Guided Tours to GARINISH ISLAND
illustrated with laminated posters for better comprehension
on request, 2,5 hours: 45 Euro
in English or German language (some French and Portuguese also spoken)
ring 027 63 609
(or Garnish Island=The near Island or Illnacullin=The island of the holly)
Situated in the picturesque harbour of Glengarriff, the „Island of the Holly“ is known to garden enthusiasts from all over the world. In some years the ‘Garden Eden on 15 acres’ saw up to 80.00 visitors from April through October.
More than a hundred years ago Violet L’Etrange Bryce (b. 10th October 1863, d. 3rd November 1939) and her husband Annan Bryce MP (b. 1841 in Scotland, d. 25th June 1923 in London) spent some summers at the Eccles Hotel and as guests of Glengarriff Castle. They must have fallen deeply in love with this wonderful part of Irish coastline and probably she started dreaming of living on one of the small islands across the bay. The Edwardian millionaire and politician John Annan Bryce bought Illnacullin, which was then an almost barren island in the middle of the bay – only inhabited by a widow her sons and their cattle. Beside their modest cottage at the eastern pier the only built structure was a Martello Tower from around 1805. It had been erected by the British War Office in anticipation to defend this part of County Cork against Napoleon and the French invadors. Being part of of the Bantry House Estate the contract from 1910 was set up between the Board of Ordnance and Annan Bryce MP with a perpetual payment of £ 80 a year to the Earl of Bantry.
Now their miraculous project could start: the transformation of bare rocks into a botanical Noah’s Ark. Annan Bryce was a member of the National Geographic Society and was probably influenced by exotic gardens he had seen during his career in the Far East (namely in Burma). It is thought that the Bryces brought over tons of topsoil from the mainland, but this is only speculation, as the American writer Harold Speakman (1888-1928) decribes his encounter with Violet Bryce in „Here’s Ireland“ (1924):
„The lady greeted me cordially. ‚I hope,’ she said, as we went up a path made rich by the scent of early roses, ‚I hope that you haven’t heard the ridiculous story about our bringing boatloads of earth here from the mainland!’ ‚Millions of boatloads…’ I quoted. ‚Now where could you have heard that!’ she demanded with some warmth. ‚I never knew anything so stupid!’ ‚It was an old woman coming over the hill,’ I said. ‚But it doesn’t seem so bad to me. If a place were barren and one wanted to live here, why shouldn’t soil be brought from anywhere?’ She looked at me imperiously and a little scournfully. (Evidently this was a subject of long standing and some delicacy.) ‚In the first place, there isn’t land on the mainland to take away; in the second, the thing is too silly. I can’t imagine any one doing a thing like that – except perhaps an American millionaire!’ ‚Whew! This isn’t beginning very well,’ I thought. But in another moment she had forgotten her annoyance and was showing me a path so completely carpeted with fallen pink blossoms that in places it was entirely hidden from sight.“.
However the poor soil was really improved, it took years to enrich the existing thin peaty soils and to establish a shelter belt of conifers, mainly Corsican and Monterey pines (Pinus laricio, Pinus radiata) and Monterey cypresses (Cupressus macrocarpa), against the regular strong gales coming from the Atlantic. Thanks to the warming influence of the Gulfstream a mild microclimate could soon be established and many subtropical plants from all over the world, especially from New Zealand and Tasmania, were to be planted. Famous landscape designer Harold Peto (1844-1933) who had been commisioned even before the Bryce’s found an appropriate estate, was to build a luxurious mansion incorporating the Martello Tower and remaining parts of a fort. He was to lay out a waste Italian garden along with classical elements influenced by neo-Romanesque and Italian Renaissance features as well as historical artefacts such as fountains, statues, vases and iron gates. A Byzantine tomb and a sculptured stone relief were to be added, some of which can still be found in the walled garden. The sight of the cone shaped Sugar Loaf Mountain in the background surely reminded Peto of the sight of Fuji Mountain he had seen on a trip to Japan in 1898, and he included this feature in the planning of the temple, from where you can still enjoy magnificent views over the bay.
