Back to the future at Killarney House

Concluding her four-part series on the history and redevelopment of Killarney House and Gardens, Killarney writer Aoife O’Carroll reveals what the public can expect on the eagerly-awaited April 3 preview day for the redevelopment town centre jewel

Those were the days: a stunning photograph showing the original Long Terrace Walk
Those were the days: a stunning photograph showing the original Long Terrace Walk

THE preview opening of the ornamental gardens on April 3 marks a new stage in the fascinating life of Killarney House and Gardens. This beloved section of Killarney National Park has been closed to the public since 2014, so locals and visitors are keen to revisit a favourite haunt.

Entering via the new pedestrian entrance next to the statue of Monsignor O’Flaherty on Mission Road, they will discover a living piece of history being restored to its 18th, 19th and 20th century splendour.

The project has been a labour of love for those involved, particularly conservation landscape architect Elizabeth Morgan, horticulturalist Cormac Foley, and Muckross and Killarney Gardens horticultural supervisor Gerry Murphy.

Extensive research involved archival maps, old photographs, and drawings to weave together the garden’s various layers. Sophisticated field archaeology included digs to uncover paths that did not feature on any maps. Then there were visits to other gardens in Ireland and the UK, as well as references to plants mentioned in diaries and research into plants in vogue at the time of Queen Victoria’s visit to Killarney in 1861.

What emerged was a fascinating, if challenging, collection of styles and features which the team has used to inspire a space that manages to reference every stage of the gardens’ evolution in a timeless manner.

As Cormac Foley points out, an important element of the restoration was the replanting of the Cherry Tree Walk. This graceful avenue has been sorely missed, ever since age and disease meant the original trees had to be removed in 2014. Now replanted with healthy new specimens, the Cherry Tree Walk returns to Killarney, with its spring display of magnificent blossoms. Running parallel is a modern addition, a mixed border designed to be sustainable and to support biodiversity with an appropriate mix of low-maintenance perennials and grasses.

Elizabeth Morgan advises that the recreation of the southern section of the Long Terrace walk was equally important. Raised above the expanse of grass by stone slabs, this broad walk is designed to evoke a more refined age, when ladies in wide skirts needed to protect their finery in the great outdoors. The walk leads the eye to dramatic views of the mountains, an example of axial symmetry that was in vogue when Kenmare House was built in 1726.

Cormac Foley: labour of love
Cormac Foley: labour of love

The recreated feature references the grand scale of the formal gardens attached to the 18th-century Kenmare House. The original house was designed in the style of a French chateau and the use of axial symmetry in the gardens was a homage to the great gardens at Versailles.

French formal gardens valued symmetry as a way of imposing order on nature. Visitors can appreciate the vista to the lake, together with the more recent Cherry Drive, which lies at the centre of the axis with the original Kenmare House.

The formal gardens at Killarney House also feature a graceful Patte d’Oie (“goose foot”), so called because of its shape. Other nods to fashions of bygone days include the colour schemes of the formal gardens. Once established, these will reflect the tastes of the Victorian age, when Lady Gertrude oversaw the garden.

The “Wilderness” area of the garden is only wild in the way the 18th-century Kenmares might have seen it. Planted in straight lines, this designed wooded feature includes chestnut trees, beech and oak, leading the eye toward the same stunning views that the Kenmares would have enjoyed.

When you visit the gardens of Killarney House, keep an eye out for one of its oldest surviving residents. Photographs of the Kenmare House gardens of the 1870s and Killarney House grounds at Knockreer reveal a statue of cherubs that has moved with the Kenmares, witnessing the evolution of their gardens from the 19th-century to today.