31 May 2021

An early summer walk in
the Primeval Forest and
Jurassic Park at Kells Bay

The Primeval Forest at Kells Bay is a 3 ha area of warm and damp forest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Kells Bay House and Gardens at Kells, near Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, is on the north loop of the Ring of Kerry, facing out to Dingle Bay and the Blasket Islands. It is just 3 or 4 km from Cahirsiveen, and I visited Kells Bay last weekend to see its sub-tropical gardens, its waterfalls, its ‘Jurassic Park’ and its dinosaur sculptures, and to cross the ‘Himalayan SkyWalk’, the longest rope-bridge in Ireland.

Kells Bay Gardens has a renowned collection of tree-ferns and other exotic plants in a unique microclimate created by the Gulf Stream. The house and gardens date back to 1838, when the Blennerhassett family built a hunting lodge at Kells Bay. Rowland Blennerhassett first laid out formal gardens, and this work was continued by later families: Preece (1940), McCowan (1971) and Vogel (1982).

The house and lands were bought in 2006 by Billy Alexander, an expert in the propagation, growth and care of ferns. Since then, he has worked to restore the gardens and house sensitively and sustainably.

Rowland Blennerhassett (1780-1854) built Hollymount Cottage as a ‘small hunting lodge’ in 1837 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The centrepiece at Kells Bay is the ‘Primeval Forest’ of 600 Dicksonia Antarctica tree-ferns bordering the Ladies Walled Garden. It is said they are all descended from one mother fern planted in the walled garden in 1890. This Primeval Forest is a 3 ha area (7.5 acres) of warm and damp forest, with naturalised Dicksonia Antarctica, originally from Tasmania and Australia. The specimens range from those with parasol of fronds extending to 4 metres to seedlings growing in between crevices in the garden walls.

Additional plantings include Dicksonia fibrosa, Dicksonia squarrosa and Cyathea dealbata (New Zealand), Lophosoria quadripinnata (South America), Todea barbara (South Africa) and Blechnum nudnum (Australia).

At the front of the house is a new succulent garden. The most significant plant there is the Jubaea chilensis, imported from Chile in 2006 and now well established.

The Bamboo Glade was laid out in 2009 with a shaded pool to expand the variety of plants in the garden. Plantings include Dendrocalamus hookeri and Phyllostachys bambusoides (Himalaya) and Magnolia doltsopa, and Rubus linearis (China).

The Gunnera Pool is a large expanse of Gunnera manicata (South America) accompanied by Richea pandanifolia and Athrotaxis cupressoides (Tasmania).

The series of dinosaur and chair sculptures in the garden was carved from fallen trees by Pieter Koning in 2008-2015 and provide an adventure trail for young visitors.

The Skywalk, Ireland’s longest rope-bridge, opened in 2017 and is 35 metres long and 12 metres high.

The Himalayan Skywalk is Ireland’s longest rope-bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The land at Kells Bay has been owned by five families: four generations of the Blennerhassetts (1819-1953), followed by the Preece (1953-1973), McCowan (1973-1979), Vogel (1979-2006) and Alexander families (2006).

The Blennerhassett family has owned land in Ireland since the 16th century, and Robert Blennerhassett was granted Ballyseede Castle and 3,000 acres of land at Tralee in 1584. The token rent for the estate was one red rose presented each year on Midsummer Day. The Blennerhassett family developed the port of Blennerville, and by 1657 had also built a windmill and an iron works. The family continued to live at Ballyseede Castle, until 1966 when it became an hotel.

Sir Rowalnd Blennerhassett (1741-1821), who built the windmill at Belnnerville, was given the family title of baronet in 1809. His fourth son, Rowland Blennerhassett (1780-1854), bought land at Cappamore on the Ivergah Peninsula from the Marquis of Lansdowne in 1819, and in 1837 he built a ‘small hunting lodge’ first known as Hollymount Cottage.

Richard Francis Blennerhassett (1819-1854) of Kells was the youngest son of Rowland Blennerhassett, and in 1849 he married Honoria Ponsonby (1820-1883). Richard died in 1854, and his widow later married Dr James Barry (1800-1873).

