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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