Lawns in Bawns
“Kings, princes, and the wisest men of all ages, have some or other of them, taken singular delight in this exercise of planting, setting, sowing, and what else that is requisite in the well ordering of orchards and gardens, and rejoiced to see the fruits of their labours.” Leonard Meager, 1697.
After studying English and History of Art at Trinity College Dublin, Catherine FitzGerald trained as a horticulturalist at the Royal Horticultural Society. A Postgrad Diploma in Landscape Conservation and History at the Architectural Association topped up her studying. “My aim is that each garden should feel completely right and of its place rather than imposed,” she believes, “acting with, rather than against, nature and local idiom.” Catherine hand draws plans in the Gertrude Jekyll tradition.
Green genes run in the family. She calls her grandmothers “plantaholics”. Years ago, her mother Madam FitzGerald germanely wrote about the family home, “The garden of Glin Castle in County Limerick is extraordinarily beautiful and yet I feel it is not a fine garden. It seems to me to be more of a field cut neatly and circumspectly into a lawn or two, with a little hill that is covered in daffodils in the spring, and some primeval oaks that drench you with their leafy arms as you pass. It is a garden that acknowledges its castle first and foremost, while this battlemented toy fort, preoccupied with its own importance, accepts the homage too carelessly to repay the compliment.”
Olda FitzGerald posits, “Many of its windows treacherously look out over the Shannon estuary or else yearningly, like the rest of us, away down the avenue towards the chimneys and steeple of the village, with an occasional haughty glance down at the croquet lawn and crab apple trees below. The crab apples were planted 40 years ago, and for most of the year give the impression of being thickly covered in grey feathery fungus, until they burst into the most unseemly fertility every summer.”
Roughly 290 miles northeast of Glin Castle lies another faux fortified residence, Glenarm Castle. It’s the home of Randal and Aurora McDonnell, Viscount and Viscountess Dunluce. They’re friends of Catherine so she was an obvious choice to bring their four acre Walled Garden back to life. “I had just left my job as Planting Designer for Arabella Lennox-Boyd,” Catherine relates, “and was beginning to design gardens on my own. Randal gave me my first commission really. It was a wonderful opportunity.” An ancestor of Randal’s – Anne Catherine McDonnell, Countess of Antrim – built the Walled Garden in the 1820s using limestone quarried from the demesne. It’s a relatively recent addition considering the McDonnells have been at Glenarm Castle for six centuries and counting.
Randal inherited Glenarm Castle back in 1992 when he was 25. ”By the time I took on the Walled Garden, it was completely derelict bar the yew circle, the beech circle and a few shrubs,” he recalls, “but I didn’t hesitate. I had always loved this place. It had sagged rather, but it was very exciting to be able to stop it sag for a bit.” In place of dereliction, and any sagging for that matter, is Catherine’s design for six ornamental gardens in separate “rooms”. Five pay homage to the traditional productive functions of walled gardens: the Apple Orchard; the Cherry Garden; the Herb Garden; the Pear Garden; and the Medlar Garden. A viewing point of these five rooms is cleverly provided by the Mount which occupies the sixth space. More anon.
There were pleached trees and borders already at the bottom of the garden by the time Catherine got involved so she was asked to make sense of the top half. Her design replaced a blank space dotted with a few languishing trees and shrubs marooned among stretches of grass. “My instinct,” records Catherine, “was to divide it up into different rooms and walks which visitors could wander through and wonder where they were going next rather than taking it all in at once.” The Walled Garden is entered through the simple green coloured Bell Gate, framed by a cloak of clematis draped over the high stone walls.
Naturally, Glin Castle was an influence on Catherine’s design: “The kitchen garden at Glin which was restored by my mother in the 1970s is always in the back of my mind when planning walled gardens. She used yew topiary shapes, Irish yew and espaliered apple and pear divisions to provide a strong structure and design as a background to the fruit vegetables and annuals she planted. At Glenarm, elements of this are there with the espaliered pears and strong structure provided by the hedges.”
“I wanted to relate the theme to walled gardens,” she adds, “so used a lot of fruit trees but in an ornamental way: the espaliered pear tree circle… the formal rows of medlars… the apple tree orchard… the crab trees and so on.” The brief was to keep it relatively simple and low maintenance. As a result, it’s very structural with no fussiness. More from Catherine: “It was all done on a modest budget. Randal had a great team who implemented it.” One of the biggest structural tasks was restoring the 100 metre long glasshouse with its myriad rhomboid panes.
Catherine was also influenced by the gardens on the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava’s Clandeboye Estate in County Down and Ned Lambton’s Cetinale Estate in Italy. She notes, “Both these gardens have espaliered fruit trees trained on circular wrought iron frameworks and I liked that idea. I was also influenced by Scampston Hall Walled Garden in Yorkshire, designed by Piet Outdolph. It has a ziggurat shaped mount – while the one at Glenarm is spiral shaped – but I could see how effective it was in giving a view over the whole garden.” The Mount is especially effective at Glenarm because now it is possible to see dramatic views up the glens and woods in one direction and the sea in the other. Not forgetting views across the Walled Garden itself.
She believes, “Gardens are about evoking sensations and emotion. I try to imbue my gardens with a sense of romance.” There’s all that plus a sense of drama. Expect to see explosive reds, yellows and blues in the aptly named Hot Border. Crimson dahlias are a favourite of the Viscountess. Drama needs contrast. Turn the corner at the end of the Hot Border to be greeted by the pale foxgloves of the Double Borders. “It did take a long time to get going,” she admits, “the beech hedges and yew buttresses along the walls seemed to take forever to establish. But now they have got going it really feels like it is becoming mature. It’s how I imagined it would be which is fantastic!”
“Right plant, right place,” is her motto. Right now, Glenarm Castle Walled Garden has reached peak horticultural experience. Hurrah! It’s a paradise of paradoxes: hill and plain; openness and enclosure; polychrome and green. Continuing the castle theme, Catherine FitzGerald’s latest garden is about to open. Somewhere between Glin and Glenarm in geography and age, Hillsborough Castle is set to be Northern Ireland’s next cultural attraction.