THE ART OF THE IRISH GARDEN
THE gardens at Burtown House in Kildare exude a kind of calmness when you enter — it’s very much a family home with a garden that has evolved over the years. The house was built in 1710 for Robert Power and this early Georgian villa has passed down through the female line, over several generations, to the current owners, the Fennell family.
Lesley Fennell is the current driving force behind the gardens. Much work has been done and many areas have been reclaimed from brambles, bracken and the thugs of nature, over the years. This takes a substantial effort, though her gentle manner belies the fact that machines, tired bodies, scrawled arms and legs were all needed to take back from nature what it had colonised.
Lesley’s mother was the esteemed botanical artist Wendy Walsh, whose work was responsible for my love of that artform. I learned of the connection only on my journey up to county Kildare and became immediately aware I was entering the home of gardening royalty. There are no airs and graces here though, no bells and whistles, simply a beautiful space which is growing with the current family.
Wendy’s garden contains many plants which were given to her to paint over the years and make up the larger part of the overall space at Burtown. It is made up of so many different facets, different rooms and areas. There isn’t an overall blueprint for how the garden should look, no grand design. Lesley is a plant collector and one of her current addictions is narcissus. She has planted thousands of bulbs of numerous different species and many of them old Irish varieties, as Ireland has always been to the forefront in breeding daffodils. Very often plant collecting doesn’t fit into good design, but it’s different here in Burtown, it does work.
It works, not least because Lesley loves her garden, she lives it, she feels it. Walking along through the various areas, she was pointing out different spaces that had been given a new lease of life due to the removal of a hedge or fence and this had then opened up a different aspect, or meant that the same space could be looked at in a completely new way.
I commented that it must be a lovely job to replant previously bare and unseen areas and she told me that she planted with her painter’s eye. She inherited the artistic leaning, as well as the horticultural one from her mother Wendy. They are intrinsically intertwined and when I asked her the unfair question, which did she prefer, painting or gardening she answered that you can’t have one without the other, to her, they are one and the same thing.
When she is planting a new area she does it like an artist more than a designer, using plants for splashes of colour with a painterly eye. and she places huge emphasis on foliage and texture. She is quick to point out that this doesn’t always result in perfection, but a more hotch potch and informal effect.
Lesley’s latest project is a medieval woodland area known as the nut grove. Her aim here is to create a living tapestry from December to May on the woodland floor. Anemones in more colours than I even knew existed, winter aconites, masses of snowdrops, dog’s tooth violets and primroses are among the beauties making up this colourful carpet.
This is further enhanced by winter flowering shrubs like Mahonia, another plant which Lesley freely admit to being slightly obsessed with — among the species being introduced at the moment is Mahonia gracilipes, a rare Chinese form with stunning white undersides to the leaf and purple red flowers in late summer. This is a low growing form, introduced to this part of the world by Roy Lancaster in 1980. Mahonia eurybracteata is also soon to be planted here. This species is the parent of the recently introduced ‘Soft Caress’ which again flowers during early autumn and is notable for its very narrow leaves and low growing habit which creates a nearly tropical effect.
The nut grove is on a small island in Burtown and this is accessed by several bridges with one more soon to be constructed and Lesley uses these bridges as a defining point, clearly dividing theliving tapestry of ground cover from an area completely covered with Cow Parsley. Each has their own beauty.
Lesley’s son James arrived home about 12 years ago and he, with his wife Joanna are also invested in this wonderful place. They have developed the ‘Green Barn’ restaurant which offers food from farm to plate, with most of the fresh produce sourced from the organic kitchen garden outside the window.
I enjoyed a well-earned coffee when I arrived here, along with a slice of lemon cake (which was worth the drive from Cork all on its own), and when I left the restaurant and strolled towards the main house I was nearly hypnotised by a lovely sweet scent from one of the beds. I’m still not sure if it was from the narcissus or the absolutely show-stealing white cherry blossom, but again, does it matter? It just adds to the feeling of the place — the gardens are informal, they’re personal and unique and like any family garden, it’s not all about names and labels.
Lesley does however, have lists of all
Peter Dowdall visits a family lovingly recreating and maintaining a unique garden in the heart of Ireland
the different species and cultivars of narcissus which have been planted, but no reference book was needed for her to proudly show me Narcissus ‘Wendy Walsh’, named after her mother, a beautiful form with white outer petals and a pinkish-yellow corona.
Restoring and reclaiming a garden of this size can come with a substantial price tag, but as Lesley walked around with me she was telling me about the daffodils which came from one friend, the masses of Cardiocrinums from another, many of the woodland plants too, have been gifts and as a result, the garden is a personal history. In the same spirit, Lesley too, wouldn’t let me leave without some small gift.
I had been bowled over by a particular Paeonia as it unfurled its regal looking foliage and nothing would do her, but to dig up a seedling. I don’t think I’m able to say no to a plant present and it is now settling in nicely in my garden in Cork, near the wood anemones that came from Helen Dillon’s garden last year. For years to come, I will think of these two lovely gardeners and their lovely homes every time I admire them.
As is the way with ancient piles like Burtown, there comes a time when it needs to finance itself and the Fennells are certainly bringing it into the 21st century with the Green Barn — they’re also offering accommodation through Air BNB in what was previously the stable yard.
Another coffee was needed before I headed back to Cork and this was when I spotted James’ other passion. He too inherited the artistic gene and his photography is on display in the restaurant with large photographs from the acclaimed, Vanishing Ireland series of books. These are hanging in the same studio as his mother’s artwork along with his grandmother, Wendy Walsh’s prints. They are set above her drawing desk and I was a little in awe. This trip was a bit of a pilgrimage for me — and one I will be certain to undertake again.
Clockwise from left: Photographer James Fennell and his wife, Joanna
Burtown House and Gardens in County Kildare.
The walled garden
Candelabra primula by a rill
Rare Mahonia gracilipe
The Yew Walk
Lesley Fennell in her garden
All Pictures: Dan Linehan
The Green Barn cafe with its striking, re-purposed lighting.
Burtown House is an early Georgian villa built in 1710. The gardens were initially designed by Isabel Shackleton (married to the present owner’s great grandfather and first cousin to the explorer Ernest Shackleton), but over the last 20 years have been greatly enlarged and reclaimed by the present owners, artist Lesley Fennell and her son James Fennell. Lesley is the daughter of renowned botanical artist, Wendy Walsh and her rare plants were moved to Burtown from her home in Lusk, County Dublin, over 12 years ago and form a new collection of specimens that Walsh would have painted in her lifetime.