Shirley Lanigan must be the greatest garden visitor in Ireland and she has written a book which would entice the reader to emulate her and visit the wonderful and beautiful gardens we have in this country.
Her latest book “The Open Gardens of Ireland” gives us details of 427 gardens we may visit. Some are large public gardens but most are private gardens which are open under the various local garden trails or for occasional charity events and I don’t think it unfair to say that Shirley is the champion of the smaller private gardens open under such schemes. More so that the larger gardens – which are included and well covered – these are gardened by the owners and are displays of individual taste and flair, something which makes them more personal and appealing. They may not have the grandeur of the larger gardens but more than make up for it by being in a size and proportion which has more relevance to most visitors – there is the feeling that “I could do something like this at home” when one visits and that brings the experience into the realm of the visitor which then becomes an encouragement and incentive to do more on the home plot. Irish gardens, Irish gardening and Irish gardeners are the net beneficiaries and that is a wonderful result.
The guide covers 31 counties of Ireland – there is no entry for Co. Longford – and is arranged by province with the counties listed alphabetically and the gardens likewise. Each entry is headed with the gardener’s name, contact details, opening arrangements and directions though not Sat. Nav. coordinates which would have been a helpful addition. A general description of the garden follows mentioning particular highlights, attractions and features. There are photographs throughout, more as an addition to the text rather than featuring in their own right..
Were I to voice a criticism – and, in a way, what a dreadful criticism – it would be to say that Shirley is too kind. She writes of each garden with great gentleness, always preferring to praise rather than criticise so that the book does not give an assessment of the gardens listed, something which might be of value to the reader. However, she obviously loves gardens, gardeners, their plants and their efforts and prefers to encourage rather than judge and though I might call this a fault, it is the kindest fault.
Occasional a descriptive word does catch the eye. When a garden project was described as a “challenge” I took it to mean the gardeners had taken on more than they could manage and when it was said that a garden had “a relaxed atmosphere” I had a picture of a wild and weedy patch. The state of a significant architectural feature in one of our major historic gardens was described as “not as it should be” because of the invasion of weeds which had been allowed unchecked. I had visited this garden very recently and would have been far more condemning in my comments. It was a shame, a disappointment, a disgrace and certainly “not as it should be”. Shirley condemns much more gently.
It was 2001 when Shirley’s “Guide to Irish Gardens” was published and it has been a constant source of information over the intervening years. The advent of this new guide brings the invariable comparisons between listings then and now. Many gardens and gardeners we have visited over the years have gone but, thankfully, many new gardens have been added to the lists for our enjoyment. There is a little sadness in recalling gardening friends and acquaintances who have passed away in these years but it was an occasion to remember them fondly. Some gardens have endured the test of time and continue in the style in which we have known them while others have reinvented themselves to appeal to a new audience. I suppose it is an essential part of opening to the public, to latch on to the latest fashion or fad, make the garden a sort of shop window to attract people and increase revenue. Some open their gardens to share while others do so to gather. It is all part of the gardening scene and all very interesting.
I don’t think those who open their gardens could have a better promotional writer than Shirley and those who wish to visit Irish gardens have the perfect guidebook.
[The Open Gardens of Ireland, Shirley Lanigan, 2017, The Butter Slip Press, Kilkenny, €22.50/£19.99, Soft cover, 399 pages, ISBN: 978-0-9955825-0-7]