By Kipper Lance Hendrick
I have been a member of The Irish Georgian Society (IGS) headquartered in Chicago for over 25 years, thanks to my Irish mother Colleen. We attended our first event in Palm Beach in the 1990’s. Since then, I have been a member and now Board Member and recently my husband Bud Hendrick and I had the great fortune to go to Ireland on a special tour to see Ireland’s grandest gardens and attend the opening of the exhibition, In Harmony with Nature: The Irish Country House Garden 1600-1900, at the City Assembly House in Dublin, the headquarters of the Irish Georgian Society in Ireland.
This special tour included 18 people from all over the US, many were IGS board members, including IGS executive director & CEO Michael Kerrigan, board Chairman Tom Cooney, Vice Chairman Steve Zick, Marti Sullivan (mother of Frances Atkins Radosevich), Annette Lester, Beth Dater Jennings, and Susan Burke, as well as many friends of IGS and guests involved with various garden groups.
We started off in Dublin and stayed at the elegant five-star Merrion Hotel. As we walked through the hotel’s garden, past a bust of Homer, we were welcomed by the James Joyce sundial just below our spacious room. We were all up early to enjoy a fine Irish breakfast and then off to see Powerscourt House & Gardens, in Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow. Head Gardner Alex Slazenger grew up at Powerscourt and manages the 47-acre gardens, which is voted 3rd best garden in the World. Alex toured us through the stunning Japanese gardens, Italian gardens, pet cemetery, formal gardens, and famed Bamberg Gate. In 1961, his grandparents Ralph and Gwen Slazenger purchased Powerscourt from the 9th Viscount of Powerscourt, Richard Wingfield. The estate had previously been in the Wingfield family for 350 years. Ralph Slazenger was from the famous Slazenger family. His father and uncle started a company that produced tennis racquets and balls. Slazenger tennis balls are still used at Wimbledon today.
In the afternoon we toured 18th-century Charleville House and Gardens, the home of Ken and Brenda Rohan. This two-story Palladian mansion, built-in 1797, had the most stunning milk-bottle-shaped Irish yews in the Yew Walk and romantic gardens. The highlight was the tour of the house, which was grand indeed.
The group later checked into Ballyfin House, in Ballyfin, County Laois, which is owned by Chicago’s very own Krehbiel family. The house has long been admired as the most lavish Regency mansion in Ireland, and after eight years of restoration, Ballyfin re-opened in May 2011 as a 5-star country house hotel like no other. It offers the very best of Irish hospitality in the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. With only twenty bedrooms, and a private one-bedroom Gardeners Cottage, this is a place of history, romance, and tranquility. With its woodlands, walled gardens, lake, grottos, and follies, it’s been carefully refined over the last 400 years. We were blessed to stay there in December of 2019 for Bud’s birthday celebration and happily we stayed in the same room, West Meath. We love Ballyfin and didn’t want to leave. Be sure to grab a bike and head to the Tower for an adventurous climb to the top, swim in the elegant pool, and tour the walled gardens. We were then treated to a formal cocktail reception in the 80-foot library with roaring log fires and collections of rare books. The grandeur of the State Dining Room was the perfect setting for the most elegant dinner.
The next day we toured Birr Castle and its famous gardens in Co. Offaly, home of Earl and Countess of Rosse, Brendan and Alison Rosse. We were treated to luncheon at Birr with Lady Rosse and her adult children in the formal dining room, where the last seven generations look down from their formal portraits on the walls. All the food at Birr Castle is carefully prepared using the produce of the estate, with the menu reflecting dishes from many generations. These include homegrown watercress from St. Brendan’s well directly beneath the castle which I had second and thought about third helpings.
The highlight was a tour in the family’s private quarters on the top floor where Lady Rosse shared treasures from the castle’s many collections, including beautifully illustrated works from the botanical library, whose earliest works date back to the mid-16th century. Other treasures include needlework, historical manuscripts, and letters from the castle’s archives. Even the cookbook of the 1660s is still preserved.
If that wasn’t enough, the next day we enjoyed another glorious luncheon and tour of stately Kilgobbin House, hosted by Lady Geraldine Dunraven, in Kilgobbin, Adare, Co. Limerick. She drove out in her glamorous car to greet us mid-way along her long, curated stone driveway, and treated us like family. She gave us a private tour of the gardens and treated us to a homemade lunch from the garden. The history of the house began in 1777 when Sir Richard Quin married Lady Muriel Fox-Strangeways, daughter of the first Earl of Ilchester. Richard’s father gave him Kilgobbin, where the couple lived until he inherited Adare Manor.
Today, the Dunraven estate continues to be run by Lady Dunraven, and her friendly daughter, Lady Ana.
The next day we were off to Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare, Co. Kerry. Kenmare is one of the spots in Ireland that the Irish themselves like best. Overlooking Sheen Falls, this 300-acre estate of tranquility and nature. We had a wonderful local dinner at The Lime Tree, which is recognized as Kenmare’s landmark restaurant.
The tour continued to Glengarriff to catch the morning ferry to Garinish Island. The gardens of Garinish owe their existence to the creative partnership, some 80 years ago, of Annan and Violet Bryce, then owners of the island, and Harold Peto, acclaimed architect, and garden designer. Garinish Island is a world-renowned garden that combines Arts and Crafts ideas with classical Italianate architecture, set within an informal Robinsonian context. Garinish is one of the most significant gardens in Europe. It has an internationally important plant collection that consists mostly of Southern Hemisphere plants made possible by its sheltered position and the warming effect of the Gulf Stream.
