Gardens, it is said, are a reflection of heaven on earth, and a new book about Glenstal Abbey gardens would seem to emphasise such a view.
The Benedictine Community arrived in Glenstal from Belgium in 1927 and Fr Brian Murphy began to carry out restoration work in the garden in 1986. Now he has defined his life’s work in the garden, by writing an illustrated history of Glenstal Abbey Gardens in a new book.
Although in County Limerick, Glenstal Abbey was home to Fr Bernard O’Dea from Inagh, who was the first Irish monk to join the Benedictine community at Glenstal, after it had been founded by the Belgian monks from Mardesous Abbey in Belgium in 1927.
He became the first prior at Glenstal and, to this day, several members of its community are from County Clare.
Fr Murphy’s work is a garden book with a difference, as not only does it engage with many matters of horticultural interest, but it also contains an historical account of the changing landscape at Glenstal Abbey, years before the formal gardens were created, according to Fr Brian.
The history of the estate is told with consideration to the ancient Mulryan inheritance; tenure of the land in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Carbery family; and the Barrington ownership of the property in the early 19th century.
The Barrington family is well known in Limerick, as the generous patrons of much civic building. They are also known as the founders of Barrington’s Hospital.
This historical survey of the garden and its environs is illustrated with images and maps showing the woodlands that were planted in the 19th century and have since matured, to make Glenstal Abbey one of the most impressive gardened landscapes in Ireland.
But if Fr Brian has been the engine for the restoration, it is a work that has required collective action. Over the years, the restoration has involved and interested many of the most illustrious botanists and gardeners of Ireland. It is the result also of the often unsung efforts of many anonymous helpers.
The book is dedicated to the ‘men of the roads’, as they were called, whose works restoring the gardens was invaluable, says Fr Brian.
He remembers fondly many homeless men who were given bed and board in return for their help in the garden.
The book is filled with stories that will delight both garden-lovers and those interested in the local history of the Limerick region. One of the most remarkable stories is that of Mary O’Grady, who lived on the property and married the soldier son of the Earl of Ilchester in 1772.
She, in turn, became the Countess of Ilchester, and her daughter, Lady Louisa Lansdowne, visited Glenstal in 1809 and sketched the oak tree under which her mother and father had conducted their courtship.
The image is reproduced in the book; so too is a photo of the fragile Ilchester oak, which still stands today and, miraculously, survived the storms of February 2014, when many large Glenstal oaks were uprooted.
In terms of recent developments on the estate, the author pays fitting tribute to the work of An Taisce, who restored the walls and paths of the 1680 terrace garden in the 1970s.
For those whose primary interest is centred on horticultural matters, the description of the planning and the planting of a bible garden inside the terrace garden will be of great interest.
Several church groups have visited the garden and developed similar gardens in their own churchyards, but the idea of a biblical planting could well be implemented in any garden. Some biblical, or spiritual, reflections are to be found in the book.
One of the recent gardening projects undertaken by Fr Brian in 2009 may be of interest to civic bodies and other organisations, as we approach the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.
The author describes in detail how, when restoring the walled 1840 garden of the Barringtons, he was inspired to follow the decision of Dáil Éireann in 1919 to commemorate those executed in the Rising by planting 16 trees in their memory.
For that reason, 16 silver birch trees were planted along the southern wall of the garden.
One more tree was planted in memory of Winnie Barrington, the only daughter of the family, who was accidentally shot in an ambush, at nearby Newport, in May 1921.
The 16 trees of the Rising, therefore, are supplemented by this extra tree to commemorate not only Winnie but also all other innocent victims of war.