Irish Garden Odyssey: Kilmacurragh

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Back to my trip to Ireland, day 4 saw us arrive at Kilmacurragh, Kilbride, Co Wicklow.  I have skipped ahead a little as I wanted to show you something other than private gardens.

Kilmacurragh is the outpost for the Dublin Botanic Garden, just as Kew has Wakehurst Place.  It allows the botanic garden to grow plants it doesn’t have the right environment for in Dublin. The garden was one of the most important private gardens in Ireland due to the extensive plant collections made by its owners, the Acton family, from the 1750s to the First World War.  However, like many family estates at this time it suffered from the deaths of three heirs in quick succession and large inheritance tax payments. Eventually the property was bought by the National Botanic Gardens in 1996 and in 2006 the redevelopment of the garden, led by Head Gardener, Seamus O’Brien, started.  The gardens, and those in Dublin, have benefitted from a positive approach by the Irish government and have been lucky in receiving significant levels of funding in recent years; a pity this approach is not matched elsewhere.

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As with most of the other gardens we visited we had the benefit of being shown around by Seamus.  This adds so much to a visit as you learn about individual plants, you have a context to place them and the garden in and you hear all sorts of interesting facts and stories that bring the place alive – something that was really missing from our unguided visit to Mt Usher the day before.

The house in the top photo was destroyed by fires in 1978 and 1982 but now funding has become available for the roof to be replaced which will allow the building to be used as a visitor centre and presumably provide opportunities for further fund-raising.

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One of the collections Kilmacurragh is known for is its collection of rhododendrons collected by Joseph Hooker.  You can see how huge they have grown from the photograph above, I can imagine they are stunning when in flower.

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This is one of the last ones to flower.  I did right its name down but my phonetic scrawl is illegible but it is some sort of hybrid beginning with g!!  Whatever its name, for someone who finds the plant hunter stories fascinating, it was a real thrill to see plants that were actually collected by someone I had read about.

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The plants at Kilmacurragh really demonstrate the benefits of Ireland’s damper climate. I was captivated by the light on these ferns until I walked a few steps further and spotted the giant lilies (Cardiocrinum giganteum)

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There are several clumps throughout the shady part of the long borders and last year, to mark the centenary of the First World War and the men from the estate who lost their lives in it, they planted enough bulbs to have 100 flowering.  I wish I had seen that it must have been breath-taking and heavenly to smell.

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I loved the long herbaceous border.  It is a beautiful mixture of foliage and flowers with plants repeated to give rhythm but many of the plants aren’t those you would expect to see in a long border as hidden away are some wonderful meconopsis paniculata poppies, echiums, white willowherb, astibles, geraniums, and various calmagrostis – wonderful.

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From the long border we headed out into the arboretum again and saw many delights which to be honest I don’t think I appreciated as much as I should have since my tree knowledge is limited.  However, I do know the tree above is vast and very old, possibly dating back to the time of Janet Acton, in the 1870s

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However, I do know that this tree is a Magnolia rostrata and a fairly new addition showing that the collection of plants, particularly trees is continuing.  Future plans include the creation of areas specifically for plants of China, Chile and the Himilaya.  There are even plants that have been bred in the garden by Seamus and named for it such as the Cornus capitata ‘Kilmacurragh Rose’ which was named recently (below).

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But while you are marvelling at the flowers on this new introduction you are aware that just behind you is the original main road through the area down which Oliver Cromwell’s troops marched in the 17th century bringing with them Thomas Acton. Thomas was given the land, in lieu of pay.  His son, Thomas II had the derelict St Mochorog’s Abbey torn down and the stone reused to build the house you see in the top picture in the Queen Anne style.

The old road down which Oliver Cromwell marched
The old road down which Oliver Cromwell marched

We saw how the gardens have been clearing the area of the road and opening up the site with a view to reinstating various historical references around the site.

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But the history is evidenced even further back as the pond above is the original 7th century fish stew which provided for the monastery, established around a hermitage founded by St Mochorog, of British royal birth.

Given that throughout our trip we received a potted history of Ireland from our tour leader, Noel Kingsbury, this garden managed to encompass Irish history in one site and I haven’t included all the stories about the various uprisings and their impact on the estate. For me, a plant nut and a lover of history with a fascinating for early medieval Irish history, this was a special garden for us to visit.

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17 Comments Add yours

  1. karengimson says:

    What a treat! I’m enjoying your Irish Garden Tour Helen. Thanks for sharing. Mum and daughter have said they would like to visit next year, inspired by your photos & reports.

  2. Stephen Barker says:

    Very Interesting, I had not heard of this before, it definitely looks worth a visit.

  3. Yvone Ryan says:

    How lovely – thank you!

  4. germac4 says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading all about your Irish Garden Tour, Helen, (and about all the wonderful gardens in England too).. I only wish I had known about your blog last year, when we were touring England and Ireland. We went to Mt Usher, and although it was wonderful……. as you say, it is much better if you have a guide to tell you the history of the garden, and point out all the interesting plants.
    Keep up the garden tours…… we enjoy, and especially the connection of history with gardens.

  5. Loree says:

    I really enjoyed your visit, the lush green is so welcome. That rhododendron, wow! And I learned of a new (to me) tree too, that Magnolia rostrata. Off to look it up and learn more…

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Loree
      I could see the magnolia in your garden, it was a real eye catcher

  6. It makes a huge difference to be taken around a house or garden by someone who know about it – and so good to hear of new developments happening, not just preservation in aspic!

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Rachel
      I agree it is great to see a property being taken forward in the same spirit but not being preserved as you say in aspic. I think there is room for gardens which reflect a certain period in history but we also have to recognise that gardens evolve and are rarely stationery so the preserved gardens are increasingly artificial

  7. I’m enjoying reading about this wonderful tour, what marvellous and interesting gardens. Thank you for so eloquently linking them to their histories – equally fascinating.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Kate
      Im glad you are enjoying my tour. I find the history really fascinating especially of the big old properties and their role in Ireland’s history.

    2. Yes, I agree, and I think a history that seems sadly overshadowed by its ‘neighbours’. Why not an Irish ‘Downton’?

    3. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Kate
      An Irish ‘Downton’ would be great as that period of Irish history is shall we say lively!!!!

  8. Helen,
    FYI my wife Megan O’Beirne has just published a book on the garden and its history – “Kilmacurragh: Sourced in the wild”.
    It’s great to see so many people discovering this hidden gem.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Patrick
      Thanks for the heads up, I will look out for the book.

  9. Cathy says:

    You clearly chose well when you booked this trip – it sounds most informative. Love those double herbaceous borders…

  10. Brian Skeys says:

    Hi Helen, I have been saving up the posts from your Irish garden tour for when I had time to read them altogether. I sensed you enjoyed this one the most, and obviously benefited from having two knowledgeable guides in Seamus and Noel with you. When are we going to see Helen Dillon’s garden?
    Thanks for the tour.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Brian
      I ran out of steam on the Irish gardens and thought people would be bored of them but for you I will do one on Helen Dillons garden in the next week or so

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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