Richard and Honoria were the parents of Rowland Ponsonby Blennerhassett (1850-1913). He was born at Hollymount Cottage and married Mary Beatrice Armstrong, a daughter of the art historian Walter Armstrong, in 1876. He was MP for Kerry (1872-1885), and one of the first elected Home Rule MPs. He extended Hollymount Cottage and renamed it Kells. They also had a house at 52 Hans Place, Chelsea, near the Chelsea Gardens.

Rowland Ponsonby Blennerhassett was responsible for additions to the garden that are still seen today. The exposed coastal location of Hollymount Cottage made planting the shelter belt necessary before creating the garden. The shelter belt trees, Abies grandis, date from about 1870. He established the Ladies Walled Garden adjacent to the front of the house for his wife Mary, planted the Primeval Forest and laid out the pathways through the gardens.

The dinosaur sculptures were carved from fallen trees by Pieter Koning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The principal influence on the estate at Kells at this time was the rising popularity of naturalistic gardens. The Wild Garden challenged the prevailing Victorian preference for formal landscaping and expansive carpet bedding by advocating for natural gardens in which hardy perennials and self-seeding annual plants would provide a sustainable and self-perpetuating display of plants and flowers.

The second influence on the garden at Kells Bay might also have been the Victorian craze for ferns that began around 1830 and reached its peak between 1850 and 1890. The tree fern Dicksonia Antarctica was introduced to Kells Garden at the turn of the century, part of the family of terrestrial ferns. But it is also said that that tree ferns were accidentally introduced to cultivation through the use of their trunks as ballast or weight, to prevent cargoes moving about during long sea journeys in the 19th century and replanted in gardens in Devon and Cornwall.

The Kells estate remained in the hands of the Blennerhassett family after Rowland Ponsonby Blennerhassett died in 1913. His widow Mary died in 1928 and Richard Francis Ponsonby Blennerhassett (1879-1938) was their only child.

He was known to his estate workers as ‘Master Dick’ and married Silvia Myers in 1914. Their only child, Diana Mary Ponsonby Blennerhassett (1916-2000), was the last family member to live at Hollymount Cottage. Diana was born in Cambridge, and in 1939 she married Major Richard Goold-Adams (1916-1995) in Chelsea. He was the son of the Irish-born High Commissioner of Cyprus and Governor of Queensland, Sir Hamilton John Goold-Adams (1858-1920).

During this time, the Bowler family lived at Kells House as gardeners, caretaker and farm workers. The Kells estate was a working garden, growing fruit and vegetables at the front, between the house and the shoreline, and with geese, chickens and a herd of dairy cows. The estate traded as Kerry Estates and sold fruit, vegetables, and dairy produce to local hotels and retailers. A sawmill also processed wood from Kells and neighbouring estates.

The waterfall by the entrance to Kells Bay Gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

When Roland and Nora Preece and the family owned Kells, they maintained the gardens and preserved the major parts of the plant collection, but there was little development of the house and gardens.

Iain McCowen bought the Kells estate in 1973. A pilot, he flew between England and Ireland on his own plane. President Erskine Childers had been a frequent visitor to Kells and local lore says he wrote his Presidential inauguration speech while staying at Kells in 1973.

McCowen planned to develop the house as a profit-making venture but sold in 1979 before marrying the Hon Phillipa Baillie in 1980; her mother was a granddaughter of the Duke of Devonshire.

Friedrich and Marianne Vogel, a German couple, bought Kells in 1979, and set up a nursery that traded as Kells Garden Centre and that was managed by Mary O’Sullivan, with John Bowler and his son, Michael Bowler, as head gardeners. But the Vogels sold Kells after the early death of their son.

William Alexander, a banker and fern enthusiast, bought the estate for €1.6 million in 2006. He has created several profitable income streams with the guest house, restaurant, plant sales and garden visitors, and he has expanded the naturalisation of rare and endangered subtropical plants.

After visiting the gardens, we sat on the terraces in front of Kells Bay House, sipping coffees from the Delligeenagh Café, and looking across the gardens to the beach at Kells Bay. It was a sunny, early summer day, and the beach was our next stop.

Looking across the gardens to the beach at Kells Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
2, Almudena Cathedral, Madrid

Madrid’s Catedral de Almudena was not completed until 1993 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

To mark Trinity Sunday yesterday (30 May 2021), my photographs were from the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Gibraltar. For the rest of this week my photographs are from six cathedrals in Spain.

