Howth Castle Gardens: A Hidden Treasure in Ireland
Robert E. George
There is a garden just 10 miles northeast of Dublin, located on a point of land which extends out into the Irish Sea. When we drove to the Deerpark Hotel and adjoining golf course and asked, "Where are the Howth Castle Gardens?" the answer was, "Well, now, Sir, you might be finding it somewhere out beyond those woods at the edge of the green." Upon following these directions we were surprised to find ourselves in the middle of a rhododendron wonderland. The Howth Castle Gardens were our first experience of garden touring in Ireland, and afterwards we thought it just could not get better than this!
The gardens, which were first started in 1854, illustrate the lasting value of a wild woodland style of landscaping. They are considered the earliest and most famous rhododendron gardens of Ireland. The St. Lawrence family has lived at Howth for over 800 years, ever since Almeric Tristram, one of the leaders of the Norman Invasion, landed there on St. Lawrence's feast day in 1177 and vowed that if he were successful he would take the name St. Lawrence. He built a wooden castle at Howth, although the present one dates from the 14th century.
The gardens are located next to the Deerpark Hotel and surrounded by the hotel's golf courses. In the middle of the last century a scheme of naturalized plantings began. The first plantings, high on the cliff face, were the common Rhododendron ponticum , planted in peat that had been packed into crevasses in the rock face. As time passed, these R. ponticum were replaced by newer hybrids and other species. At present, it is estimated that over 2,000 different species and hybrids are planted in the garden. Today the visitor is completely submerged in rhododendrons and surrounded by fragrance and color of all descriptions.
Howth Castle garden
Photo by Robert E. George
Upon coming to the garden, you first see the tall hybrids of a variety looking much like 'Cynthia', reaching to a height of 30 feet or more - not just one or two but an entire forest. One cannot help being astonished at the size of these plants and how lush and healthy they are with seemingly little care. We encountered large plants of R. arboreum and large-leaf rhododendrons, perhaps in the Grandia Subsection.
Author under R. arboreum.
Photo provided by Robert E. George
Walking the old worn paths through the various glens and up onto the cliff face, one was struck by the majesty and grandeur of these old established plants. The paths wound around the cliff face, requiring the visitor to bend and almost crawl to achieve passage under the rhododendrons cascading down over the paths from beddings planted long ago. We would often come across large rhododendrons more common to today's gardens, such as the hybrid 'Alice'. The view from the top of the cliff includes a panoramic view of Dublin on one side and a view over the sea to the distant Mourne Mountains of Northern Ireland on the other side.
As we traveled through Ireland seeing many more gardens, both large and small, Howth stood out as a unique experience. It was as if you had opened a door into the 1800s and viewed a garden as it might have been.
Bob George is a member of the Cascade Chapter.