Plants of the rising sun

Celebrate an Edwardian obsession with Japan that started 100 years ago

Celebrate an Edwardian obsession with Japan that started 100 years ago

WHEN I VISITED the Japanese Gardens in Tully, Kildare, last month, spring was still playing shy after the cold winter. The lush growth that normally verges the paths had yet to come: ferns were tightly rolled, hostas were only just unfurling their paddle-like leaves and cherry blossom was hardly to be seen. The plants may have been on a go-slow then but they are in full fig now for the garden's centenary celebrations.

The gardens, now owned by the Irish National Stud, were created by British horse breeder Colonel William Hall-Walker. He was one of many Edwardian gentlemen on these islands who was enamoured of all things Japanese.

The country had been opened to trade in 1854 after a hiatus of over two centuries, and the first years of the 20th century saw the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, and the formation of the Japan-British Society. Japanese gardens, with a unique western flavour, were springing up in Britain and Ireland. In 1906, the colonel brought in a Japanese man, Tassa Eida - variously described as a businessman, antique dealer and landscape gardener - to oversee his project.


A boggy area was chosen and the water was channelled into ponds, rivulets and lakes. Hundreds of tons of rock were brought in from Ballyknockan in west Wicklow (according to A History of Gardening in Irelandby Keith Lamb and Patrick Bowe) and semi-mature Scots pines were dug up elsewhere and transplanted. Forty labourers were employed to haul the rocks and trees, and to build the garden: the project took four years to complete.

It was liberally furnished with stone lanterns, statues, mature bonsai (or "pygmy trees" as they were known at the time), and a tea house, all shipped in from Japan. The "less is more" concept of the true Japanese garden was eschewed in favour of a "more is more" Edwardian approach. This, after all, was still the golden age of curio-collecting, and with an entire garden in which to display his oriental acquisitions, Hall-Walker saw no need for restraint. He was not alone. In west London, for example, the Rothschilds' garden at Gunnersby Park (created using photographs for references) caused the Japanese ambassador to remark at its opening in 1901: "We have nothing like it in Japan."

But never mind, it's easy to be snooty now, a hundred years later and with the benefit of countless different windows on the past. At the time of its creation, the Japanese Gardens at Tully, planted with alpines from the nursery Hall-Walker ran on his estate, must have been a fantastic sight indeed. Besides its exotic appearance, it also offered a story to the visitor who traversed its stepping stones, steep stairways and shiny red lacquer bridge. These all symbolise the journey of Man from the cradle to the grave, starting out at the Gate of Oblivion and the Cave of Birth and ending up at the Gateway to Eternity. Along the way the visitor encounters the scarily dark Tunnel of Ignorance, the twin-slabbed Marriage Bridge, and the craggy and insurmountable Difference of Opinion where the paths diverge. They soon join up again to climb the precarious Hill of Ambition and to continue along the path of life to its inevitable conclusion.

So nowadays, the best way to visit the Japanese Gardens is to forget everything we know - or think we know - and don an imaginary Edwardian outfit and frame of mind, and carefully wend our way through its curious delights. A century ago, this creation, with its miniature gnarled trees, tinkling water and odd stonework was as unfamiliar as Mars is today. As a tribute to all things Japanese, it was quite a spectacle.

The Japanese Gardens, Irish National Stud, Tully, Co Kildare are open daily, 9.30am to 5pm; €11 (adults), 8 (students, seniors), 6 (under 16s). Entry to St Fiachra's Garden, the Irish National Stud and the Irish Horse Museum is included in the price. See or tel:

045-521617 for details of centenary celebration.

Eggsactly right

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