While a hundred men worked there for three years the gardener’s cottage was built, which was to become Violet’s permanent home after her husband died in 1923. The outbreak of World War I slowed down their ambitious plans as the couple came into unexpected financial troubles. The mansion was never built but the pavillions with their oriental roof lines in the Italian Garden along with the rectangular lily pond and a Greek temple at one end of the Happy Valley as well as the Romanesque clock tower can still be admired today. They were even featured as romantic backgrounds in some films like the German made „Jenseits des Ozeans“ from Robin Pilcher (2006) and the series “Unsere Farm in Irland” (2008-2010). The copy of a statue of the Roman God Mercury by Gianbologna (1529-1608) as well as some Japanese bonsais in ancient Roman pots still add a classical impression to the pond area. The bonsai larch (Larix) is said to be about 300 years old. The tennis- and crocket-courts behind the casita were reverted to lawn so the visitor can fully enjoy the wide eastern front of the casita. Harold Peto’s love for traditional oriental landscaping can also be recognized at the sight of lichened rocks, vaste plantations of azaleas, rhododendrons and combinations of the Japanese Umbrella pine (Sciadopytis vertillicata) with Pieris formosa and many Magnolias (M. stellata, M. grandiflora, M. delavayi).
Some five years after Annan Bryce died at the age of 82 years, the legendary Scottish head gardener Murdo Mackenzie came to look after the garden along with Violet and her son Roland L’Estrange (b. 19th November 1889, d. 4th December 1953). The enthusiastic Scot stayed there until his retirement in 1971, the main structures of the garden we walk through today is mainly his work. The astonishing combination of wild Robinsonian plantings and compartmented architectural framework along with the Bryce’s welcoming hospitality led many artists to Illnacullin, among them George Bernhard Shaw (1856-1950) and his wife Charlotte Payne, and George Russell known as AE. Harold Speakerman wrote in „Here’s Ireland“:
„’That is Shaw’s place where you are sitting,’ said my hostess. She went on to tell of the things she had heard him say there, and of the brilliant, fiery play of ideas, rising like a winged flame above certain gatherings in which that astonishing commentator on men and gods (and sometimes women) had struck the first spark; of an actual élan, an almost physical impact of opposing theories and their discharge into verbal flashes of lightning, making for some the chaos less chaotic, but for others, the darkness dark indeed. He loved the island and knew its moods. Then too, this was a place where an interviewer would not be popping up from beneath every rose bush, or swinging coyly down from every ginkgo tree … ‚This is the bachelor quarters,’ said the lady, ‚and this is where A.E. stays when he is here.’ I looked about the wide room with its fluted marble columns, its chaste, classical decorations, and its stone floors covered by the skins of tiger and bear and deer. Beyond the other was the beauty of the sea. And I thought to myself, ‚If George Russell is the man of his poems, there are times when this spot would suit him very well.’ … ‚He tells me he likes it here,’ went on the lady, ‚he has painted every nook and corner of the island.’ ‚And that,’ I said, looking at certain indelible marks on the stone floor of the portico, ‚is where he cleans his palette.’ “
And one of the first Abbey Theatre playwrights Padraig Colum (1881-1972) wrote in „Cross Roads in Ireland“ in 1930:
„It was the happy thought of a lady living here to make one of the islets off Glengarriff, Garinish, into a garden. This happy thought has been realized in a way that recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s ‚Landor’s Cottage’. Mrs. Annan Bryce has now spent many years collecting and cultivating flowers, trees, and plants that can grow here – and many subtropical species can grow here. And she has made her island-garden part of the landscape: one looks down a vista of ilexes to the Kerry Mountains. One walks down an avenue of blooming Mediterranean shrubs to the water of this Irish bay. One sees fanstastic orchids close to rocks on which the native heather has been left to flourish. Garinish has been made into a garden of gardens. And it is not merely an enchanting botanic display. There is a home amids this profusion of trees and plants and flowers – the friendly home of Mrs. Annan Bryce. Painters and writers have been made welcome here. Here is the lovely little house in which Bernhard Shaw worked at ‚Saint Joan’.“
Annan Bryce’s widow relinquished responsibility of the management of Illnacullin to their eldest son Roland in 1931. He later bequeathed the island with all its contents to the Irish state. Unfortunately the estate was insolvent by the moment of his death in December 1953 and it was found out that Mackenzie and his six under gardeners from the mainland had not seen a regular salary since 1938. They were dependent on a share of the entrance fees, as the island had become a tourist destination in the meantime.
