At the turn of the century there wasn’t even a covered road linking Glengarriff to the out-stretched Beara peninsula. Only visitors who took the rough journey over the scoured mountains, or the ‘Star of Beara’, a two storey steam ferry working up and down Bantry Bay, were rewarded with a view of the fissured sandstone peak of Hungry Hill and the ruins of the castle at Dunboy. Now, before passing the Bamboo gardens and strange monkey puzzle trees, living testament to the tropical climate the area is famed for, there is a newish sign: ‘Welcome to Glengarriff, gateway to the Beara penninsula’. At the other end of the town the road forks: to the left is Beara, to the right Killarney. The road runs naturally to the right, remembering the past absence of a route to Beara and the history of a seaside town once popular with legions of English tourists following the Prince-of-Wales tour from Bantry to Killarney, via Glenagarriff. Times have changed and the sign, like a switch in the tracks, now directs the traveller to the left.
Just beyond the Bamboo gardens the road becomes dark as treacle with new asphalt. The road passes Eccles Hotel, a picture of Victoriana, and then straightens, like a runway, bisecting the town. The town itself is like a set, a sensation emphasised by the slow speed limit. On either side shops sell knitwear and woollen rugs. Sandwich boards advertise pullover sales- the joke being that Glengarriff always has a pullover sale. People criss- cross the street with unquestioned authority over passing traffic. There are a couple of cafes and a shop; three hotels; a restaurant and a number of pubs with benches and umbrellas outside for the patchy Irish summers. There are many hanging baskets and shopfronts brightly painted.
Thackeray said ‘if Glengarriff had been found in England it would have been one of the wonders of the world’. There is no doubting its beauty, set between the Caha mountains and Bantry Bay (‘where the mountains meet the sea’, as the guide says). The setting reminds me of a high rise apartment block built in Hong Kong between the mountains and the sea. Unhappiness grew among the locals that the building would block the communion of the gods. The developers compromised by removing a large square- six apartments’ worth- from the centre of the design, allowing the energy to flow unhampered.
There has never been much built in Glengarriff, affirming its status as a gateway, a way-station. Whether to Beara or Killarney most do only stop, to buy knitwear, look at the Bamboo gardens, take tea in Eccles Hotel, continuing their journey home. The only establishment for a long time was the Glengarriff Inn, bought by Thomas Eccles in 1835. In 1890, with the rising numbers of visitors, his son, John, undertook significant reconstruction and renamed it Eccles Hotel. The only other notable construction in and around Glengarriff was the Martello tower, on Garinish Island. Today it remains the only construction visible on the island from the air. It was built in 1805, the first on the south coast. The English were then wise to the potential of an invasion after Wolfe Tone’s mission was foiled by strong easterly winds, and that less than a decade before. The towers were built all along the coasts of Britain and Ireland at the time of the Napoleonic wars. From the sea you can see them, distinctive and unmissable, spouting up from the rough land like chess pieces. They were never used but I have often thought how wonderful it would be to see them all lit up- it was supposed that a fire would be lit when ships were spotted approaching, and as the towers on the Irish coast were in sight of one another more fires would be lit, one after the other, like a baton relay. Ironically the towers built against Napoleon, but never actually used, had their origin in Corsica, the island where Napoleon was born and grew up. In 1793, Pasquale Piero, the quixotic revolutionary who was given control of Corsica after the Revolution, turned against the Parisian government for executing the King. He formed an alliance with Britain, asking for the same mandate as the ‘Kingdom of Ireland’. The Anglo-Corsican Kingdom lasted two years, until the Spanish entered the war on the side of the French. Piero was given a pension in Britain and the British retreated, blowing up the Mortella tower which stood guard on Mortella point, so called for the abundance of myrtle that grew around it. The tower had been employed since the fifteenth century to warn the islanders of approaching pirates from North Africa, and was now taken, with its adulterated name, to scattered outposts of the British Empire.
In 1910, when Annan Bryce, a Scottish MP, bought Garinish island (he had visited for several summers and apparently fell in love with it) the Martello tower was all that stood on the 35 acre island. And the holly (the island’s other name, Illnacullin, means ‘Island of Holly’), grappling over stone, the heather and patches of gorse growing in pockets of spongey loam, cut for fuel by a family who held a small cottage on the eastern end of the island. The day I visited, a warm, blustery day in June and only a few clouds out to sea, far from where they could blot the sun, there was a large coach load of French tourists. They were in pasture: retired and travelling. They met me as I sat on a triangle of perfectly manicured grass at the far end of the Victorian walled garden, beyond the tall stone wall. They were coming down the shallow steps from the Martello tower, delighting in the sunny weather, though still draped in scarves and light, bright, cotton pull-overs. The men wore shorts, revealing stout, brown legs. I could hear them chirruping all the way down, a flock of birds in a crocodile line. Two at a time was all the corridor of steps through the arcing ferns and tall tamarind trees allowed. They emerged in to the sunlit triangle and blinked a while, accustoming themselves, and orientating themselves, to the island – it is said that islands possess a particular geography of their own, one which is difficult to come to terms with unless a considerable amount of time is spent learning the scale and features of the place, and once learnt making a return to the mainland difficult. They didn’t notice me at all, as though I was just another carefully placed feature.
