“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.
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.