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Of Gardens and their Spirit

Brandon C Yen

The Irish Garden: A Cultural History, by Peter Dale, History Press, 384 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0750988094

Gardens are intimately intertwined with humanity’s deepest yearnings. Arising from our perennial endeavours to make sense of the world, they mediate between the artificial and the wild, between order and spontaneity, between meaningful arrangement and nature’s apparent randomness. They are to be found everywhere, in various cultures and religions, not necessarily on the ground, and not always subject to the vagaries of weather, climate and soil.

Gardens are evoked through the intricate arabesques in Granada’s Alhambra, through the tendrils, gorgeous colours and geometrical shapes in the Book of Kells, through the floral tiles in the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs in Cambridge, through the elegant fleurons in the books produced by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press – those “printers’ flowers” that tie in with longstanding metaphorical perceptions of literary works as flowers: the words anthology and florilegium both originally meant “a collection of flowers”.

Certain gardens recur throughout history, less because of their physical shapes than because of the ideas, longings and obsessions with which they have become inextricably associated. As archetypes, they can be glimpsed in drastically different styles of gardening, from grandiose formal gardens of the kind we see at Versailles and Powerscourt, through eighteenth century English “landscape gardens” created by “Capability” Brown, to gardens advocated by those adherents of “the Picturesque” who valued variety and local complexity over Brownian neatness and trimness, and to “Cottage Gardens” and “Wild Gardens”. The loci amoeni of ancient literature supply vital examples to which gardeners return again and again. We remember those lovely places often hidden beyond known boundaries and perhaps blessed with eternal spring: Saturn’s Golden Age, Alcinous’s gardens, the Elysian Fields, the “garden inclosed” in the Song of Songs and, in an Irish context, the yearned-for landfall of Hy-Brasil.

In the West, of course, the most longed for, at once the most fragile and yet culturally enduring, of all gardens is Eden. Eden, and its later embodiment in the Virgin Mary’s hortus conclusus – visualised in the mediaeval books of hours as well as in the Marian grottos of modern Ireland. Sometimes Eden is mediated through influential interpretations. One of the most beautiful reimaginings is Milton’s deliciarum paradisum. William Blake harks back to a Miltonic Eden in his subtle illustration Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve, showing the pre-lapsarian couple “imparadised in one another’s arms” on a “nuptial bed” decked with “flowers, garlands, and sweet-smelling herbs”. Hovering over them is a sentimental, hardly malevolent Satan entwined by a bright-tinted serpent.

Elysium, Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lycaeum, Eden, Gethsemane, Golgotha, the New Jerusalem, and the Virgin’s Rose Garden – all of these are gardens where existence itself is contemplated, where origins and endings are given meaning. But the West does not have a monopoly on gardens; nor are non-Western cultures oblivious to the finer implications of gardens and gardening. Deeply rooted in Eastern cultural genes is a paradise no less beautiful than the Western paradigms. The solemnly cadenced chant we hear at East Asian Buddhist funerals often includes the Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra. A crucial text in East Asia, the sutra portrays Sukhavati, the western pure land of Amitabha, where all souls aspire to go after death. Similar to Milton’s enclosed paradise and the Marian hortus conclusus, Sukhavati is a land of bliss encircled by “seven tiers of railings, seven layers of netting, and seven rows of trees”. There, the heavens rain down “mandarava flowers” and iridescent birds produce harmonious music. The gardens are adorned with jewels, pools, wondrous architecture and fragrant lotus flowers “large as chariot wheels”, shining with green, yellow, red and white light.

If Sukhavati is a world beyond the touch of mortals, there is a famous terrestrial garden – elusive, yes, but always on the brink of revealing itself to those who seek it. Generations of Chinese-speaking people have felt the allure of the Peach Blossom Spring, a place described by the fifth century poet Tao Yuanming as a secret garden at the source of a river whose banks were full of blossoming peach trees. The people there had fled political turmoil to live with nature. Though they still respected ancient customs, there was no need for calendars and chronicles. Once revealed by accident, the Peach Blossom Spring has never been seen again. It is a utopia, an Eden, a garden-in-the-heart to which the world-weary soul forever aspires.

