Kilmacurragh: sourced in the wild by Megan O’Beirne. A review

A wonderful garden, an author who admires it greatly and a seriously flawed book. kilmacurragh_book_cover The National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh are significant for the historic collection of plants which are grown there, plants introduced by the most famous of plant collectors of a bygone era and because the gardens are now in a phase of their redevelopment when yesteryear’s collections are being cared for and those of today’s plant collectors are being grown. We have a past and a present together and a very promising future. Megan O’Beirne has obviously come to enjoy these gardens since she began visiting in 2009. She is a visual artist and writer and felt inspired by the gardens: “Another project was born…a resolution to fill a vacuum, to make an art book comprising words and images which attempt to capture the spirit of the place as I experienced it.” She speaks glowingly of the gardens and paints them in a positive and complimentary light: “Kilmacurragh…has a dynamic present. It is cared for to a high professional standard and there is an air of progressive planting” and later, “The unequivocal remit of the current management has been solely the restoration of the arboretum and its plant collection and they discharge this responsibility with outstanding dedication and flair.”

The book follows a logical and historic thread beginning with a general overview of the history and layout of the grounds and proceeding with chapters on the religious background to the site, the interplay with Cromwell, the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, the great plant collectors, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, the glorious years of the twentieth century and latter years after the departure of the Acton family from the property. Sections of the book read very awkwardly as though the author has collected notes from various sources but has failed to work them into a smooth and coherent narrative.

The photography is generally of a style which fails to show the plants to their best with many of inconsequential and distracting detail and I found the placing of photographs which lacked relevance to the text quite a nuisance – a number of close-up photographs of tree trunks to accompany a chapter on the family involvement with Cromwell, for example, while in Chapter 5 on the Seventeenth – Eighteenth Century, there is a similar scattering of photographs which seem to serve no other purpose than to fill space.

Of greater significance is the mislabelling of photographs with even such a common plant as aquilegia (page 154) labelled as Aconitum carmichaelii or the ‘Oak in autumn’ on page 80 which is a beech tree. On 41, the plant captioned as Fascicularia bicolor ssp. bicolor is, in fact, the very distinctive Fascicularia bicolor ssp. canaliculata. On 79. The tree captioned as Cupressus lusitanica is Cupressus lusitanica ‘Glauca Pendula’. The rare Quercus robur ‘Variegata’ shown on page 84 is captioned as Quercus robur. Though stated to be Lilium henryi the plant shown on page 115 is actually Lilium leichtlinii. On page 125 the tree captioned as Quercus pyrenaica is the rare Quercus pyrenaica ‘Pendula’ and this error is repeated on page 142. The plant captioned as Pieris forrestii on page 127 is Pieris formosa from the Himalaya.  There are others!

There are many factual inaccuracies which an enthusiastic gardener would notice: Rhododendon fortunei was not collected by Joseph.D. Hooker; it is a Chinese species, not Himalayan, and has no ties with Hooker – page 21. Joseph Hooker did not source R. loderi (correctly R. Loderi Group) in the wild; it is an English hybrid raised by Sir Leonard Loder at his garden, Leonardslee, in Sussex while .  Rhododendron ‘Altaclarense’ (which appears throughout the book as Rhododendron ‘altaclarense’) is not a common species but rather a hybrid – pages 37-38  – and should be correctly named Rhododendron ‘Thomas Acton’ – see A Heritage of Beauty, page 206. There was never a Veitch nursery in Cornwall; there was one in Chelsea and another in Exeter (Devon) and the famous French missionaries David & Delavay did not collect in Japan – both on page 100.   And, again, I could go on.

There is a similar frequency of inaccuracies relating to the family history and the history of the gardens but it would be a tedious litany to list them here. However, there are a few seriously misleading, intolerable and unforgivable statements in this book which cannot be allow pass. The author questions the ethics of the Acton family’s relief work during famine times on page 51 and, again, in an interview with Sylvia Thompson (“Kilmacurragh Arboretum: Ireland’s secret garden”, Irish Times, March 7th) when she referred to the family’s “arrogance” and how she was “disturbed” by the family’s “disconnectedness from the suffering of the Famine”. The author was taken to task about this in a letter to the newspaper from Richard Pine, author of “Charles: The Life and World of Charles Acton”, a book which Megan O’Beirne’s quoted from freely in her own work. Richard Pine wrote to the newspaper: “It would be difficult to be more unjust to William Acton (1789-1854), MP for Wicklow, who in 1843 said in the House of Commons that he was “anxious to rescue the unfortunate and destitute hundreds and thousands of his fellow countrymen”. Acton was the chairman of the Rathdrum Poor Law Union; he was hailed as “the Friend of the Poor” – hardly arrogant or disconnected. In 1822 and 1845 during periods of famine he had walls and ditches made on his estate, and extensions built to his house, in order to give employment to local people and to refugees from the west of Ireland. The family diary of the time gives specific evidence of this work and comments that “absentee landlords made it worse spending their money in London instead of Ireland”. The Actons were distinguished from many of their neighbours in that they were consistently resident on their estate, and enjoyed good relations with their tenants.”  

