The Darling Sophie North

We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Dunblane School massacre (13th March 1996) when a man entered a primary school in Dunblane, near Stirling in Scotland, and murdered sixteen children and their teacher, injured others and devastated the lives of innumerable families and sent ripples of upset and fear far and wide.

Sophie North, one of the children lost at Dunblane 

At the time of this horrific event I was the principal teacher (headmaster) in a small rural school in Bigwood, Mullinavat, Co. Kilkenny.  It is so hard to imagine today but then our front door, and our back door, was always open.  It was never locked. In summer it was left wide open and parents, neighbours and even strangers were free and welcome to enter the premises.

Immediately after Dunblane we had big meeting of all the parents at the school. Even at our distance and with no personal connections the level of upset, sympathy and sadness was extraordinary and it brought with it an unprecedented level of worry and concern for the safety of their own children – and mine, as mine attended the school also. Locks and a pushbell were fitted to the doors and a time of confidence and of feeling safe had passed forever. How petty in comparison with the trauma suffered by the people in Dunblane but it serves to illustrate the impact of these horrific event even at our remove.

Dr. Evelyn Stevens gardened in Sherriffmuir near Dunblane, a garden where Meconopsis featured as she held a national collection, but she also had naturalised snowdrops in a woodland area of the garden and it was here that Galanthus ‘Sophie North’ originated. Jim Jermyn showed it at an RHS show in Westminster in 1996 where it attracted a great deal of attention and admiration and Dr. Stevens named it shortly afterwards for Sophie North, one of the children who was killed in the school in Dunblane. It has since been grown not alone for its intrinsic beauty but also for its connections.

G. 'Sophie North'  (1)
Galanthus ‘Sophie North’ 
Galanthus 'Sophie North'  (1)
Galanthus ‘Sophie North’ 
Galanthus 'Sophie North'
Galanthus ‘Sophie North’ 

Paddy Tobin

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Memories in the Trees

Kennedy Park had been a place for us to bring the children when they were young; it had plenty of room for them to walk freely, the pathways suited prams and buggies; it had ducks; there was no traffic and it was very safe.  However, as they grew, our visits became more and more infrequent so a suggestion that we should go there for a walk last Sunday came out of the blue and brought us back the years.

A central vista looking back to the Visitors’ Centre

The arboretum was established as a memorial for President John F. Kennedy and was financed by contributions from Irish Americans and by the Irish government.  The ancestral home of the Kennedys is in Dunganstown, outside New Ross, and the site selected for the park was on the slopes of Slieve Coillte only a few miles away, so a fitting location. The park was established with three objectives: 1. To establish an arboretum – a comprehensive and scientifically laid out collection of trees; 2. To establish a series of forest plots to research the suitability of trees for use in forestry and 3. To establish an amenity park where people could enjoy the outdoors and appreciate the beauty of trees.

The Eucalypts are now fine specimens
The main circuit of the park, well surfaced and easy for walking. There are smaller pathways all along the route. 

The park – I am inclined to refer to it as “Kennedy Park” though I notice it is now signposted as “The JFK Arboretum” – extends to about 620 acres and is laid out with surfaced walkways and pathways with adequate carpark, a reception area, picnic area, coffee shop, children’s play area, large pond and a miniature railway. The viewing point at Slieve Coillte which is 630 feet above sea level is conveniently accessed by road and gives views over Counties Wexford and Waterford, to the Saltee Islands, to the confluence to the Rivers Suir, Nore and Barrow and to the Comeragh Mountains. The arboretum has a collection of approximately 4,500 trees and shrubs and there are about 200 forestry plots. The reception area has informative displays though, I must be honest, I have only ever viewed them when caught by inclement weather as I always preferred to walk the park.

The lake has always been a great attraction for visitors, especially children, who have enjoyed   the ducks where are present in large numbers and are quite tame – anything for an easy meal. 
A peaceful place for family walks. 

