Garnish Island and Ilnacullin Gardens

ig1Ilnacullin, the Italian Gardens on Garinish Island, are reminiscent of a Maxfield Parrish fantasy, hardly what you would expect  in rural Cork, though the conical hills in the background may suggest a lesser Mount Olympus.  However, such ‘follies’ or architectural fantasies are not uncommon in Ireland’s traditionally bleak landscape, usually the creation of landed gentry who wished to create a more European feel against the background of the country’s poverty and political problems, while helping to create work for the local populace.

Garinish Island was bought from the British War Office in 1910 by Annan Bryce, a Belfast born MP, who enlisted the help of Harold Peto, a landscape designer famous for creating wild looking Mediterranean gardens which were the fashion at the turn of the last century.

Ilnacullin is considered his masterpiece, and against all odds – struggling with shallow soil and exposed, eroded rock – marvellous species of southern hemisphere and subtropical plants have been made to flourish, encouraged by the warm waters of the Gulf Stream which bathe the southern coast.  The most unusual specimens include Australian fern trees, rare camellias from Japan, conifers from South America, scarlet berry climbers from China, Cestrum newellii from Mexico and the largest recorded specimen of Dacrydium cupressinum, or rimu tree, within Ireland or the United Kingdom.

The Martello Tower on the highest point of the island was the first of many, built to fend off a Napoleonic invasion expected in 1804-5.  The remaining buildings, however, including the clock tower, a Grecian temple overlooking the sea, and flights of steps apparently built for the private bathing of an Aegean princess, were additions by Peto and Bryce.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw spent some time here working on St Joan in 1923, and Bryce gave the island back to Ireland as a gift in 1953.

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