Visiting a garden on a dull, cold Spring day is a great way to assess its merits, with all the frivolity of herbaceous borders still tucked underground.
Lauded as one of the great gardens of Ireland, Mount Congreve is certainly a great collection of plants. Visiting it in Spring, its seventy acres of woodland walks is colourfully alive with hundreds of flowering camellias, magnolias, azaleas and rhododendrons.
The eighteenth century house and estate was the seat of the Congreve family and the last incumbent, Ambrose Congreve, who died in 2011 at the age of 104, bequeathed the estate to the Irish nation.
Mount Congreve’s gardens, under his ownership and passion for horticulture, became celebrated. His collection of over 3000 rhododendrons is possibly the largest in the world, there are over 600 varieties of camellia, over 250 acer cultivars. He planted and maintained his garden and house in a grand style with the help of over seventy servants.
The gardens are beautifully situated overlooking the broad river Suir flowing into the sea at Waterford, an easy two hour drive from Dublin, and we are afforded riverine glimpses along the woodland walk. A fine stone temple, built by Mr Congreve to commemorate his wife, draws one’s eye to a particularly stunning vista; the inscription on the temple reads : Light and shade by turn but love always.
The paths are carpeted in the silky pink petals falling from the magnolias soaring above us. Stout stone walls create terraces on the sloping land and we are guided through the avenues of rhododendrons to a strange rocky waterfall area, steps meandering through its cliff face, water dripping into reflective pools, a glade of tree ferns nearby.
There is an almost melancholic air, the actor has left the stage and we must ponder his motivation in creating, for example, the Chinoiserie bridge overlooking a vivid pagoda in the secluded chasm below, or the hewn stone table tucked into the rocks. How wonderful it must have been to have Mr Congreve give the tour; even better, to be a guest of his lavish hospitality.
Entrance to the garden is via the four acre walled gardens and I have no doubt the wide herbaceous borders, the peony and nepeta walk, the fruit, the vegetables, the garlands of roses, R ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’ and R ‘Veilchenblau’, will all look magnificent in a few weeks.
Clematis and wisteria clothe the walls of the two walled gardens, there’s a water lily pond and the second of the walled gardens has ornate glasshouses and late flowering borders.
The gardens are now under the stewardship of the Office of Public Works, who must have baulked at taking on such a high maintenance project in a period of austerity. The house is forlorn behind rusting locked gates and closed to the public, its contents sold off in 2012.
Much needs to be done and it is very early days. I would suggest a more attractive welcoming courtyard, perhaps the cafe re-sited to overlook the walled gardens (instead of the car park), better washroom facilities, a guidebook… no doubt in time these will evolve. It is the gardens we have come to see and these truly are a plantsman’s paradise.
Although something is lost when a House is no longer occupied, it is fitting that the estates of the Ascendancy are slowly returning to the Irish people. The trick will be to maintain them to the standards of the past.