Bryce commissioned Harold Peto, the eminent English architect, to design the gardens and buildings on Garinish in 1913. Bryce had a vision (as a Scot he was nurtured by a long legacy of extravagant engineering projects and was himself the director of the Baroda, Bombay and Central India Railway, at the time unfolding great networks of railways across the girth of the subcontinent) for a spectacular residency in the bay. He must have discussed with his wife, a keen gardener, the possibilities that such a place held- even then the bizarrely temperate climate, caused by the warm wafts of the Gulf stream, was a feature well known by Glengarriff enthusiasts. The two of them knew which plants had prospered in the foothills of the Himalayas, near to Darjeeling, the newly thriving tea plantation of the British, and were no doubt inspired by the 5th Marquess of Landsdowne’s gardens further north on the road to Killarney, planted in the 1870s. Before her enterprise James Hooker, the plant hunter whose writing desk was carried across the mountains, commented at length in his Himalayan Journals on the number of English plants- vervain, fumitory, nasturtium, dock- which grew along the banks of the rivers. “In the woods I heard and saw the wild peacock for the first time. Its voice is not to be distinguished from that of the tame bird in England, a curious instance of the perpetuation of character under widely different circumstances, for the crow of the wild jungle-fowl does not rival that of the farm-yard cock.”
What sound must have rung down the bay with the blowing out of the rocks with dynamite? Did they hear the explosions in Castletown?- and the digging out of clay-earth from miles along the road, transported by horse and cart, or horse and panniers, to the pier, then boat, then, once on the island, by individual wheelbarrow across beams of wood laid out across the rocks to make a level run. The earth was needed for the preliminary task of growing Scots Pine as a wind break, necessary before anything fragile could be settled in. Initial designs had included an elaborate house for Annan Bryce and his family but the project was whittled down over time, after the war. Annan died in 1923, not long after Captain Percival and the Black and Tans had evacuated the Eccles Hotel. Bryce’s widow and son carried on the endeavour, following Peto’s design carefully. Soon a small island combined an Italianate, formal garden, a Greek temple, a walled garden brimming with delphinium, clematis, rose, euphorbia, aster, giant daisies (in highest vigour when the French paraded through- the yellow pollen finding its way onto the nose of a lady who had bent too close to the flower in the course of posing for a photograph) and a lush, river- lulled glen softened by varieties of rhododendron, acacia and Chilean myrtle. Peto named the miniature valley ‘Happy Valley’ after the famous race course which sits in the basin of that then more important island possession, Hong Kong. He wasn’t to know that before becoming a popular race course for colonials it was an army station. Owing to its marshy terrain it became a breeding ground for the anopheles mosquito, the vector of malaria, at the time know only as a terrific and mysterious fever. The disease killed hundreds of soldiers. They were all buried there on the spot, and so the name ‘Happy Valley’, the common euphemism for a cemetery. Today the large lawn on Garinish, its regular mown stripes more at home on a cricket ground than a small, remote island, sinks a little every year with the bog beneath.
The Bryce’s plans required the genius and careful attention to detail of a man like Harold Peto. He loved objects, collected from many trips abroad, particularly Italy where he re-discovered formalism, a style out of step with his contemporaries who had moved towards more expressive styles of design. Peto was interested in evoking emotion. He was pursued by a desire for home, for an ideal. He was haunted by nostalgia in an era we now consider to be the by-gone era, a period when war was far from people’s minds though just around the corner and Europe floated in hiatus. Every time is a harbinger of lost time. So Peto resurrected the Greek temple, the classical columns, the marble, aberrations in a time which had moved on, which was aspiring to be novel. He was a romantic, out of sink with his generation. But he was not blindly beholden to a world, or worlds, which had fallen out of reach. Peto had visited Japan in 1898. That culture had revealed a sensibility still devoted to detail, etiquette, form and structure, elements so easily shrugged off by the innovators. Peto was never able to re-calibrate himself with the fragmenting world of the West. His visit instilled a desire for unity and coherence, a commitment which finds form in the subtle framing of he Sugar Loaf mountains by the columns of the Greek temple, a design echoing the framing of Mount Fuji in countless Japanese gardens.
The dead more than the living evoke a sense of home. Is this what Harold Peto meant when he wrote in his diary: “old buildings or fragments of masonry carry one’s mind back to the past in a way that a garden entirely of flowers cannot do”. Traces of silvery paint on an old Church fresco, weathered stones, the headless figurine; fragments are what we have. Of the many features on the island- the sixty foot pine trees, the exotic azaleas in full bloom, the very English tea room with coral patterned garden chairs and bouncy lemon madeira cakes- the one I return to most is the Martello tower.
After climbing the dark, narrow spiral staircase the light of the sky is blinding. A hand rested on the pale stone is quickly covered in dust. Leaning on the castellated top, alone, I take in the full panorama: the bay, the tree covered coastline, the rocks where the thick seals bask, and the town of Glengarriff poised between sea and mountain. Nowhere else is the island so well revealed; a piece of land separated from the rest. Looking west there is a rope perimeter and a sign which reads ‘work in progress’.
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