Like cat's whiskers, the side mirrors on the coach I'm in brush the hedgerows as it cruises the narrow roads of Southwest Ireland. Round a bend and the mirror on the right sweeps impossibly close to the opposing one on a dump truck that materializes out of the mist.
Passengers on that side of the coach instinctively squeeze inwards. Our driver doesn't flinch. He's obviously an ex formula one driver and this is just an amusement ride for him. I have faith that he'll get us to our destination: we've already survived the rural driveway that masquerades as a two-lane road around the Dingle peninsula, where cliffs above and below substitute for relatively benign hedgerows.
Our destination is the peace and serenity that lies just ahead on the small island of Garanish. However, Ilnacullin is the name is preferred by the Office of Public Works which has administered the island since it was bequeathed to the Irish people in 1953. It lies in Bantry Bay, just a short, fifteen-minute ferry ride offshore.
On the trip over, the ferry detours to allow its passengers a of view of seals posed on tiny, rocky islands. The rapid clicking of cameras has the sound of an ancient Remington churning out an annual report; we're ignored — seen one tourist; you've seen them all. I could say the same about seals, but it isn't the seals we're here for — it's Ilnacullin.
The ferry docks and our group escapes to explore the island, an Irish Eden of rare beauty that attracts gardeners and horticulturists from around the world. It covers an area of only 15 hectares so there's little chance we'll lose anyone.
The gardens have a reputation to live up to, and I'm not disappointed. Ilnacullin used to be little more than a barren rock covered in heather and gorse surmounted by an old Martello tower. It was built in 1805 to keep an eye on possible incursions by Napoleon looking for a back door into the empire. Still in place, it makes a perfect vantage point to view Bantry Bay and the low rocky hills that surround it.
Back in 1910, a fellow by the name of John Annan Bryce, a Belfast businessman with ferry loads of cash and an impossible dream bought the island. He then commissioned the architect and horticulturalist Harold Peto to help him spend his money by designing and building a garden there.
Over three years, a hundred men blasted rocks, laid pathways, built a walled garden, and numerous structures, including a partial Casita. It's a style of Spanish mansion in the fashion of a folly, now draped with wisteria and acting as a shelter overlooking the gorgeous Italian garden.
After the hardscape was in place, countless barrows of soil were wheeled across the island to create flowerbeds. And then they planted — and how.
In the early years, the initial plantings suffered from the gales that sweep in from the Atlantic, but when Scottish gardener Murdo Mackenzie took over in 1928, he planted shelterbelts of Scots and Monterey Pines. These eventually transformed the gardens into a micro-climate within a micro climate that exploded with lush growth.
Atlantic gales not withstanding, conditions are ideal compared to what we have to put up with in our own gardens. Temperatures are moderate, warmed by the Gulf Stream. There is little frost and summer sun never scorches the ground. Plants that we would place in shade or semi shade grow in full sun as most days are often a little "shady". Humidity levels are high and there's plenty of rain — watering restrictions, hah! The annual mean rainfall is 1850 mm, occasionally as much as 2540 mm (100 inches).
And how do the plants like these conditions? With long summer days and no dieback in winter, plants reach their true potential. The crocosmia in my garden are barely knee-high; at Ilnacullin they look down on me. I get into a staring contest with a dahlia with a flower head almost as big as my own — it won. All about are numerous varieties of abutilon (flowering maple) the size of large shrubs. I saw my first Abutilon megapotamicum — the blooms have a red calyx surrounding yellow petals that in turn have a red throat. What a delight.
The range of plants is overwhelming. Australian wattle (Acacia pravissima), Kauri pine from New Zealand, and Cassia corymbosa from South America; magnolias, camellias and huge fuchsias (these grow wild in masses along the hedgerows). Think of an exotic tree or shrub and chances are it grows on Ilnacullin.
Beside the pool in the Italian garden sit planters of bonsai, one containing a larch claimed to be three hundred years old. Had our visit been during spring, we'd have been happily overwhelmed by the azaleas and rhododendrons that abound.
There is simply too much to take in during the few hours we have at Ilnacullin; I feel I could spend days there, wondering what the chances of a job are if I resurrect my British passport and apply under European Community rules. I'd settle for being a seal minder if I could hang about in the garden.
Sadly, though, all accounted for, we have to leave this seductive place as our coach is waiting. We have a rendezvous to keep with other gardens, old ruins, and more hedgerows to brush. I'll be back someday.
First published Waterloo Record August 2006