GARDENS OF THE LEPRECHAUNS
By Patrick McNally
Spring has the connotation of pastel blossoms, unless you're Irish. In Ireland spring is green, as are winter, summer and fall. Chicagoans dye their river green on St. Patrick's Day, and New Yorker's wear silly plastic hats with Shamrocks. Even we at The Huntington love experiencing a spring moment with our own St. Patrick's Day Plant, the Euphorbia lambii, just north of the path to the desert conservatory.
With all their natural green, you wouldn't expect to find many gardens in Ireland. In fact, garden-mania is more rare with the Irish than with their cross channel neighbors, the English. Why tinker with nature's grand plan when your whole island is already a garden? Yet, there are a few gardens that struck me as special, and many more I'll need to go back to see.
In Dublin, St Steven's Green is like a gem. It's a twenty-two acre park right in the heart the city. It's like a mature Central Park, with class. It started in 1664 as commons, a large public square for whippings, hanging and burnings and other community activities. In the 1800s the park was a private haven for the wealthy, who constructed wonderful Georgian buildings around it. Then the beer magnate, Arthur Guinness, sponsored legislation that again made the park public, as it is today, still surrounded by the wonderful Georgian structures, and the landmark Shelbourne Hotel (1824).
On a grander scale, Dublin's Phoenix Park is twice the size of either Central Park or London's Hampstead Heath. Established in 1671, Phoenix was opened to the public in 1747, and named ‘phoenix' because the English mispronounced the Irish fionn uisce (clear water). The Guinness Brewery may well use that same clear water, a few hundred meters down stream. Like our own Griffith Park, Phoenix ranges over hills and valleys. It includes a zoo, many outdoor venues, and even the Dublin's police headquarters.
In Killarney, County Kerry, about a three-hour train ride west from Dublin, is the garden that comes closest to matching The Huntington in elegance. Its name, too, has three parts: Muckross House, Gardens, and Traditional Farms. A Scottish architect for English owners built the Herberts the house itself in the mid 19th century. Queen Victoria, Prince Albert in tow, visited the Herberts' at Muckross for several days, when Ireland was under British rule. The Queen, with her fear of fire, stayed on the ground floor, as the Killarney fire crew stood by throughout the night. The house is filled with Waterford Crystal chandeliers and antler sets, and worth the time to explore.
The Traditional Farms are a recreation of farming and crafts in 1930 Ireland, before electricity. But, what captures your heart and imagination are the Gardens. Situated in Killarney National Park the gardens blend into the 25,000 acres of forest, lakes, carved red sandstone hills, and the deep blue Muckross Lake. In the greater park there are stands of Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea) and one of only three stands of pure Yew in Europe.
The more formal gardens around the house, like The Huntington's, tend toward clusters of similar plants, like the conifer collection, a multi leveled rock garden, clusters of Rhododendron, and vast expanses of lawn with free form edges.
Among the gardens is the 13th century Muckross Abbey, torched by Cromwell in the 1600's during his attempt to eradicate the Catholics. The Abbey is eerie, yet the blend of aging stones, vines and uneven walls create as delicious an interplay of architecture and horticulture as the more formal house and elegant gardens.
Patrick McNally, Garden Docent, Propagation Volunteer and Garden Docent Program Chair
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