Like the Irish mythical islands of Hy-Brasil and Tír na nÓg, whose visionary elusiveness is captured by the form-defying, rhapsodic whirl of Jack B Yeats’s bright colours and infinite horizons, the Peach Blossom Spring has been re-created many times throughout art history. Its most striking re-embodiment formed a part of the eighteenth century Garden of Gardens, the Old Summer Palace (also known as Yuanmingyuan) of Beijing.

And then there are also the splendid gardens of The Dream of the Red Chamber, where a heavenly flower transmigrates in order to repay, with a lifetime of tears, the sweet dew she has received from her love. In this eighteenth century Chinese classic, the gardens are where worldly attachments and transcendental wisdom tug at each other, and flowers yield allegorical insights into unchanging truths regarding human nature. But despite all its floral abundance, the novel closes with a vision of a pure, snow-covered world: when seen in this perspective, the vagaries of wealth and desires are but idle dreams.

That startlingly austere landscape which subsumes worldly grandeur and passions in The Dream of the Red Chamber is evoked in the Japanese karesansui garden (meaning “dry landscape”). There, gravel and rocks – often without any plants at all, let alone flowers – constitute a skeletal, miniature version of the cosmos. The white gravel is raked into waves and ripples, inviting the viewer to contemplate motion and stillness, substance and shadow, form and spirit, temporality and eternity, fleeting impressions and permanence. Carefully placed on the gravel, the bare rocks – far from being inanimate objects – are where nature’s life-forces congregate, recalling those rocks that spring to life in influential Asian cultural texts such as the sixteenth century Journey to the West and The Dream of the Red Chamber itself.

Quite apart from being cultivated for the sheer beauty and the medicinal or alimentary uses of plants, then, gardens reflect humanity’s attempt to understand its place in the larger world and to regain an edenic sense of belonging. As such, gardening is a pursuit that permeates through national, cultural, ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Yet individual countries also have their distinct gardening traditions. These are inflected not only by natural conditions but also by cultural and historical forces. Ireland, in particular, is a country whose soil carries a ponderous and sometimes unbearable cultural-historical weight; the Irish inherit this weight in the way Oisín, coming home from Tír na nÓg, touches Irish soil to find all those years at once catching up with him.

Modern gardening in western Europe owes a substantial debt to Ireland. It suffices to mention two nineteenth century plantsmen whose Irish background has often been overshadowed by their fame in Britain and abroad: the plant hunter Augustine Henry, who sent a dazzling number of plants from China to Kew Gardens (the henryi, henryana and augustinii were named after him), and William Robinson, the progenitor of the seemingly timeless English cottage gardens, wild gardens and herbaceous borders (through his immensely influential books The Wild Garden and The English Flower Garden). In Ireland itself, however, it wasn’t so long ago that people across a wide social spectrum began to pursue ornamental gardening as a serious, devoted pastime, though there have long been well-known Irish gardens and accessible specialist nurseries across the country, such as Mount Venus Nursery (just outside Dublin), O’Driscoll Garden Centre (in Thurles) and Deelish Garden Centre (near Skibbereen).

On a bus journey to Cork last year, I struck up a conversation with an old Irishman. Talking of spring flowers in England, he observed: “They are more conscious of flowers.” He attributed this to England’s relative affluence. An astute comment it was, but there is also a historical undercurrent here: gardening in Ireland is traditionally associated, not with the indigenous Irish, but with the Big Houses, with the Anglo-Irish, the privileged if not the overlords.



Edgeworthstown, Co Longford, furnishes an interesting example. The Anglo-Irish novelist Maria Edgeworth was an avid gardener. She collected plants from John Foster (Lord Oriel, who supplied her favourite Chinese peony), from James Townsend Mackay (curator of Trinity’s botanic gardens in Ballsbridge, who provided roses and camellias) and from her American correspondent Rachel Mordecai Lazarus, among others. Exotic plants were posted from colonial India by her half-brother Michael Pakenham Edgeworth, after whom the lovely, winter-flowering edgeworthia was named. In September 1829, the English poet William Wordsworth visited Edgeworthstown (the novelist was impressed with his “slow, slimy, circumspect tiresome lengthiness”). In the following year, Maria Edgeworth’s half-sister Fanny saw Wordsworth in London and reported his comment upon the “groves” in Edgeworthstown, which “made it look so much more like an English place of some standing and respectability than other places – which were either quite bare or surrounded by great masses of plantation more for profit than ornament”.