The current Oak Avenue at Kilmacurragh was the original Dublin – Wexford road and it is heavily documented that this was Cromwell’s route to Wexford town – see Richard Pine’s biography of Charles Acton, for example – yet this is lightly cast aside by the author with the flippant assertion that it “may be imaginative speculation”. Perhaps the largest and most historically misleading inaccuracies centre on the author’s account of Thomas Acton IV. On page 110 the author, without any citation, states that it was William Acton (Thomas Acton IV’s father) who purchased William Lobb’s collection from Messrs Veitch. Thomas had being managing the estate for his father since 1851 and he and and his sister, Janet, had taken a great interest in the gardens before that date and it was Thomas Acton IV who expanded the Chilean collection at Kilmacurragh, through his purchases from Messrs Veitch. The Patagonian cypress – mentioned on page 118 – was not planted by William Acton; again this is a Thomas Acton IV plant. On page 119: Juniperus recurva, Cupressus lusitanica (by pond) and Cryptomeria japonica were not planted by William Acton; they are all Thomas Acton IV trees. Page 120: William Acton has no associations with William Lobb; again this is Thomas Acton IV. Page128: William Acton was not concerned with getting wild origin plants for Kilmacurragh; this was Thomas Acton IV through David & Frederick Moore. The same error is repeated on page 144.

In summary, this is a seriously flawed book – the lack of an index is another big failing –  which does a great disservice to the garden it wishes to describe. However, in fairness to the author, I feel she truly is an admirer of the gardens, its history, the heritage of the Acton family and the present work and future plans for the gardens yet I cannot recommend this book to you.

Paddy Tobin

To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook.

The Irish Garden by Jane Powers and Jonathan Hession, A Review

In a combination of lusciously delicious text and exquisite photography, Jane Powers and Jonathan Hession have produced the most wonderful and delightful book on Irish gardens.

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Although there was a short interlude when Jane spent some years of childhood in America she is truly an Irish woman as she has spent most of her life here in Ireland. Despite this she regularly speaks of Ireland, its gardens and plants, almost as an outsider, as someone with fresh eyes who has just arrived and is amazed and delighted with the conditions which prevail here, the incredible range of plants we can grow and the idiosyncratic gardens which have developed. In her introduction she speaks of our topography and of our wonderfully mild climate, Gulf Stream influence etc, which together provide conditions which allow us to grow an extraordinary range of plants and which make Irish gardens so particularly unique and, obviously, such a delight to the author. This delight and love of Irish gardens pervades the book so that it is far more than a simple description of a range of gardens and more of a lady in love telling us of her excitement in being here and of the enjoyment she finds in these gardens.

The curvilinear range of glasshouses at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.
The curvilinear range of glasshouses at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin.

Thirty eight gardens are featured and organised thematically into nine groups such as “Grand Big Gardens”, “Painting with Plants” and “Good Enough to Eat” while the introductions to each of these chapters contain notes on a further twenty three gardens giving a total of over sixty gardens altogether. This organisation of the book makes for very comfortable reading and avoids the organisational pitfall of an otherwise long list of garden entries which might seem never-ending. Each group or chapter brings gardens together under a theme; the reader is guided to view them in this manner which gives cohesion to the list of gardens and to the reader’s enjoyment of the book. I surmise that some, at least, of those gardens dealt with briefly in the introductions to these chapters might have originally been intended as full entries but the constraints on the publishers decided otherwise. The book is a substantial volume as it is and full entries for another twenty gardens might have lead to it being an unwieldy size.