It was interesting to return to Kennedy Park after an interval of many years and my reactions to the experience varied. Much was as it had always been – trees are long-lived plants so the general shape of the park was as I had remembered it. It was obvious that renewal and renovation work was being undertaken – groups of trees which when small were planted in big numbers to make an impression were now being thinned out to  allow the better specimens to grow with more space to show their natural shape better.  By contrast, there are display beds of shrubs through the garden and many of these could do with some rejuvenation. Those with berberis and chaenomeles, for example, are very overgrown and the labelling has been lost. There was a delightful large planting of the old Narcissus ‘Van Sion’ or N. telemonius plenus as it was also called and similar large plantings of daffodils would add greatly to the amenity value of the park at this time of year. It would seem that work is in hand to rejuvenate the arboretum and I hope it continues apace as the park is a very popular location for visitors.

The very popular planting companions of slow-growing conifers and heathers of the seventies still look well here. 
A beautiful planting of the old Narcissus ‘Van Sion’ (syn. N. telemonius plenus)

Last Sunday’s visit brought back one important family memory. When visiting the garden in March 1982, Mary took our eldest son out of the car, put him standing on the ground and he took his first steps. It is time to bring the grandchildren to visit, I think.

David's first steps 3
Those first steps! 
David's first steps 2
He’s excited! Don’t the cars look so old-fashioned!  And the quality of the photographs has improved also. 

Paddy Tobin

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



Helen Dillon wears Lipstick!

“In an Irish Garden” was Helen’s greatest book! It was a collection of garden accounts written by the gardeners themselves, edited by Helen and Sybil Connolly, and it captured the feeling of a generation in Irish gardening which was about to pass. Many of those who featured in the book are no longer with us – it was published in 1986 – and it has done Irish gardening heritage the wonderful service of remembering these people and their gardens. Our copy is more than a little tatty as it was well used – we used it as a guide to seek out the gardens so as to visit them – and it also bears the odd inscription from Helen, “You may not visit my garden in the middle of the night!”


The middle of the night apart, we have visited Helen’s garden many, many times over the years since she wrote that and it has always been a garden and home with the warmest welcome –  one of those gardens where you have to stop admiring the plants because any comment on the beauty of plant would send Helen off for the fork and the plastic bags so our garden has many souvenirs from Helen’s.


In Irish gardening circles she has been a stalwart of the Irish Garden Plant Society since its foundation and produced its newsletter for quite some time – in the now very old-fashioned way of typewriter, correction fluid, stencils and home printing. She has equally been a strength in the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland and in the Alpine Garden Society and all societies have recognised and marked this wonderful and generous contribution.


She graced our television screens in several programmes, always bringing her love and enthusiasm for plants to the audience and wrote several books (The Flower Garden, Garden Artistry, Helen Dillon on Gardening and Helen Dillon’s Gardening Book) which were read with enthusiasm both here in Ireland and abroad. She spoke to gardening groups here in Ireland and lectured abroad, especially in the USA. The Royal Horticultural Society awarded her the Gold Veitch Memorial Medal, an award of international standing which is awarded to those who have helped in the advancement and improvement of the science and practice of horticulture.

Who, but Helen, could fill refuse bins with flowers and make them beautiful!

Through this long and glowingly successful life in gardening she modestly referred to herself as simply a Dublin housewife and King, Queen or the proud owner of a bizzy lizzy in a pot was welcome to her garden. The love of plants and gardening knew no class or boundaries in her life. All were welcomed with warmth and enthusiasm and anecdotes and experiences shared with generosity – plants likewise!


I look back now in amusement at the national mourning when Val’s carpet-perfect lawn was replaced with a canal and limestone paving. It was almost as though they had defiled a national monument when, in fact, it was just another gardening lesson for us – times change, gardens change, all is change but nobody has managed change as artistically as Helen.


Is it the garden or the person who is the national treasure? I suppose they are inextricably interlinked.

Paddy Tobin

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