Situated in the sheltered harbour of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay, Garnish or Garinish Island (also known as Ilnacullin Island) is a small island perhaps best known for its gardens. The gardens were created in the early decades of the twentieth century when the businessman John Annan Bryce and his wife Violet (née L’Estrange) purchased the island from the War Office. Violet, a famed society hostess, was well-acquainted with the natural beauty of Ireland, having spent many childhood summers with her cousins, Constance and Eva Gore-Booth, on their family estate of Lissadell House in Sligo. The acclaimed architect and garden designer Harold Peto was engaged to transform Garnish Island for the Bryces, for which he planned and developed a series of beautiful gardens. Over three years, 100 people worked to create his vision, blasting rocks, shifting countless tonnes of soil, planting trees, laying paths, constructing the walled garden and more. The island is ideally situated for the creation of such gardens, as it is bathed in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. This, combined with the sheltered aspect of the island, has created a microclimate that allows a wide variety of plants from around the world to flourish in this unexpectedly temperate spot.
Perhaps the most beautiful feature of the island is the stunning, Italian-style, garden, with its fine pavilion, pool and casita. The work on the gardens was continued by the Scottish gardener Murdo Mackenzie, who worked to establish banks of Scots and Monterey pine to take the brunt of the Atlantic wind and storms, creating even more shelter for the exotic and delicate plants to thrive.
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The Italian-style gardens on Garnish Island • Cork
The Changing Gardens
The Martello Tour • Garnish Island
Depending on the season, the gardens can display a different character and charm. In late spring and early summer the island is a riot of colour from the azaleas and rhododendrons, while the climbing plants and herbaceous perennials dominate in the later summer months. In the more forested areas, giant New Zealand tree ferns flourish and offer a cool retreat from the formal gardens. A folly in the shape of a roofless Grecian temple provides spectacular views, no matter the season, across the water to the sandstone ridge of the Caha Mountains.
At the highest point of the island you can also see one of the first martello towers, constructed as part of the fortifications against Napoleon’s forces in c.1805. Peto and Bryce had originally planned for the structure to be incorporated into a grand new residence, with the tower serving as a music room. This magnificent mansion was never built, however, due to the arrival of the First World War and financial setbacks in the years that followed.
Violet and John’s son, Roland L’Estrange Bryce, bequeathed the island to the state in 1953, and today visitors can explore the gardens and the newly restored Bryce House with a guided tour. Access to the Island is by ferry, and please note there is a separate admission charge to the island. The ferry journey itself is a wonderful experience, if you are fortunate you may encounter some of the resident colony of harbour seals, or if you are even luckier you might catch a glimpse of the white-tailed sea eagles that nest on the island. After your trip to the island I recommend a walk in the lovely Glengarriff Woods Nature Reserve, a 30-minute walk or 5-minute drive from the harbour. Also in the immediate vicinity is the Glengariff Blue Pool, a beautiful swimming spot, where swimmers are occasionally joined by curious seals!
The Martello Tour • Garnish Island
Upper left: a seal keeps watch on a rock in Glengarriff Bay • Lower left: the Gardener’s Cottage on Garnish Island • Right: the gardens of Garnish.
Top: a seal keeps watch on a rock in Glengarriff Bay • Middle: the gardens of Garnish • Bottom: the Gardener’s Cottage on Garnish Island