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Historic Gardens and Designed Landscapes



Coming to kisse her lyps, (such grace I found)
Me seemd, I smelt a gardin of sweet flowers,
That dainty odours from them throw around,
For damsels fit to decke their lovers bowres.
Edmund Spenser - Cork -1593

Gardens have been a feature of the Irish countryside for centuries, our temperate climate being one of the most favourable in the world for gardening.  Considerable numbers survive in varying states of preservation and include town gardens, public and cemetery parks, as well as the numerous gardens and landscapes associated with country houses and demesnes.

Demesnes historically were the part of the manorial estate retained for its owner's own pleasure, use and occupation.  Gardens were a component of demesnes from Anglo Norman times but it was not until the sixteenth century that they began to assume an important ornamental role, especially with the introduction of topiary, mazes and other design features.  By the early seventeenth century walled garden enclosures were being built as an integral part of manor house design, often incorporating terraces, statuary and other Renaissance elements.  By the end of the century, the symmetry of these gardens was being extended into the demesne lands to provide a landscape setting for the house.  Layouts characteristically incorporated tree-lined avenues, formal ornamental woods, canals and basins.  Typically arranged around the house itself were axially planned gardens, a bowling green, grass lawns, terraces and other formal features.

New ideas of naturalism, diversity and surprise in garden design became fashionable in Ireland during the 1730s.  Within three decades "natural style" landscape parks were replacing the old geometric layouts.  This new informality was so enthusiastically adopted by Irish landowners that, by the close of the century, very few of the older layouts were left intact although residual features often survived.  While these naturalised landscape parks went through a number of distinct phases in their development, most included wide sweeps of lawn around the mansion, dotted with trees as individual specimens and in clumps, with enclosing plantation belts and perimeter walls.  Many had irregular stretches of water and garden buildings.  Carefully laid out driveways enhanced and emphasised the natural contours of the landscape.  By the 1840s landscape parks had become a common feature of the Irish countryside with many thousands of examples indicated on early Ordnance Survey maps.

After the Great Famine a fall in rents and in the profitability of agriculture resulted in a dramatic decline in the number of new landscape parks being created.  Instead, existing parklands were enlarged and improved, often to facilitate shooting, while arboreta and pineta - collections of pine trees of various species - played host to many newly introduced exotic trees and shrubs.  Many surviving collections have significant specimen trees, conifers and shrubs of prime botanical importance and historical significance.  They remain a largely untapped gene pool of wild source material and an increasingly important national and international asset now that their original habitats have in many cases disappeared.

A passion for plants, in the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century, fuelled by intrepid plant hunters and encouraged by wealthy patrons, became a fashionable pursuit of landowners who found in gardening a way to display their wealth and social status and who vied with each other to grow all manner of rarities.  Ornamental gardens and pleasure grounds were designed and planted with the rare and exotic species now flooding into Europe from the many worldwide plant-hunting expeditions.  Heated glasshouses and conservatories, increasingly popular in the Victorian period, facilitated the growing of these rare and tender plants - including palms, orchids, ferns and exotic fruits.

Dublin's famous Georgian squares were Ireland's first urban parks.  However, these had key holder access only and it was not until the Victorian era that we see the construction of public parks, reflecting the need to develop leisure facilities for a growing urban population - and the need to provide for them in death led to the development of the great garden cemeteries such as Mount Jerome and Glasnevin.

Gardens by their nature can be ephemeral creations - reflecting changes in the seasons, subject to the natural life cycle of plants and the vagaries of changing fashion and taste.  Added to these pressures are the significant economic and social changes over the last century and a half that have had a direct impact on the Irish countryside.  The development and expansion of our cities and towns and the land redistribution arising from the Encumbered Estates Act of 1849 to the Land Acts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have all resulted in significant changes.  However, despite these changes, historic gardens and designed landscapes remain a very significant component of our countryside and its heritage.