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

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11 thoughts on “Kilmacurragh: sourced in the wild by Megan O’Beirne. A review

  1. Dear Paddy

    I usually admire your balanced reviews but I feel this one is a little harsh on poor Megan O’Beirne. There may be numerous faults in the book but pointing out so many relentlessly is extremely hurtful to someone who is not a professional writer but, at least, has made the effort of producing a book…
    It is so easy to criticise but life is a bit short to damn someone’s work so heartlessly…all it achieved is to hurt her.
    It might be well to remember ‘if you cannot be kind, be quiet’…

    Frances MacDonald (The Bay Garden)

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    • Dear Frances,

      I accept your comments that this was a harsh review and, as you say, I am generally more gentle in my comments. When I saw that a book on Kilmacurragh was being published I was delighted as the garden certainly deserves to be brought to the notice of a wider audience. However, I really feel that the book was a huge disappointment. Despite the author’s good intentions, and her intentions were obviously very good and I made this clear in the review, the book fell short in so many ways that I felt it had to be stated boldly and clearly as it did a disservice to the garden. The list of errors I gave was long but only representative.

      Your sentiment of “if you cannot be kind, be quiet” is certainly a good guideline for living one’s life but there are occasions when criticism is not unreasonable.

      Paddy

      Post Scriptum: Frances, taking your comments into account I have re-read the review and have reduced the listing of mistakes so this aspect of the review would not have such a physical presence on the page. The list is, in fact, very long but what remains will be sufficient to make that point without driving it home, so to speak. I realise such a review will be hurtful for the author and I regret that. I did give the opportunity for comment before writing and posting the review but received no reply.

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  2. Would the real critic/reviewer please stand up?

    By the way I did not receive an opportunity for comment.

    I will give my considered response on my return to my desk.

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  3. Dear Megan,

    My name is at the end of the review – Paddy Tobin.

    On 17th April I received an e-mail from Patrick (O’Beirne) wondering if I had a date in mind for when a review might appear. I replied that I was aware the book had received considerable criticism and that I was holding off so as to be more objective in my review. Patrick suggested I take my time and enjoy the book.

    For the personal hurt this may be causing you, you have my sincere sympathy.

    Paddy

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    • Paddy, did you personally create the list of 150 defects that you referred to?
      If not, please let me know the name of your source of information.

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  4. Hello, I have read with great interest Patrick’s review and personally could only welcome such a detailed critic. When we put ourselves’out’ there either as a writer or artist then we must be open to comment especially regarding inaccuracies. On a different note my grandparents used stay at this wonderful estate. My aunt remembers visiting as a child and talks about the house and the elegant condition s at the time. Helena

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  5. Paddy,
    I always cite my sources and I find your failure to do so calls into question their authority. Relying on anonymous sources for the substantive content of ‘your’ review does you no credit. Perhaps anonymity was their precondition for supplying the information?
    Megan

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  6. Dear Paddy Tobin,
    Surely the conscientious critic actually reads the book he is reviewing and does not depend on recycling second-hand commentary. You have neither the grounds nor the right to ‘condemn’ my book given your unfamiliarity with its contents and reliance on third parties for review copy.
    I note that you fail to name your source for the nit-picking review of my book “Kilmacurragh: Sourced in the wild”. Anonymous criticism is always suspect.
    A pity that my book described by author and garden-writer Mary Davies as ’an attractive exploration of Kilmacurragh’ has been assessed by your informant (of encyclopaedic knowledge) as if it were a botanical handbook and not aimed at a readership comprising visitors, tourists and garden-lovers. Not for them the pedant’s concerns! Already, through my publication, literally hundreds of people have visited Kilmacurragh thereby realising my aim to rescue it from its ‘secret garden’ image.
    As regards accuracy, I carefully photographed the name tags (when in position) of all the plants I feature in the book and I have these on file for scrutiny. At all times I tried to discharge my duties as an author as scrupulously as possible.
    A more damning criticism of mine is that you did not read the book carefully otherwise you would have noticed the selective and therefore distorted profile of William Acton attributed to me in Ms Thompson’s article (Irish Times Mar 7th) to whom at the end of our interview I firmly recommended that she check points made in her article by referring to the book. This she patently did not do thus the dissemination of the distortion. Both she and Richard Pine in his letter to the IT in response to the article – he had not read the book – have done a disservice to my book. The IT have yet to grant me the right to reply; my letter to the editor pointing out this misrepresentation was not printed. You also by slavishly piggy-backing on their comments have perpetuated the error and are also guilty of a disservice to me. Try reading Chapter 7 again and note the tribute I pay to William Acton page 113. Certainly, his care of his tenants during the Great Famine was irreproachable; the execution of his responsibilities as Chairman of the Board of Rathdrum Workhouse where the inmates were mostly Catholics is not without criticism if we are interested in a balanced view of history.
    I prefer to rely on the mature assessment of my book by the eminent scholar, Peter Wyse Jackson, former director of NBG who accurately reflected the genre of the book and the service it provides in his Foreword: ’This book will open the eyes of many to this national treasure’ rather than on the carping criticism of your shy anonymous encyclopaedist.

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  7. Dear Megan,

    You are to be commended for your good intentions in writing this book and I have made that clear in the review. I expect your book will raise the profile of the gardens among the general public and will attract visitors to the garden – indeed, has already done so as you state above and I wish to compliment you for that.

    Though you doubt it, I read your book not once but twice. I came on errors on my first reading, sought further opinion and from this correspondence had other errors pointed out to me. Now, in fairness, it is not uncommon to come on errors in published books and it is true that they may not impinge on the general enjoyment of the reader but there are two reasons for my highlighting them in my review.

    The intended audience for my reviews is primarily the members of the Irish Garden Plant Society and I think it not unreasonable of me to suggest they have an above average interest in gardening in general and in the plants of the garden and would wish for accuracy in any account of the garden or any description of the plants. This does not mean that I cannot see your book having appeal and giving enjoyment to a great many people and, certainly, is is possible to walk a garden, admire the planting and take great enjoyment from the experience without any great knowledge of plant names, garden history or plant history but it is my experience that the members of the IGPS find such information adds greatly to their enjoyment and would wish for accuracy in any garden account.

    On the other hand, the gardens at Kilmacurragh are part of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland and such accuracy is an essential part of their work and is not only expected but demanded of them and a book on the gardens which does not reflect this does a disservice to the gardens.

    Paddy

    Post Scriptum: It would, indeed, have only been reasonable to have your letter to the Irish Times published so as to give a more balanced account of the matter. Should you wish to add it here, please feel free to do so.

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