Glenstal Abbey Gardens

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October), Reviews, Volume 22

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Garden history was long the province of the amateur. In recent decades it has become more the activity of the professional academic, with chairs and lectureships in a number of universities in both the US and the UK. The results of research are published in two principal scholarly journals, Garden History and Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, as well as in more specialised publications such as the New England Journal of Garden History or the Australian Journal of Garden History. During the same period there has been a steady accumulation of books and articles on Irish garden history, such as the early pioneering books Lost demesnes (1976) by Edward Malins and the Knight of Glin, Irish gardens and demesnes from 1830 (1980) by Edward Malins and Patrick Bowe, and A history of gardening in Ireland (1995) by Keith Lamb and Patrick Bowe. These have been succeeded in recent years by publications such as Landscape design in eighteenth-century Ireland (2007) and Ireland and the picturesque: design, landscape painting and tourism in Ireland 1700–1830 (2013), both by Finola O’Kane, a senior lecturer at University College Dublin. More specialised books include A history of cottage gardens and allotments in Ireland since 1750 (2012) by Jonathan Bell and Mervyn Watson and Wicklow though the artist’s eye: an exploration of County Wicklow’s historic gardens (2014) by Patricia Butler and Mary Davies. Lacking a professional journal, Irish garden historians have been publishing articles on specific gardens or specific garden types such as suburban gardens, cottage gardens and civic planting in journals such as Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, the annual scholarly publication of the Irish Georgian Society, and the Irish Arts Review. Glenstal Abbey gardens (2014) by Brian P. Murphy OSB is a welcome addition to this growing body of publications.

The book begins with a record of the site from c. 1400 and notes a petition from 1436 indicating that only men ‘of English race’ might become monks in the nearby abbey of Abington. By c. 1680, when the walled garden, the principal subject of the present book, was created, the estate belonged to the Evans family (later Lords Carbery). During its tenure the ancient oak on the property, known as the Ilchester oak, was recorded as already mature. The book continues with the history of the occupation of the site from the 1820s by the Barrington family, their rise from a Limerick legal practice, via the construction of Barrington’s Hospital for the poor of the city, to the grandeur of the estate and its castle, now known as Glenstal, as well as of a baronetcy. Matthew Barrington’s development of the estate with the plantation of hundreds of thousands of trees, mostly from Irish nurseries and partly with the advice of one ‘Mr McLeish’, is detailed. McLeish must be Alexander McLeish, a pupil of the great J.C. Loudon, who came to Ireland in 1813 and established a nursery and a landscape gardening practice in Ireland that was in operation until his death in 1829. His work on specific gardens in the east and midlands of the country is already known but that he worked also in the west of the country is less so. The documentation discovered by Brian Murphy of his involvement at Glenstal gives us for the first time a specific location for his work in the west.

After the Barrington family sold Glenstal in 1926, its custodianship passed to the Benedictine community, which looks after it to this day. The community worked in the c. 1680 walled terrace garden to provide some food in the spirit of St Benedict’s dictum that ‘then are they truly monks when they work by the labour of their hands’. In 1975 a project for the restoration of the wider gardens was conceived by the community, together with the Limerick branch of An Taisce. It was to focus especially on, and complete, the restoration of the structural elements of the walled terrace garden of c. 1680. Once this was completed, there remained the question of the planting. From 1986 this has been undertaken by a member of the community, Brian Murphy, the author of this book, together with volunteers. At first the planting was historical, of shrubs and flowers known to have been grown in late seventeenth-century gardens. A second stage was the creation of a Bible garden, appropriate for a community with an aspiration to sanctity. It consists of a chequerboard of plants with biblical or religious associations. One square holds plants with names associated with Irish saints. Another has biblical grains. Yet another holds ‘flowers of the field’ and yet a further is concerned with monkish matters. The Old Testament has been found to be a rich hunting ground for Bible plants. Jacob sheep were introduced to keep the grass down in the orchard. If this garden had been in the charge of an institution like the Office of Public Works, an onus to create a semblance of the c. 1680 garden would have been felt. Instead, in Benedictine hands, the garden continues to evolve.

The book is dedicated to the ‘men of the roads’ whose help in restoring the Glenstal gardens was invaluable. Sadly, their help in maintaining the garden cannot be accessed because their hostel at Glenstal has been closed down by the Health and Safety Executive, which decided that it is not compatible with a school. Lastly, in contrast to the rather ponderous tomes that characterise some history publications, this book is lightly and elegantly written, illustrated and designed.

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