Earlier in this series, I returned to the Cathedral of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela (31 March 2021, HERE), and the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (10 April 2021, HERE). This morning (31 May 2021), my photographs are from Almudena Cathedral in Marid.

The interior of the Catedral de Almudena (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Almudena Cathedral or Santa María la Real de La Almudena is the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Madrid. This is a modern cathedral, facing the Royal Palace or Palacio Real, and it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II as recently as 1993.

Madrid’s history really only begins in the year 852, when the Moors built a fortress near the banks of the Manzanares River. Those Moors had crossed from North Africa in the early eighth century, conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula within a few years, and established an independent emirate based in Córdoba.

In the year 852, as part of his plans to protect the northern approaches to Toledo, Emir Muhammad I built a fortress (alcázar) on the site of the present Royal Palace in Madrid. A small community grew up around this fortress or alcázar with the name Mayrit, which gives us the present name of Madrid.

In time, the resistance to the Muslim Moors grew, and Ramiro II briefly occupied Mayrit in the 932. Eventually, in their drive to capture Toledo, the sleepy outpost of Mayrit was taken by the army of Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085. Despite these upheavals and a failed attempt by the Moors to retake the fortress in 1109, Mayrit remained a sleepy village outpost. Its remote location attracted many monks and new monastic settlements, and Madrid soon had 13 churches – more than enough for its tiny population.

It was not until 1202 that Madrid acquired the status of a town. But it was still dominated by Church interests, and when a dispute arose over hunting rights in the area, a compromise was worked out recognising that the Church owned the soil but the local people, the Madrileños, had the rights to hunt everything above the soil.

The ruling Castilian royal families made the area their own hunting ground. The first royal cortes or parliament was called in Madrid in 1309, and in 1339 Alfonso XI held court in Madrid. However, Madrid remained a provincial town, long after Columbus reached America and the Inquisition expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492.

It was another seven decades before Felipe II moved the capital from Toledo to Madrid in 1561. However, the seat of the Church in Spain remained in Toledo and the new capital had no cathedral.

Plans to build a cathedral in Madrid dedicated to the Virgin of Almudena were discussed as early as the 16th century. But the cost of expanding and keeping the Spanish Empire came first and the construction of Madrid’s cathedral was postponed. Instead, for centuries, the Colegiata de San Isidro or Collegiate Church of Saint Isidore served as the cathedral of Madrid.

Saint Isidore’s was designed by the architect Pedro Sánchez in 1620. The church was consecrated on 23 September 1651, 13 years before its completion.

When the Archdiocese of Madrid was formed in 1885, Saint Isidore’s became the pro-cathedral of the city, and so it continued until the current Almudena Cathedral was completed in 1993.

The cathedral seems to have been built on the site of a mediaeval mosque that was destroyed in 1083 when Alfonso VI reconquered Madrid.

Francisco de Cubas, the Marquis of Cubas, designed and directed the construction in a Gothic revival style. The project ceased during the Spanish Civil War and was abandoned until 1950. Fernando Chueca Goitia then adapted the plans of de Cubas to a baroque exterior to match the grey and white façade of the Palacio Real, which faces the cathedral.

The cathedral was not completed until 1993, when it was consecrated by Pope John Paul II. Saint Isidore’s then returned to the status of a collegiate church.

The Neo-Gothic interior of the new cathedral is uniquely modern, with chapels and statues of contemporary artists, in a variety of styles, from historical revivals to ‘pop-art’ decor.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel features mosaics by the artist Father Marko Ivan Rupnik. The paintings in the apse are the work of Kiko Arguello, founder of the Neocatechumenal Way.

The Neo-Romanesque crypt houses a 16th-century image of the Virgen de la Almudena. Nearby along the Calle Mayor excavations have unearthed remains of Moorish and mediaeval city walls.

Colegiata de San Isidro seen through an arch in Plaza Mayor … it served as the Pro-Cathedral of Madrid from 1885 to 1993 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 1: 39-49 (50-56) (NRSVA):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

46 And Mary said,

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

A street sign in old Madrid (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (31 May 2021, the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary) invites us to pray:

O Lord, let us remember that through you anything is possible. Bless our sisters and brothers in their Kingdom work.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Royal Palace faces the cathedral … its grey and white façade is matched in the baroque exterior of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org