11 July 2018

‘The soul cannot thrive in
the absence of a garden’
… time for the soul in
the gardens at Glenstal

The gate leading from the Lady Garden to the Monastic Graveyard at Glenstal Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Visitors to Glenstal Abbey cannot fail to be enchanted by Glenstal Castle which was built by Sir Matthew Barrington as an extravagant expression of his claim to a lineage that stretched back into antiquity. But visitors to the abbey, school and castle also enjoy the gardens, the woods and the lakes, which serve as reminders that Glenstal has a history that stretches back to the 17th century and even further back in time.

Sir Matthew Barrington (1788-1861), 2nd baronet, was a philanthropist, lawyer and landowner, and is probably best-remembered in Limerick as the founder of Barrington’s Hospital. He was also a member of the Pery Square Tontine Co, established in 1840 to build and develop the elegant Georgian houses in Pery Square, Limerick. Barrington also commissioned the architect William Bardwell to build Glenstal Castle.

None of this would have possible but for Sir Matthew’s propitious marriage to Charlotte Hartigan, daughter of Professor William Hartigan, a medical doctor and professor of anatomy in Trinity College Dublin. The couple were married in fashionable Saint George’s Church in Dublin on New Year’s Day, 1 January 1814. Soon after their marriage, Sir Matthew was appointed the Crown Solicitor for Munster.

Charlotte brought with her a substantial dowry that was agreed less than two weeks earlier on 23 December 1813, and that included a large tract of land in the Barony of Connelloe in Co Limerick, and more than £2,000.

Sir Matthew Barrington planted 600 acres of forest at Glenstal, importing trees from America, Australia, and Asia (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This new wealth allowed the clockmaker’s son to lease and then buy a great estate to the east of Limerick that once belonged to the Evans family, who held the title of Lord Carbery. Sir Matthew set about building Barrington Bridge over the River Mulcair in 1818 and he reclaimed land, laid out a magnificent park, and planted 600 acres of forest, importing trees from America, Australia, and Asia – he planted 43,000 trees in 1822-1823 alone.

Barrington also created an artificial lake, and by 1825 he had developed the village of Murroe for workers as he prepared to build Glenstal Castle.

The Lady Garden behind Glenstal Castle is named after Lady Barrington, the former Charlotte Hartigan. The paths inside the Lady Garden have been restored recently, lawns have been laid, and the walls have been made good.

Two years ago, 16 silver birch trees were planted on one side of the garden to commemorate the 16 leaders of the Easter Rising executed in 1916. An extra tree was added later to commemorate Winnie Barrington from Glenstal who was killed nearby in an IRA ambush in Newport, Co Tipperary, in May 1921.

In the shadow of the Cross … the Monastic Graveyard at Glenstal Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Outside the walls of the Lady Garden, the monastic graveyard is the burial place of the monks of Glenstal. Brother Christopher Lacy, who died on 27 July 1948, was the first monk buried here.

Walking along the path from the Lady Garden and the Monastic Graveyard towards the 17th century Walled Garden, a Victoria brdge, built in the style of a 19th century railway bridge, marks the dividing line between the townlands of Garranbane and Cappercullen.

This bridge was built in 1860 by Sir Matthew Barrington’s son-in-law, the architect and engineer William R Le Fanu (1816-1894), who built many bridges for the Irish railways and later chief commissioner for public works in Ireland.

The Victorian bridge was designed by Sir Matthew Barrington’s son-in-law, William Le Fanu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

William Le Fanu and Sir Matthew first met when Barrington was an adviser to the Great Southern and Western Railway from the 1840s. In 1848, Barrington selected the site and chose the name for Limerick Junction, still notorious for the idiosyncratic manoeuvres of arriving and departing trains.

With the coming of the railways to Ireland, Le Fanu was employed by Sir John MacNeill on railway work. When the sections of line which were to become the Great Southern & Western Railway were being built in the 1840s, Le Fanu and Matthew Blakiston were MacNeill’s principal assistants.

In 1846, Le Fanu became the resident engineer in charge of the completion of the Cork terminal of the railway, and he later succeeded MacNeill as the consulting engineer to the railway and superintended the extensions to Killarney and Tralee, to Tullamore and Athlone, to Roscrea, Parsonstown (Birr) and Nenagh, and from Mallow to Fermoy.

Le Fanu was also the engineer for the Cork and Bandon Railway and to the Dublin, Wicklow and Wexford Railway. He designed and carried out the Limerick and Foynes line and the Bagenalstown and Ballywilliam line.

The Chapel Lake powers the geothermal heating plant at Glenstal Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Le Fanu married Barrington’s youngest daughter, Henrietta Victorine, on 15 January 1857. From 1861, Le Fanu also acted as consulting engineer to the Ballast Board. But in 1863 he gave up his private engineering practice when he was appointed deputy chair of the Board of Public Works. He retired in 1890, and died at his house in Summerhill, Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, on 8 September 1894.

The Chapel Lake, a natural lake to the south of Le Fanu’s bridge, powers the geothermal heating plant at Glenstal Abbey.

Le Fanu’s bridge links the Victorian Lady Garden and the 17th century Italianate-style Walled Garden, which was laid out in 1679-1681 by Joseph Stepney. Stepney was a tenant of George Evans (1655-1720), of Bulgaden Hall, Co Limerick, who married Mary (née Eyre) in 1679 and he moved into what became the Glenstal estate at Murroe.

The 17th century Italianate-style Walled Garden was laid out in 1679-1681 by Joseph Stepney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

George Evans was the father of George Evans (1680-1749), Whig MP for Co Limerick, who was given the title of Baron Carbery in 1715 because of his support for the succession of the House of Hanover to the Crown.

When the Carbery family defaulted on its mortgages in the early 19th century, Sir Matthew Barrington seized the opportunity to acquire their estate, and the present terrace garden was laid out by the Barrington family.

The top two terraces of the Walled Garden were redesigned in the 1990s as a Bible garden. The work was carried out under the supervision of Nigel Hepper of Kew Gardens, and these areas include plants, flowers and shrubs mentioned in the Bible.

It is a year ago since I posted on Facebook from Rethymnon [11 July 2017] a quotation from Saint Thomas More: ‘The many great gardens of the world, of literature and poetry, of painting and music, of religion and architecture, all make the point as clear as possible: The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden.’

In the 17th century Walled Garden, laid out by Joseph Stepney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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