Maria Edgeworth was generous in giving her plants away. In 1828, William Rowan Hamilton (professor of astronomy at Trinity and royal astronomer of Ireland) received a “daphne collina and polyanthuses” during a visit to Edgeworthstown. Hamilton himself attached special significance to his garden at Dunsink Observatory, but like Edgeworth’s garden, it was not vernacularly Irish: the walks in Hamilton’s garden even bore the names of two Englishmen he revered: Wordsworth and John Brinkley, Hamilton’s predecessor at Dunsink. And it is intriguing that in Maria Edgeworth’s Frank: A Sequel to Frank in Early Lessons (1822) the learned gardener, like James Townsend Mackay, is not Irish but Scottish. These gardens were indeed shaped by an open mindset, but being gated and enclosed from the wider social and physical landscapes they sharply contrasted with the “potato gardens” of the poor.

In his recent book The Irish Garden: A Cultural History, Peter Dale offers a thoughtful account of these tensions that inhere in Irish gardening. Revealing the complex ramifications of the Irishness of Irish gardens, Dale explores what gardens and gardening mean on Irish soil and in the Irish mind. He notices specific plants, objets d’art and ephemeral sounds, scents, colours and textures in the gardens he chronicles, but what makes this book remarkable is the light it sheds upon those more abiding, more profoundly engaging cultural resonances of often transient Irish gardens. The book delineates the spirit of the Irish garden through lyrical musings on rain and seasonality, island-ness and enclosures, diasporas and yearnings for belonging, as well as the sometimes contentious meanings of trees and of planting itself.

At the heart of The Irish Garden are the “creative tensions” that exist in – and in many ways define – an Ireland which, “while apparently moving away now from conventional religion, and still labouring, as it seems, under a post-colonial stigmatising of gardens, nevertheless shows no sign of losing a grip upon the great, primal metaphors – earth and motherhood, generation and gardens”. This is a master theme that connects the twenty gardens Dale focuses on and those less conventional, less public gardens, or even “ur-gardens” such as “the public Marian grottoes and the chthonic, secretive holy wells” interspersed throughout the book.

In particular, Dale considers how the peculiar spirit of the Irish garden is informed by “the cumulative, collective impact” of three interrelated factors. The first is the historical and cultural contexts that contribute to “the ambivalent sense in which gardens and gardening are perceived in Ireland”: gardens are “treasured”, but “there is something about the whole enterprise that is seen as tainted”.

Hinging upon the historical and emotional weight that a single plant, Solanum tuberosum (the potato), has acquired, the second factor concerns “the difference – simple enough on the ground, but complex and vast in its cultural ramifications – between the potato garden of the Irish vernacular and the pleasure grounds of the Big House”.

The third factor – much less tangible, though no less powerful, because its most enduring impact is psychological – is exile: “a condition of mind even in those who actually live in Ireland” which has “radically formed the spirit of the Irish garden in a way and to a degree no other nation can equal”. Exile, a key word in Irish cultural history, is an undersong in many chapters of the book, rising to its full significance in the concluding piece, which examines gardening as a central metaphor in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bringing that tenacious, almost universal association of gardens with paradises (be they religiously conceived or not) to bear upon Ireland’s cultural-historical conditions, Dale movingly elucidates how the fact and the memory of exile have influenced “the way both the country and its distillation into its gardens are perceived”:

For most people the world over, lost paradises are metaphysical – childhood, their mother’s lap, their father’s smile, the intense nostalgia for certainties, lost forever, that catches up with you when you go to church on Christmas Eve – that sort of thing. But for the Irish there is a paradise lost that is also physical, terrestrial. That peculiarly Irish perception of Ireland as an Eden, the place where you belong but where you cannot stay, profoundly shapes the way Ireland reproduces Eden in its gardens, perhaps even why it gardens in the first place and, when a garden does occur, what it means.

