Sika, Red and Fallow deer roam the enclosures of the bountiful 160 hectares of early 18th century ''Capability Brown'' style parkland, originally designed by the influential Saint Leger family, as a pleasure ground for the elite of Munster.
Solitary souls stare at the cascades, lost in thought, poetry, song, or is it simply that imprint of man’s design upon nature? How monumental a task it must have been to widen the Awbeg River and divert it into all those channels, creating an effect not just to please, but, above all, to trick the eye into believing it is all somehow natural.
Couples chill on park benches, seated under rare, exotic and specimen trees imported hundreds of years ago and planted solely for the purpose of ornamentation. Outside Doneraile House, for instance, grows Redwood, Chusan Palm and Cork Oak, along with specimens of Cherry, Sycamore, a Yew thought to be over 700 years old, and the first Larch ever grown in Ireland.
Walkers, joggers and cyclists trace the tree lined avenues of Beech and Lime. The latter leads to the extraordinarily large fish ponds, arguably the most stunning feature of the entire landscape, and once stocked with invaluable Tench and Carp sent over from the low countries in barrels by a close friend of the Saint Leger family, Richard Boyle (the first Earl of Cork), in the late 1620s.
Families spend quality time with kids and pets, attracted no doubt by the playground, and newly opened tea rooms at Doneraile Court, which adjoins the Georgian residence of the Saint Legers, who owned the demesne from the early 1600s right up to the 1950s.
As part of Heritage Week, we were privy to a free guided tour around the park, courtesy of local expert Michael O’Sullivan, traversing four centuries of fashionable garden spaces, and taking us to places rarely seen before to locate the archaeological remains from each period.
From the older, less ornate, walled and terraced 17th century gardens, to the expansive, more naturalistic 18th century parkland, and impressive Victorian cottage gardens, with immaculately preserved ‘parterres’ (box-hedges) dating back more than a hundred years.
Michael also shared some of the latest ongoing research surrounding the design of the Doneraile Demesne, offering fascinating insights into how the Saint Legers' connection (through marriage) with the O’Brien family from Clare, indicates a direct link with the development of Versailles by Louis XIV in the mid 17th century.
Of vital importance was the relationship that blossomed between Doneraile and Kew Gardens in London during the 1850s, 60s and 70s, as part of a world wide elite expedition for seeds:
“Leonard Cunningham, father to Lady Castletown (who married into the Saint Legers), was a senior clerk at the foreign office in London. In the late 19th century he would write out on a weekly basis to an ambassador seeking seeds to send to his daughter in Doneraile, to the point where Lady Castletown even writes to Hooker, the Director of Kew Gardens, to say ‘we now have a mini- Kew at Doneraile’.”
Doneraile Park is now in the hands of the Office of Public Works and there are plans to open the existing manor house to the public, once the interior has been restored somewhat to its former glory.
It was at this site that the only daughter of the Viscount Doneraile, Elizabeth Aldworth, fell asleep one day, only to wake up to hear a secret Masonic meeting being held by her father in the next room. After she was exposed by a servant, as is the policy of Freemasonry, her options were either to die, or become initiated into the order, and so it was that Doneraile gave birth to the first female Freemason in recorded history (John Day’s ‘Memoir of the Lady Freemason’ recounts the full tale).
Ironically, today Doneraile Park is a meeting point for any and all walks of life, but not only that, it is a place of cultural and historical significance that has yet to be fully realised.
Take a tour with Michael O’Sullivan through the highlights of 400 years of elite gardening history at Doneraile here.
Monday to Friday: 8am-8pm (5pm in winter)
Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holidays: 9am-8pm (5pm in winter)