like lawn, made possible by the region’s ample rainfall and fine drainage.

Corke Lodge Gardens challenges my descriptive powers. It is certainly about layering — not just plants but its very history. Architect William Farrell designed an Italian villa style house in the 1820s, featuring a cork tree (which is now the landscape’s centerpiece — a contorted giant of a tree.) Wilderness overtook the garden but the present owner (architect Alfred Cochrane) restored the house in the 1980s and carved a garden out of the forest. Boxwood parterres surround myrtles, tree ferns, and avenues of palms , and intermittently the unexpected folly – the latter being architectural remnants that Cochrane salvaged from the demolition of a Tudor mansion that was designed by Daniel Robertson (designer of Powerscourt Gardens). Layers upon layers.

Food, People, Fun

My Ireland Gardens saga is not finished. (Next week: the plants in Ireland – so many, so different.) But today I cannot leave a garden trip article without mentioning the rest of the human experience. Not only were the gardeners generous and welcoming without exception, so were the waiters, bus drivers, shop keepers and people on the street. Our Irish tour director, James O’Dea, was not just deeply knowledgeable, he was generous beyond expectations with his personal attention to travelers’ needs and interests.

And then we ate. Forget all stereotypes about St. Patty’s Day corned beef, boiled cabbage and potatoes: Cuisine in Ireland is fresh, healthful and delicious — not a bad bite was had.

We traveled in Dublin and went south to Kilkenny and Kinsale this time. Next time the West Coast of Ireland, 2019 maybe? I know about some gardens…

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