Corke Lodge, outside Bray, Co. Wicklow
Corke Lodge, outside Bray, Co. Wicklow

Within these constraints I expect choices had to be made and some gardens were featured while others received less attention. I might quibble a little over these choices, feeling that the likes of Blarney Castle, Fota Island, Lismore Castle and Lissadell, for example, might have deserved greater coverage in place of less significant gardens. While I can see that present day fashion and popularity must also be accommodated in such a book I feel a small number of the featured gardens were not deserving of the attention they received. However, their inclusion does provide contrast and interest and reflects an aspect of gardening in Ireland today where self-promotion and popularity leads to acclaim and few will dare to disagree.

Mount Stewart Gardens near Newtownards, Northern Ireland.
Mount Stewart Gardens near Newtownards, Northern Ireland.

The descriptions of the gardens are detailed and comprehensive, beautifully written and a joy to read.  The expected content: information on each garden’s history, its gardeners, design, features and planting are covered not only comprehensively but with style and flourish. Jane has never been happy to simply do the basics well when excellence is at her fingertips and her easy facility with language threads through this book as gold thread through silk. Who else could describe Tullynally so: “The castle, stretched proprietorially across the landscape, is a neo-Gothic-Tudoresque, grey, gallimaufry of towers, pinnacles, crenellations, buttresses, arrow-slits, hood-mounted windows and tall chimney stacks” and mention that the walled garden has a “troupe of supercilious llamas” while her account of Rowallane Gardens quite simply transported me there in happiness and enjoyment.

Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, Co. Wicklow
Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, Co. Wicklow

For some gardens her praise is generous – “Glenveagh, under the imaginative and careful hand of Head Gardener, Seán O Gaoithin, is a salutary model for how to manage an intensive and sprawling space while keeping it vibrant and true to the spirit of the creator” and “The practice of horticulture has not been sacrificed to the pursuit of maintenance, as is the case in some state-owned Irish gardens.” On the other hand, she is critical of the style of the restoration of the glasshouse at Kylemore Abbey and of the plant selection with its “adherence to somewhat oppressive criteria” – an insistence on pre-1900 plants while better varieties are available; of Garinish where “the wood is somewhat jarred by the incongruous mix of clashy-dashy modern bedding plants”; of Mount Congreve where the line of Acer palmatum running under a long planting of large rhododendrons is described as “bobbing along brownly in an orderly procession” and of Westmeath County Council for their “imposition of a Narnia Trail onto the demesne’s historical fabric”. I could disagree with few of her criticisms, except that of Mount Congreve, a local patch for me, though I found her praise of some gardens a little lavish and undeserved. Perhaps, I am a less generous soul than she! Her interview with Helen Dillon provided the most insightful view into a gardener’s mind and was the entry I found most enjoyable.

The Bay Garden near Ferns, Co. Wexford.
The Bay Garden near Ferns, Co. Wexford.

When I first viewed the book I went immediately to the entry for Mount Congreve as I felt I could get a quick idea of the book by seeing how a garden I know very well was portrayed. There is a view in the garden, one I like very much, a downhill view along the Magnolia Walk with tall Magnolia campbellii and Magnolia Sprengeri in large numbers on either side of a wide pathway and these underplanted with about one hundred various Magnolia x soulangeana cultivars. The eye is lead to a view onto the River Suir sweeping westwards towards Mooncoin and also across the river to County Kilkenny. It is a spectacular piece of garden planning and planting and is a view I have photographed innumerable times but have only come close to capturing as my mind sees it on a very few occasions. It was a delight to see Jonathan had captured this scene to perfection and this was a fair representation of the beauty of the photography throughout the book. Together, Jane and Jonathan have formed a perfect partnership and together have produced a wonderful book.

This book entertains, informs and delights in good measure. There is much to enjoy here, much to learn and much to think about. It prods us to realise what a heritage of gardening beauty we have on this island, how fortunate we are that our conditions allow us such a scope for gardening and for plant selection, that we – and the state – have a duty of care for this heritage and that we must be willing to look at it not only with eyes full of appreciation but also with fair criticism and a will and determination to ensure its future. Jane and Jonathan have brought us a wonderful book which is genuinely a significant part of this gardening heritage. I congratulate them both on their work and thank them most sincerest for the pleasure it has brought to me and will, I am sure, to many others.

[The Irish Garden, Jane Powers and Jonathan Hession, Frances Lincoln, London, 2015, HB, 399pp, €50, ISBN: 978-0-7112-3222-8]

Paddy Tobin

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To find out more about the Irish Garden Plant Society visit our website or follow us on Facebook.