The Best of County Cork – Garnish Island

Just picture Ireland’s west coast – bleak rugged landscape, windswept rock, wild Atlantic Ocean and next stop the USA. The last thing you’d expect is a paradise island with magnificent gardens and lush exotic trees, shrubs and flowers. Throw in a Greek temple and an Italian villa and you’re convinced that you’ve fallen into a painting. Welcome to Garnish Island!

You’ll find Garnish tucked away in a sheltered corner of Bantry Bay in West Cork. Part of the charm is actually getting there in the first place. The little ferry sets out from Glengarriff Pier and the short trip passes a colony of harbour seals basking on the rocks and offers glimpses of local birdlife.

The island blends into the surrounding landscape – there is little to suggest from here that it has been so developed….

What’s in a name…..

Well I know of 3 names for the island – not to mention the Irish versions!

Ilnacullin comes from the Irish Oileán an Chulinn meaning ‘island of holly‘.

Garinish Garinis meaning ‘near island‘.

Garnish – the island is best known locally by this name, presumably shortened from Garinish.

So how did this horticulturist’s delight come about in the middle of nowhere…

In the early 19th century, the British built a Martello Tower here (there were several built around the coast at that time, as a precaution against a Napoleonic invasion).

It remained a military fortress for a number of years.

Eventually, the only occupants were a family occupying a cottage and eking an existence by farming the poor land.

In 1910, Belfast born MP Annan Bryce bought the island from the British War Office.

Bryce had been a regular visitor to Glengarriff over the years and somehow came up with a vision for this 37 acre of bleak rock – he would build a mansion with extensive gardens.

Because the island is so sheltered and is in the path of the warming Gulf Stream, the climate is somewhat subtropical. Winters are mild but rainfall and humidity levels are relatively high. Bryce felt that this situation should favour the growth of plants from different parts of the world.

Along with English architect, Harold Peto, Bryce set about creating his gardens. The island at that time was as bare as the surrounding mountains. Between 1911 -1914 and the outbreak of WW1, over 100 men were employed – rocks had to be blasted to make space for planting while soil and fertilizer was brought from the mainland.

Bryce set about collecting plants from the orient and southern hemisphere. Much of the early planting was damaged by hostile conditions but ‘live and learn’ as they say…. belts of pine, cypress, fir and spruce were introduced to provide extra shelter. Plants began to take to the soil and flourish.

The seven storey mansion was never built. Bryce had investments in Russia which were lost due to the 1917 revolution. He was no longer a rich man. Instead, a cottage on the site was extended and became the family home.

Bryce died in 1923. His widow, and then his son, continued with the development of the gardens. After the son’s death in 1953, the island passed into public ownership.

The work goes on and, to this day, new specimens continue to be introduced to the island.

Viewing the Island….

There is a self-guiding trail with 13 markers around the gardens. The booklet has lots of info about the various areas and particular plants of interest etc.

The Italian Garden is probably the highlight of the island trail. The formal architectural garden with its terraces and pools, Italian temple and bonsais, actually blends beautifully with its natural setting.

If you’ve no interest in gardens, and don’t know (or care about!!!) even one Latin plant name, its still a nice excursion and you can enjoy the scenery from various vantage points. The classical buildings, like this Grecian Temple, cleverly frame the surrounding landscapes so lots of Instagram-worthy shots if nothing else!

Along the way you will read of oddities – dwarf plants that not alone shouldn’t survive outside their natural habitats but have flourished into giant plants or endangered species whose Garnish specimens will serve as a gene bank for their future existence.

The Martello Tower was positioned on the highest part of the island and is still in good repair.

The Walled Garden has beautiful herbaceous borders while the walls support a great variety of climbing plants.

There is a tower at each corner of the garden – one is taller than the others and acts as a bell tower.

This area was originally laid out as tennis courts.

An Italian Tea House or Casita

You might have time for a coffee or lunch before you head back to the boat…

Back in Glengarriff

Glengarriff is one of those picture perfect villages in which you feel you absolutely have to stop and have a wander. There are enough tourist shops, restaurants, pubs and coffee shops to ensnare the visitor for a while but its also a useful base for exploring this part of West Cork.

Can there be a prettier police station than this!

Where next!

There are certainly plenty of options! We are heading out the Beara peninsula to Healy Pass. From this crossroads you can explore west Cork or head a few kilometres northwards into county Kerry. It doesn’t matter where you go – its all beautiful!!

Small Stuff

Season

The island is open from March 1st – October 31st.

When to go?

May – June – Rhododendrons and Azaleas are at their peak.

June – August – Climbing plants and flower borders are in full colour.

Sept – Oct – Autumn colours can be enjoyed.

Cost

As well as the admission fee of €5, there is a separate (rather excessive!) charge of €12.50 return for the boat.

Credit cards are not accepted on the island

Viewing the island

There is a self- guided trail with thirteen stops laid out around the gardens.

Bryce House has been restored and is open to the public.

Duration

The boat trip is circa 15 minutes each way but you will have to queue at premium times. You should allow a minimum of one hour on the island – longer for coffee breaks etc.

Accessibility

As well as negotiating the boat, the island trail includes steps, gravel paths and steep slopes.

Facilities

A restaurant offers coffees and lunches.


18 thoughts on “The Best of County Cork – Garnish Island

  1. These photos bring back some memories. It is a nice little place, neat and tidy, a change from the many ruins that can be seen in Ireland. You perfectly avoided the other visitors in the photos, this was the biggest challenge for me as the place can be busy.

    1. We were there at the end of July. There were no foreign visitors around of course. We got the boat across at 11.00 and there were only 4 of us on it! – it was busier when we got back to Glengarriff and there was a queue . There were so few on the island that day – probably not more than a dozen or so. So ideal for photos – except no sunshine!

  2. Each of these sites look like they’re worth the trip. I love the maritime pictures of Bantry Bay, and then the lovely island with it’s mansion and garden and then the brightly coloured buildings in Glengarriff. Each spot looks to have its own charm. Maggie

    1. Glengarriff and Garnish are very popular and usually busy in season. In ‘normal’ times, I certainly wouldn’t be heading there on the August bank holiday weekend! You’re right – each site is worthy of a visit – its a lovely place in which to spend a few days. XXXMarie

  3. Garnish Island ended up being one of my favourite places we’ve had a chance to visit this year. The gardens are truly stunning and so was the little island. I would love to go back when most of the flowers are in full bloom. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 😊 Aiva

    1. I really enjoyed the boat ride over and back – the scenery is stunning and I loved the birds and seals. Sligo looked amazing last night on the news – those waves! XXXMarie

    1. Must be beautiful … although on the other hand I suppose any good weather will bring the crowds. At least we could enjoy without hordes of people in our way… XXXMarie

  4. A nice appreciation Marie. I never got to Garinish (as I will call it) when in Glengarriff but got rather too attached to the shellfish and Guinness in a bar (might have been the Black Cat). Maureen O’Hara lived out this way for many years.

    1. Ha – a good spot for both! This was actually my first time on the island…. never made it before all down the years. I think she had her own island in the bay…. Are you facing into the same restrictions as the ‘mainland’?

      1. No, Jersey has its own protocols and we’re lucky with our ability to control our borders. We certainly have restrictions but they’re not as fierce as elsewhere.

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