Nestled on the banks of the River Suir just a few miles from Waterford city, Mount Congreve and its demesne are truly a hidden treasure of Ireland, ‘one of the four most important gardens constructed in Europe in the 20th century,’ writes Cian Manning.
Muse of Ossian, lend thine aid!
Wander with me through the glade,
O’er these woods and streams preside,
Call the naiads to my side.
– William Cotter Wilson, Mount Congreve: an acrostic, in Poems of two worlds (1893).
Mount Congreve is located five miles west of Waterford city along the River Suir. Spread over more than 100 acres, the gardens feature a pergola at the base of a cliff, an ancient Ginkgo biloba tree, as well as an herbaceous border arranged in monthly flowering cycles and an 18th century vinery. It contains 600 varieties of camellia, over 250 different types of Japanese maple, over 100 magnolias, and 2,000 varieties of rhododendron, with estimates placed at a minimum of 9, 500 different plants on the grounds.
Before its full-time opening to the public, the woodlands and formal gardens had 16 miles of paths across its confines. The author Jane Powers concludes that it is ‘like a horticultural Vatican, overwhelmingly furnished with showy specimens.’ Mount Congreve is a paradise, which has been centuries in the making.
From the poem above, Wilson evokes Irish mythology to help conjure words fit to describe the beauty of Mount Congreve. Such legend is encapsulated by a pillar of stone which stands on the verge of Mount Congreve demesne. At Iverk, a foreign hero reaches a Fenian camp, where a lady (whom he offered his hand) is protected by Fionn.
Demanding the maiden, the hero challenges her hosts, but none are brave enough to meet him in combat. The hero prowls the border of the camp. He seizes a giant stone which he hurls across the River Suir to the opposite side, landing within the confines of modern-day Mount Congreve.
The area is magical, and often defies description. Sometimes legends and constructed tales can only go part of the way to explain what appears to be miraculous.
From such myth is the reality, as John Ducie of the Heritage Gardens of Ireland, believed that it is “one of the four most important gardens constructed in Europe in the 20th century.” Others believe it to be a hidden treasure of Ireland. A garden worthy of mythological allusions, be it Tír na nÓg or Eden.
That it lies near the home of the fillet of cheddar – Kilmeadan – shows the paralleled uses of Irish land. One to feed the soul, and another to sustain livelihoods and communities. Like the various plants in the gardens, each seed is the beginning of a journey that blossoms into a tale that is epic in proportion.
Up from out these fairy dells,
Bid the wood-nymphs weave their spells.
Now let fair Echo rule the glen,
And Orpheus tune his pipes again,
That every hill and every tree
Resound the fairy minstrelsy.
– Wilson, Mount Congreve.
FROM THE ‘HILL OF GOOD LUCK’ TO A GARDEN OF EDEN
Canon Power in his Place-names of the Decies (1907) records the area occupied by Mount Congreve as ‘Cnocánac’ (meaning ‘Place Abounding in Hillocks’) and Cnoc an Ába (translating as the ‘Hill of the (Good) Luck’). Today, there is a waterfall which overlooks the Suir. Where once there was a quarry which supplied stone for the steps of the garden now stands a Chinese pagoda. A walled garden encompasses a vegetable garden, two fishponds and a large Georgian greenhouse.
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own