Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is some 1,500 miles of scenic west coast landscape. Contrasting the rugged mountains are two of its most famous examples of the ordered splendor of Victorian walled gardens. Both were built in the late 1800s as part of private lakeside residences, and today are located in or just outside national parks.
The 27-acre Glenveagh Castle Gardens sits inside Ireland’s second largest national park, Glenveagh National Park, in the northwest part of County Donegal. The 6-acre Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Garden is adjacent to Connemara National Park, in County Galway, and is part of a 1,000-acre estate.
Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Garden
As soon as you step through the teal-painted wood doors of Kylemore Abbey’s Victorian Walled Garden, you’re horticulturally transported back to the Victorian era. As a Heritage Garden, Kylemore displays only plant varieties introduced to Ireland before 1901.
Against the backdrop of the wild Connemara mountains are circular, square, and curved beds filled with flowers laid out in Victorian patterns. An example is an outer ring of dark-blue lobelia enclosing an inner planting of complementary colors. Espaliered apple and pear trees absorb the heat retained in the high garden walls made of Scottish red brick and Irish granite.
One of the last walled gardens built during the Victorian period in Ireland, Kylemore’s walled gardens were so advanced for the time it was compared to Kew Gardens in London. Remnants of the lime kiln used to heat the estate’s 21 glasshouses stand in contrast to the two restored glasshouses and the head gardener’s house. The gardener’s house is open for self-guided tours and reflects the owner’s respect for this important staff member.
Leaving the flower garden, you enter a woodland planted with trees and ferns that provides a shady retreat. The trickling sound of a natural stream that bisects the walled garden calls you to cross over the small, teal bridge. Here you see spread out before you the vegetable and herb gardens, fruit trees, and rockery.
Depending on the time of year, plants might include the broad bean ‘Bunyard’s Exhibition’ (Vicia faba) and ‘Red Drumhead’ cabbage (Brassica oleracea capitata), and ‘Black Tuscany’ (Brassica oleracea) and ‘Red Russian’ kale (Brassica napus). There is also cardoon (related to artichokes), salsify (a member of the dandelion family), and scorzonera (a root vegetable that supposedly tastes like oysters). Just outside the wall is the oak plantation where rows of young trees await planting around the estate.
Not to be missed is the self-guided tour of Kylemore Castle. Dating back to the late 1800s, the Gothic Revival castle is known for originating as a private family home before housing a monastery for Benedictine nuns since 1920. A shuttle bus runs between the castle and the walled gardens.
For children, there’s feeding time for the purebred Connemara ponies and making a wish at the Ironing Stone. They can also explore the Children’s Play Trail dotted with items made from fallen wood such as miniature picnic tables and musical instruments.
Glenveagh Castle Gardens
Considered one of Ireland’s most outstanding horticultural masterpieces, the 27-acre Glenveagh Gardens consists of several gardens, including a rose garden, wood gardens, pleasure grounds, and Italian and Himalayan gardens. Its walled garden is home to vegetables, fruit, and flowers, including rare plants unique to Irish gardens. Here you will see the native common spindle (Euonymus europaeus) whose leaf turns a brilliant orange in fall, and Irish spurge (Euphorbia hyberna) with its defining yellow-green flowers.
The garden was built in the mid-1880s under the direction of Cornelia, wife of John Adair who built the castle about 1870. In 1929, new owners Lucy and Arthur Kingsley-Porter introduced the dahlia seed from which was grown the unique cultivar known as Dahlia ‘Matt Armour’ to Glenveagh (bred there by a gardener of the same name). The variety grows 4 to 6 feet tall, and its blooms were abundant when I visited in September.
In the late 1950s, new owner Henry McIlhenny added sculptures and a Gothic Orangerie designed by French architect Philippe Julian. He loved entertaining house guests, among them were Grace Kelly and Greta Garbo. During his time, the original kitchen garden was turned into what it is today, an ornamental French-style jardin potager. the vegetables and flowers grow together in formal beds bordered with clipped boxwood and topiary.
The walled garden contains a notable collection of Irish apple varieties, including ‘Lough Kee Crab’ apple (Malus sylvestris) with its deep crimson crab apples. Some 60 varieties of snowdrops (Galanthus), including several of Irish origin, are planted in front of the ivy-covered gardener’s cottage (c. 1890).
When You Go
Kylemore is open every day from mid-March until mid-October. Check the website for winter hours. Admission is charged. Dining is available at the Kylemore Kitchen Cafe, and the Tea Rooms at the walled garden. The head gardener sources Victorian varieties of seeds for the walled garden. A selection of these seeds is available to purchase at the gift shop and online. The
Glenveagh Castle Gardens are open year round and admission is charged. At the visitor center is a restaurant open seven days a week April to September, and a tea room is open year round. The castle and gardens are reached by a short hike or a shuttle bus (a separate fee). As of this writing, the castle was closed to the public for restoration.
Monica Cardoza is a freelance writer covering outdoor recreation and conservation with bylines in Audubon, New Jersey Monthly, and Wine Enthusiast.