In Illnacullin there are some Irish Champion trees, among them the tallest Manuka Tree (Leptospermum scoparium) in Europe. In its native New Zealand the aborigines use the leaves to destill a highly natural antibiotic essential oil. Its tiny red or white flowers bloom at the start of June and only then is the time when people give this unspectacular tree (mostly seen as a small shrub) any attention. Some further outstanding plants are: the extremely rare Acradenia frankliniae, (photo left), the old vines of Wisteria floribunda and nearby a huge specimen of Drymis winterii from Chile and Southern Argentina. Some specimens of Rhododenron ‘Lady Alice Fitzwilliam’ spread their wonderful perfume around the steps at the pond. The colourful Japanese „Sacred bamboo“ (Nandina domestica) adds an oriental flair to the the place which was once decorated with Chineses vases and even with a statue of Buddha.
At the southwestern end of the Happy Valley the ugly barb wire like shrub Colletia paradoxa/cruciata from Brazil might be of spezial interest for kids, as its leaves look like military jetfighters. Kauri pines (Agathis australis) as well as Dacrydium franklinii from Tasmania and two Eurcryphias (Eucryphia x hillieri and Eucryphia lucida) are more than rare in Europe. The huge Rhododendron macabeanum nearby came directly from the collection of famous plant hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward. In the Djungle area you might expect dinosaurs hiding between the darkness of several magnificent treeferns like Dicksonia antartica and Cyathea dealbata and the rare Chinese tree Schima khasiana Dyer. Perfume lovers will be fascinated by the magnolia-like blooms from the tender Michelia doltsopa which grows at a warming wall in the Walled Garden. Their fragrance is lemonlike with a hint of vanilla and clove. Camelia enthusiasts might appreciate Illnacullin at the start of the season around easter, the colourful and sometimes fragrant fireworks from hundreds of rhododendrons, azaleas and Chilean firebushes (Embothrium coccineum) can be admired from May through July and from then on some tall Hoherias with their jasmin-like flowers in the Walled Garden. Children always love to climb the branches and trunks of a monster-like Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) near the café.
Don’t miss the amazing looks from the Martello Tower – the very narrow steps are definitely worth the effort. Inside the entrance hall, right in the middle, you should sing or recite a small poem as there will be a echo-like replication of your voice which may give you goosebumps. In the original plans from Harold Peto this was to become a part of the huge mansion, the lower floor being the ‘garden room’, the hall would have been the music room and the upper floor was to be extended and roofed to become Violet’s room.
During the short trip by ferry to and from the island you will come along a colony of harbour seals lying on the rocks like mermaids and swimming around the boat. If you decide to take the Blue Pool Ferry you will also have most magnificent looks into the romantic Blue Pool Area, which you should discover later on your return to the mainland on an extended walk. Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Caha Mountain range meet the water and form the pittoresque background toward the Northwest. Southeastwards you might have a glimpse of the ruin of Glengarriff Castle almost hidden in its famous park of exotic trees. To its right there is the white house (white, many chimneys) of famous Irish actrice Maureeen O’Hara. It is worth to buy the entertaining hollywood-movie DVD „The Quiet Man“, one of the many films she did with John Wayne.
Bibliography: Nigel Everett: Wild Gardens – The Lost Desmenes of Bantry Bay. Hafod PressPenelope
Durell & Cornelius Kelly: The Grand Tour of Beara. Cailleach Books 2000
Various contributors: Sacred Heart Church – A centenary celebration 2002
Cormac Foley (OPW): Illnacullin 1993
Various contributors: A History of Derrycreha National School and its Area 1995
Olda FitzGerald: Irish Gardens. Hearst Books 1999
© photograph of John Annan Bryce: OPW, with kind permission