Dale’s book is both an intellectually grounded treatise and a field guide to each of the gardens. As such, it features not only an abundance of historical, cultural and literary references but also fresh reflections and observations arising from first-hand experiences; we feel the pulses of the land. The chapter on Carraig Abhainn Gardens in Durrus, Co Cork, contains a cameo that exemplifies the ruminative tone of the book. If subjective perceptions, as Dale suggests, shape a garden in no smaller measure than do its physical plantings and hard landscaping, the intimate description here quietly shows us why gardens matter in Ireland:

And then, just possibly, there may be one of those epiphanous moments where a sense of place is framed by something special about the light, or an accident of sound spilt in from outside, or an extraordinary coincidence of recovered memory perfectly melding with something just seen. There was one such at Carraig Abhainn. From those oaks down on the shore came a rabble of rooks – a familiar sight of course: that shabby untidiness in flight, like flakes of singed paper ascending on the thermals of a bonfire, and one’s heart going out to the one always being left behind. But this time it was different. These rooks were silent. No shouting. Nothing but the soft hiss of their wings as they passed overhead. Not so much a rabble as a rapture.

A rapture indeed.

The Irish Garden is richly illustrated with etchings and line-and-wash drawings by contemporary Irish artist Brian Lalor. The endpapers throw into sharp focus the idea of the Irish countryside as a garden: there’s a peculiar Irish charm in Lalor’s clear, parallel lines of rain hanging from gravid clouds, in the distant hillsides chequered by light and shade like patterns on a tweed jacket, in the swirls of brambles and hedges, and in those mysterious rural gates that lead to nowhere. A scarecrow sways to the rhythm of the moody weather. There’s a single field on the front endpapers. And on the back endpapers, there’s a solitary tree. Together, they evoke Wordsworth’s famous lines on the loss of childhood’s visionary gleams: “But there’s a Tree, of many one, / A single Field which I have look’d upon, / Both of them speak of something that is gone.”

Lalor’s etching for the frontispiece shows a garden in what appears to be an Anglo-Irish context: a Big House embowered by trees. In the background lies a hill, with neatly chequered fields on its side. Comfortably sitting in the middle of the beautiful scene, the house imparts a sense of order that contrasts with the wild spirit conjured up by the endpapers. This Big House, however, is in decline. A part of its roof has caved in, and in the foreground we see a rig of beanpoles erected above furrows that bespeak labour, instead of pleasure grounds. Are the beanpoles an echo of the rose trellises of former times, of lost glories and the light of other days? The whole garden exudes a charming shabbiness, still clinging to a vestige of gentility.

These illustrations subtly respond to Dale’s reflections upon the enabling – rather than debilitating – contradictions and heterogeneities in Irish gardens and upon the ways in which Irish gardens embody a yearning for belonging, for glimpses of “something that is gone”. As Dale suggests, this yearning is particularly relevant to the Irish mind, given the country’s long history of physical and psychological diasporas. In addition to his etchings, Lalor’s sometimes witty, always evocative drawings appear throughout the book to match Dale’s loving attention to little details that speak volumes about the spirit of the Irish garden: a pet cemetery, a water butt, rubber boots, potato bags, characterful gates, bridges, puddles, a bonfire, wheelbarrows, pots, a gazebo, wacky architecture, spades, topiaries, broken windows, seasonal produce and a bench laden with books.

It is fitting to close with an unconventional garden in West Cork, which I visited a couple of years ago with Peter Dale while he was gathering information for a new book on gardens, art and music. For Dale, the holy wells of Ireland are “gardens of a kind”, standing for “the minimum of estrangement from the completely natural, the closest it is possible to be to the elements, to the bare rock, the raw wind, the rain, the earth”. They are where “shaping evidences of intention” belie apparent neglect, where “the spiritual” blends with “the chthonic”. Creagh Burial Ground is also a garden in this sense: subject to, and nourished by, the elements and the bare land itself, but also teeming with human significance. Creagh is situated between Skibbereen and Baltimore, on the estuary of the Ilen. Down the fields from the R595 there is a Church of Ireland edifice dating from 1810, now boarded up and becoming dilapidated. Emerging from an exuberance of greenery, its pinnacled tower can be glimpsed from afar. Amongst the graves in Creagh is that of Canon James Goodman – piper, song collector and professor of Irish at Trinity College, Dublin – who was a local curate in the 1850s. There’s music in the silence that reigns here. Now and then, a curlew on the river cries. Adjacent to the Protestant church are the ruins of a mediaeval Catholic church. Just as the remains of the churches stand next to each other, so Catholic and Protestant graves also co-exist here, though they do not mix.