After seeing the wonders of Garnish Island, we later traveled to Derreen Garden, and toured with Head Gardner Alan Power (formally National Trust Gardener for 25 years) in Lauragh, Kenmare, Co. Kerry. Set on the Beara peninsula at the head of Kilmackillogue Harbour and surrounded by the Caha Mountains, the garden at Derreen covers a jaw-dropping 60-acres with a network of winding paths passes through a mature woodland garden laid out 150 years ago with subtropical plants from around the world and incomparable views of the sea and mountains.
Next on the tour was Muckross House and Gardens, as we stepped back in time by experiencing Ireland’s most traditional mode of transport with a Jaunting Cart, first introduced to Ireland in 1815 by an Italian Irish Entrepreneur named Charles Bianconi. We toured through the National Park, in Dromyrourk, Killarney, Co. Kerry. The estate, comprising about 13,000 acres, was presented to the Irish Free State in 1932. The garden tour of Muckross Estate was enchanting as we learned all about Ireland’s first National Park.
Later that evening, we were in for a special treat and felt like royalty, as we stayed at Glin Castle, the ancestral home of the Knights of Glin and still the family home of the FitzGeralds. The original ruined Glin Castle, besieged in 1601, lies nearby in the village of Glin. The present castle was built in the 1780s. Desmond John FitzGerald, the 29th and last Knight of Glin, inherited the title when he was just 12 years old. In 1975, he and his wife, Olda, moved back to Glin from London and spent decades scouring auction houses for the pictures, drawings and China that had been sold in leaner times. A connoisseur of the decorative arts, a curator at the V&A, the Ireland representative for Christie’s and the president of the Irish Georgian Society, Desmond worked tirelessly to save architectural treasures across Ireland.
At Glin, we met the late Desmond’s beautiful daughter, Catherine FitzGerald, and her mother, Madam Olda FitzGerald, the late Desmond’s wife. The castle has played host to a glittering cast of rock stars, poets, writers, artists, and Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Since Catherine took over the castle in 2017, she has brought a young fresh sensibility and hospitality like her famed father. Fun fact, you can rent out Glin Castle for a few nights or for a week with your family and friends or for your next private event. The highlight of the stay at Glin was when Bud and I toured the grounds while the group was sipping Irish tea by the fireplace. We slipped out for a walk around the demesne and Catherine showed us her beloved gardens that she has lovingly tended for 20 years. That evening, we gathered for the most elegant cocktail reception, the med dressed in coat and tie and ladies in fetching dresses. Dinner was held in the glamorous dining room where Catherine reminisced about growing up at Glin with her sisters. I still remember meeting the Knight of Glin in Palm Beach, at the Brazilian Court Hotel over 20 years ago, when he was on a IGS fundraising trip, and we all were mesmerized by his dashing good looks and Irish charm. My mother and Desmond shared an Irish song from long ago.
After the dreamiest night in Glin Castle, we made our way back to Dublin for another glorious stay at the Merrion Hotel. We had our only free night, and we were invited to the home of our dear friends who live in Blackrock, who’s sister is our dearest friend in Palm Beach. We felt like family and were treated to the best vegan dinner ever.
The next morning, we left the Merrion for Farmleigh House and Estate, Phoenix Park, Dublin. Farmleigh House in Phoenix Park is well worth a visit and is known for its Georgian Victorian architecture, Gallery, and beautiful Gardens. The former Guinness family estate has been carefully refurbished by the Office of Public Works and is open to the public when not hosting visiting dignitaries and heads of state. We happen to be there during a state visit and our guide allowed us to blend in and see the dignitaries as well as the stately home and antiques, which covers an area of 79-acres and contains many beautiful features, including the main house, which is a fine example of Georgian – Victorian architecture, the sunken garden, the walled garden, the famous clock tower, and the lake.
The culmination of the garden tour was a reception at the IGS City Assembly House for the opening of the exhibition In Harmony with Nature: The Irish Country House Garden in the Knight of Glin Exhibition Room. The exhibition explores the history of the Irish country house garden using paintings, engravings, and photographs as well as film creating an exciting, engaging and informative experience. We were also treated to the remounting of the September 2021 exhibition, Stepping Through the Gate: Inside Ireland’s Walled Gardens which returned to the walls of the Daniel O’Connell Room, and features specially commissioned paintings of Irish Walled Gardens by four of Ireland’s leading artists.
We then were whisked away for a private dinner at the Kildare Street and University Club located at 17 St Stephen’s Green, in Dublin. Kildare Street and University Club was formed upon the amalgamation of the Kildare Street Club, founded 1782, and the Dublin University Club, founded 1850. The cocktail reception was ultra-chic, and we later climbed the towering staircase to the main dining room for a formal sit-down dinner. The guests were welcomed by Sir David Davies, President of the Irish Georgian Society, who welcomed guests, dignitaries and the hosts who joined us for a very special evening. The dinner didn’t disappoint, and our dinner companions were the most charming with Irish love and laughter filling the room. Bud and I said each and every night while in Ireland, “this is a trip of a lifetime, how lucky we are to be here”.