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Book Review: Irish Demesne Landscapes 1660-1740

Irish Demesne Landscapes coverVandra Costello, Irish Demesne Landscapes 1660-1740 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2015). €45 (£30). ISBN 978 1 84682 506 4

The history and development of formal gardening in Ireland on large estates is a subject that has been addressed by relatively few books, so the appearance of a scholarly study of gardens created in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Ireland is to be welcomed. Although usually categorised as the “grand geometric style”, there was in fact a wide variation in design and scope in Irish estate gardens of the period, and evidence of considerable influences from Britain and the Continent.

Unlike Edward Malins’ Lost Demesnes: Irish landscape gardening, 1660-1845 (1976), co-authored by the Knight of Glin, and its successor ­Irish gardens and demesnes from 1830 (1980) this book has a much tighter focus, and its chapters are arranged thematically rather than by site. This has the advantage of making it more readable, but those who are interested in a particular estate may need to make frequent recourse to the index. The chapter on Botanical developments and the physic garden was of particular interest to me, as there is so little known from this period about the routes by which new plants were introduced to cultivation in Ireland and the specialist nurseries that supplied them; and the author has found many hitherto unpublished manuscript sources which illuminate the subject. The illustrations, too, include some well-chosen and (to me) unfamiliar images, though those taken from Rocque’s Map of the county of Dublin tend to be rather blurred or sketchy. There are eight pages of colour plates in the centre of the book, including a view of Howth Castle a version of which also appears on the dust cover.

The author explores the tensions between the aesthetic and utilitarian elements of garden design, which is a constant theme across the subject area, but she also extends the scope of the book to include a chapter on field sports and hunting. Another chapter is devoted to the use of water, a commodity Ireland is famously not short of, and one encounters the delightful phrase “hydraulic interventions”.  The book concludes with nearly 50 pages of notes and a useful bibliography that includes a list of manuscript sources. As so much of the infrastructure described in the book is sadly no longer extant, this makes it all the more important to cherish the historical evidence of Ireland’s rich garden heritage.

John Edmondson