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!
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!!
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.
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.
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.
As well as negotiating the boat, the island trail includes steps, gravel paths and steep slopes.
A restaurant offers coffees and lunches.