Tintean, The Australian Irish Heritage Network

December 4, 2013

Article published in Tintean Magazine – The Australian Irish Heritage Network September 2010

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A Strange Transportation – A piece of Down-Under Up-Over

In the mid-to-late 19th century a voyage from Ireland to Australia took upwards of three months. On outward journeys the cargo was made up primarily of free settlers and convicts as government sought to maximise emigration to the colony. The cargo on the return journey was of a haphazard nature being arranged locally at the discretion of the ship captain who would be acting loosely on the instruction of the owners. It is easy to imagine that a member of one of Ireland’s leading merchant families was able to influence the selection of ballast or cargo.

Following an apprenticeship in Tralee young Richard Blennerhasset served as ships doctor on a number of voyages during the 1880’s. He fulfilled his shipboard duties proficiently and took a keen interest in shipboard life and the responsibilities of the captain. He had an inquisitive mind and his contemporaries noted his interest in botany and his especial fascination with ferns.

During the forenoon watch on the afternoon of 22nd April 1889 the schooner Phrontis anchored in a small bay on the east coast of Van Diemen’s land. She had sailed from Sydney a week previously and had made excellent time but Captain Ferguson had been forced to jettison a quantity of cargo due to infestation. Therefore, as the ship was riding high he was obliged to replace the lost weight. He organised a ships boat and commissioned it under the ships surgeon to source additional ballast. Ashore, the surgeon decided lumber would be the most suitable replacement and he tasked his crew to fell a number of trees. During his time ashore he indulged his botanical passion to record a number of plants. He was very taken by a number of trunked ferns with massive fronds that were growing profusely throughout the area. On leaning against an eight foot specimen, he was surprised to feel it shift under his weight. He summonsed a seaman and together they levered the plant to the ground. Its roots were shallow and unlike anything he had seen before. The rich foliage though was reminiscent of the ferns of his native Kerry, and perhaps already an idea was germinating.
He quickly decided that these plants would make ideal ballast. His work-party quickly harvested a number of these plants and removing the lightweight fronds the trunks were ferried to the ship and stowed aboard. As the second dogwatch was concluding, everyone had returned to the ship and the captain declared himself satisfied. The Bosun called ‘All hands’ the anchor was raised, sails unfurled and the Phrontis was homeward bound.

Toward the end of July that same year the Phrontis anchored off the small quay at Kells Bay. Blennerhasset had exercised his influence in pursuit of the idea that had struck him half a world away. Having discharged and sold most of its cargo in Cork, the ship was bound for her home port of Tralee. This stopover was solely in pursuit of the young Blennerhasset’s strange idea. The trunks were hauled from the hold and ferried to the quay, which was less than half a mile distance from the family hunting lodge. Blennerhassett also discharged himself and made his way to the house. From there he arranged the transportation of the logs by ass and cart to the grounds of the house where previous generations of his family had in common with many of the gentry of the Victorian era established a garden. During the following weeks of summer they were planted in a cleared area both behind and within the formal walled garden. They presented a strange sight; the bare dark trunks without foliage, standing like remnants of a scorched landscape. They aroused much comment among the workers of the estate and the small local community, with the prevailing consensus being that the strain of madness within the family had reappeared.

Richard heard the whispers, smiled, reclined in his lounge chair and waited.

Had the young doctor lived until today or even ever existed at all, it is eminently possible that he would view the gardens as his proudest achievement. The imported ferns have colonised the already spectacular landscape of the valley to an extent that would have delighted the fictional doctor and amazed the sceptical locals. Their integration with local species and their colonisation of their surroundings is truly a botanical wonder. They have even created their own microclimate. The gardens left the Blennerhasset family during the 20th century and changed hands a number of times. Each change of ownership had advantages and disadvantages but fortunately each owner appreciated and nurtured the strange legacy left by the introduction of the Australian Tree ferns. There were additions and losses, the Irish climate took its toll, but to visit the gardens today and wander in the area now known as the Primeaval Forest is a singular experience. Tasmanian visitors have testified to its uncanny similarity to parts of their island. A visit must cause any discerning person to reflect on the accident of life that has brought into existence these wonderful gardens.

The current owner William Alexander is a noted pteridologist and has committed to making the gardens more accessible to the general public and ensuring a sustainable future for them. To this end he has worked sensitively and decisively to recover from the ravages of time and nature as much of the decipherable original plan as possible. In 2006 the work started when a group of enthusiasts carefully began the excavation of the walled garden. In 2007 the magnificent river walk was cleared and opened. A statement of intent was also made that year with the planting of Ireland’s biggest palm tree, a 14m Jubaea Chilensis, specially imported in a challenging logistical operation. Recently a number of lakes and a waterfall have been completed to showcase the plant collection.

To complete the restoration of the original walled gardens is a key priority, subject to the availability of funds. The continued development and enhancement of the Bamboo Glade will add a new dimension to the gardens. The planting of Himalayan, Chinese and Chilean woodlands has been pencilled in for one of the newly cleared areas. A two-hectare site has been set aside to host a trees of the world arboretum. The future viability of the gardens and the sourcing and collection of these plants is dependent on the support and encouragement of the visiting public.

These gardens are one of the hidden gems on the Ring of Kerry if you are lucky enough to be visiting the county, make a point of visiting them and you will not be disappointed. They are evidence of the multifaceted long and mutually beneficial history of communication between Ireland and Australia and they afford a wonderful space to reflect on the strangeness of life.

Eoin Ó Cuirc.
June 2010