Restoration of the Ballynahinch Grounds

By Patrick O’Flaherty

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel and Estate, Connemara, County Galway. (Photo courtesy of Ballynahinch Castle Hotel & Estate)

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel and Estate, Connemara, County Galway. (Photo courtesy of Ballynahinch Castle Hotel & Estate)

The Georgians and Victorians had a profound sense of legacy; they had an almost obsessive preoccupation with the need to be remembered, to make their mark and ensure that each generation added to the entity that was their family. Nowhere was this more apparent than in their country estates. In their attempts to shape and control the land, they fashioned some of the most remarkable homes, gardens, and landscapes. Many of these are still in family ownership, many fell to the ravages of the War of Independence, and even more are public property held by the state or, in Northern Ireland, the National Trust.

Typically, this was the practice of the wealthy estates of Munster and Leinster but was much less evident in Connacht where the land was poor and the landscape either hard and unyielding or infertile bog. The Ballynahinch Estate, when given by the Crown to the Martin family in the early part of the eighteenth century, extended to a quarter of a million acres. Much of it was, however, rock, bog, and lake and did not lend itself to the grand designs that were so much the fashion of the time.

Nonetheless, as you walk the grounds of Ballynahinch Castle today, you can still see the influence of this period, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the trees. Majestic beeches, oaks, and Scots pines, some of which are 250 years old, still grace the avenue adjacent to the hotel and are a reminder of the attempt made to put order and grandeur on a disorderly and ragged landscape. Little had been done since the 1930s to maintain this tradition, and little or no planting had been carried out. Rhododendrons introduced from the Himalayas for their colour and game cover grew wild and rampant, choking the woodland.

About eighteen years ago, the team at Ballynahinch started to tackle the grounds. Inch by inch the invasive rhododendrons were cut back, releasing some of the magnificent trees from their strangling hold and restoring elegance to the avenue. Over the past two years, under the supervision of the estate team, more painstaking work was begun. The hedges are being removed to reveal the young oak woodland planted about twenty years ago. The lawns have been extended and beautiful Victorian-design iron paddock fencing has been installed, defining the lawn from field and forest.

The jewel in the crown, however, is the walled garden. Built in the 1870s by the Berridge family, this hectare of garden once provided nearly all the produce the house required, but it was largely abandoned in the 1960s and left to grass over. The revival of this unique feature has been a labour of love for the owners and estate team. The stone walls were entirely taken down, and local artisans reassembled and repaired them. The soil had to be replaced, the drainage renewed, and the pathways rebuilt; the entire area had to be nourished and made fertile once more. Finally, after two years of labour, the planting has begun, the greenhouse has been built, and the potting of seedlings is in full swing. With beautiful trees, shrubs, and hedges settling in, we can at last see what this beautiful garden will offer. Nobody is more excited than head chef Pete Durkan as he and head gardener Cian Cunniffe plan the kitchen garden that will provide seasonal produce to grace the tables of the restaurant.