Malus floribunda, a flowering crabapple, has just begun to open its blossom in the garden here and, as it has each year for over thirty years, it brings back very pleasant memories.
The rear gate of the boarding school I attended in the late 60s was exactly across the road from a wonderful garden that I only came to know twenty years later. This was Graigueconna, the garden of the late Mrs. Rosemary Brown, on Old Connaught Avenue in Bray, Co. Wicklow. To the best of my knowledge the school no longer exists and the original building, Old Connaught House, has been put to some alternate use. The walled garden in the grounds, Festina Lente, has flourished in recent years and the adjacent stables are in use as a resource for people with special needs.
It was In an Irish Garden, a book which carried a collection of accounts of their gardens by Irish gardeners, edited by Sybil Connolly, the famous Irish couturier, and by Helen Dillon, a dearly loved Irish gardener that I came to know of Rosemary Brown and her wonderful garden and of how close I had been to it in my teenage years. Rosemary wrote for the Irish Times in the 80s and the garden also featured in a television programme around that time, A Gardening Obsession, presented by Dr. E. Charles Nelson who was the taxonomist at the National Botanic Gardens Glasnevin at the time.
Rosemary Brown’s account of her garden, Graigueconna, from In an Irish Garden. Note Malus floribunda at the bottom left of the second page and the variegated hellebore which arose in Rosemary’s garden.
Fortunately, Rosemary opened her garden to visitors and we made the trip from Waterford. Memory is an odd thing and the things we remember can often be peculiar. On that first visit Mary and I and a young son were the only visitors to the garden and I recall the warmth of the welcome we received – not always guaranteed when we arrived at a garden with a child in tow. I recall the relief that our son was engaged and amused the whole while we were there by playing with Rosemary’s little dog and how on the way home in the car he endlessly repeated the phrase, “with attractive blue flowers too” for Rosemary’s soft and musical accent had caught his ear.
Rosemary was a wonderful grower of roses and had a particular love of the species and the old-fashioned cultivars – ‘Celeste’, ‘Madame Hardy’, ‘Charles de Mill’s, ‘William Lobb’ and ‘Madame Issac Pereire’ ,for example, among the eighty or so varieties that she grew. Our visit on that occasion was a little too early in the year to see the roses in flower but we were very taken by a young specimen of Malus floribunda which she grew as a specimen and we sought it out shortly afterwards. Paddy McGuire’s nursery near Dunmore East was our most reliable source of plants in those days and I have a note of purchasing Malus floribunda from Paddy on the 15th of August 1989 at a cost of £16 – what good value it has given in the thirty plus years since then!
Rosemary began gardening in her parents house in Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow. Her mother, Margaret Riall counted the rosarian Graham Thomas, the plant collector Frank Kingdon Ward and Lady Moore, wife of Sir Frederick Moore, Keeper of the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin among her gardening correspondents. The garden at Graigueconna was started by Rosemary’s great-grandfather, Phineas Riall, in 1830 and the layout of the garden as she found it when she moved there in 1970 was created by his grandson, Lewis Meridith. He created a rock garden which extended to an acre and a half and his book, Rock Gardens: How to Make and Maintain Them, published in 1910 was highly regarded and still makes very interesting reading. One fascinating detail was that he installed a length of railway line to transport the large rocks down the garden and this track was the central axis of the garden afterwards.
Some pages from Lewis Meridith’s Rock Gardens, How to Make and Maintain Them.
As an aside, an afterthought: When I opened my copy of In an Irish Garden, I found Helen Dillon had written, “Hoping you don’t visit my garden in the middle of the night!” – because I had expressed, perhaps, too great a desire to grow a plant she had mentioned in a talk she had just delivered. I can mention that Helen was always very generous with her plants and many of her gifts are growing well here. Also, marking the page of Rosemary’s entry in the book was a newspaper cutting from the Irish Times from around the same time, I imagine: Jane Powers, Garden Enthusiast, with a piece under the title, Holy wonderful, where she wrote about Patricia Heavey (a native of Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford) and her beautiful garden in Cabinteely, Dublin, – a reminder of visiting Patricia’s garden around that time.