Kells Article

July 15, 2012

Kells Bay Gardens opened to visitors since the autumn of 2006 is one of Ireland’s foremost Victorian gardens. The gardens contain one of the finest collections of Southern Hemisphere plants in Europe, assembled from Australia originally but more recently from New Zealand and South America. The location and the spectacular topography of the estate combine with the variety and acclimatisation of the plants to give the visitor an experience that well repays the journey.

The Kells estate has changed hands few times since Rowland Blennerhasset bought it in 1837. A Tralee landowner, he built a small hunting lodge, originally called Holly Mount on the lands. It was his grandson, a Rowland Blennerhasset, MP, who built the house and began to develop the gardens that we see today. He completed the Ladies Walled Garden, Tree fern forest, the Long drive and some of the paths throughout the garden.

It is reasonable to speculate that the Southern Hemisphere exotics that are the unique feature of the gardens were carried as ballast on ships of the 19th century returning from Van Diemen’s land. The corollary of this assumption is that the outward cargo was made up members of the local populace convicted at the local petty sessions. However, as the proverb says ‘Is olc an gaoth nach séideann mhaith do duine éigin’ (It’s an ill wind that doesn’t do somebody good) and this tragic history has bequeathed to the present generation a horticultural treasure.

The house has remained in private ownership since the original planting and each successive owner has endeavoured to preserve and protect the character of the gardens. Since coming into the possession of Billy Alexander, an amount of sympathetic new planting has been done and the landscape has been subtly altered at certain locations to enhance the display. In horticultural circles ferns are an exotic speciality, the British Pteridological Society has only a handful of members. To Alexander they are an obsession that have caused him to spend considerable sums pursuing them from the Juan Fernandez Islands off Chile, in the bogs of Connemara, the forests of South Africa and the carefully tended gardens of Japan. He has spent further fortunes importing containers of them and proselytising on their behalf at shows throughout these islands.

Alexander has assembled a small team of dedicated people to recover from the neglect of the intervening decades what has been hidden and bring it to public attention. Mark Collins, a local resident, tree fern expert and a dedicated collector of exotic plants has done Trojan work in separating the chaff from the wheat in the walled garden and primeval forest. From October 2006 to October 2007, Jonathan Pearce and Jules Mutton, a husband and wife team with experience on the Eden Project in Cornwall and the German Tropical Islands rainforest project resided in Kells and did much valuable work. Eoin Ó Cuirc has regularly articulated the merits of the gardens.

Eoin Ó Cuirc