Like so many hidden holy wells and little-noticed boreens in Ireland that bloom with loosestrifes, meadowsweets, wild carrots, fuchsias, montbretias, devil’s bits, honeysuckles and vetches, and like their blending of various modes of spirituality with quotidian concerns, Creagh Burial Ground is essentially a “garden” where spiritual yearnings sanctify human joys and sorrows. Its monuments bear the marks of Ireland’s divided past, but the plants in this wild “garden” cross the lines of segregation. There, you wade through seas of white garlic flowers and bluebells in spring; in late summer, myriads of white and pink ivy-leaved cyclamens in all their vivacity counteract the sombre associations of the place. Someone who perhaps envisioned the graveyard as a garden or a paradise where sufferings are banished planted them there long ago. Glimmerings of light fall on them, and refreshing winds shake the leaves and petals as you walk by. Words and symbols mean nothing to the border-crossing flowers, and many of the identity-signifying contrivances are barely discernible on the weathered stones anyway. This “garden” is quintessentially Irish in that it carries a distinct sense of history, of unresolved conflict even, but at the same time, also a deep and more universal spiritual longing, for beauty, for tranquillity, for reconciliation and belonging. Dale’s poem, “Creagh Burial Ground, Baltimore, West Cork” in his volume A Poetry of Place, catches the spirit of the garden:

I

Through a gate, across a field,
Along a track, another gate.

Below – we saw it through the hedge –
The pasture: rich alluvial meadows,
Lush, soft, indulgences of green,
Even now, even in August. And
Lolling along those river beds,
The reed-rubbed estuarial Ilen.

II

Through the gate, into the graveyard.
Here the Protestants bury their dead,
Have done, since the race began,
Though few enough die hereabouts
Now – the church boarded up,
The boards rotting down.

“Protestant” – that eccentric cam
Upon the shaft of Irish identity ...
As if it matters that much now:
The pike on the shoulder, the pike
In the stream ... words, symbols ...
And their sense blurred into other
Tongues here. Something left behind,
Left unsaid, by these testated dead:
Some syntactically sacred ground;
Some almost perfectible rounded O.

III

Someone planted cyclamen here.
Probably only a corm or two, years

Ago, years. And now there are
Thousands – mostly white – five

Petals poised, warily-reflexed,
Flinching almost. Mostly white,

But some pink: almost impossibly
Candidly pink. The leaves come later –

Hederifolium – ivy-leaved, crimped,
Pewter-splashed speckles: gap-toothed,

Cheerful, mis-spellings of green.
Petals waving – a show of hands –

Clumsy, like practising copy-book
a’s – or better still A’s, the letter

You need to begin. But no stem
Is broken, none bruised here.

Warily we tread, if tread we
At all, lest paradise be refused

When our own turn comes. A
Cautionary angel checks the gate.

IV

Across the water
A curlew cries. Over
The flood, inconsolably
Cries. Has he, then,

No second chance?
Has he, a bird –
Dissenting earth –
No unearthly
Place to go?

V

We tried the door, the door
Of the church. We’re worried
Obviously, roughly about God.

They might have left the door
On the latch. But no, no. It was
Bolted fast. So we – unidentified –

Got away. It was, I would say,
A close-run thing ... through
A gate, along a track, another gate ...

1/2/2019

Educated at Queens’ College, Cambridge, Brandon C Yen is an IRC postdoctoral fellow at University College, Cork. As well as practising botanical illustration and literary translation (from Mandarin to English), he is writing a book on Wordsworth’s Ireland. He has recently collaborated with Peter Dale on Wordsworth’s Gardens and Flowers: The Spirit of Paradise (ACC Art Books, 2018). Images are reproduced here by permission of Brian Lalor.

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