First encounters: Dermot O’Neill and Rachel Doyle

‘When I was very ill, she was there’

Sat, Aug 24, 2013, 01:00

Dermot O’Neill has been writing and broadcasting about gardening for over 30 years. He is editor of Garden Heaven magazine and his RTÉ TV series, Dermot’s Secret Garden, follows his work restoring his walled garden in Co Laois. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2009 and is now in his fourth year of recovery. He lives in Dublin

We honestly can’t remember where we met, but we’ve known each other for a very long time – 25 years. I would rate Rachel as one of my best best friends. When I was very ill, she was there, came to the hospital, was there to talk to. Rachel’s husband had been in a similar situation and she had all that experience – it was marvellous having a close friend who understood, to be there when I desperately needed to talk.

I was very, very sick, had to have different kinds of chemotherapy, lost five stone. There was a stage where I thought I was going to pass away, it was frightening. This is my fourth year in recovery; I’m a very positive person and that helped. But there were times when I felt very alone. Rachel and my family were fantastic at making sure there was always somebody there.

I’m from Blackrock in Dublin. My grandmother was the one who got me going on gardening. As a young boy I used to stay with her on the northside of Dublin. She lived to 96 and was a wonderful, loving, warm, friendly person – Rachel reminds me of her.

I did my first gardening talk at 16 years of age, the Mother’s Union got me to give a talk about what to grow for flower arranging. After I left school, I did a few courses, was in UCD, worked in the horticultural college there for a bit. Then I started working for the late Barney Johnston who ran Marlfield Garden Centre.

I do a lot of lectures in Ireland as well as in America and the UK and, what’s very exciting for me, garden trips. For the past 16 years I’ve taken garden tours away, have been to South Africa, to China – Rachel was with me in China – and we were also together in Madeira just a few months ago. The interest in gardening in Ireland has grown and grown over the years.

The great thing with gardening is that you never know it all, there’s always something new to learn. Rachel and I are very similar in that we both love plants, are always looking for new plants to grow, always comparing notes.

Rachel’s garden centre has continually received awards, and the fact that the World Garden Centre Congress is coming to Dublin is down to Rachel’s amazing energy. I also have to reveal that she has a passion for handbags.

Rachel is warm – you don’t often find people like her, they’re special.

Rachel Doyle started the Arboretum Lifestyle and Garden Centre in Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow, 36 years ago and now runs it with her family. She will become president of the World Garden Centre Association in October and successfully bid for the World Garden Centre Congress -- to be attended by 250-plus delegates from 20 countries -- to be held in Ireland in August, 2014. She lives in Carlow

My husband Frank had cancer about five years before Dermot and is now 100 per cent well. I could relate back to Dermot how Frank was when he was going through chemo, and I think it was encouraging for Dermot to know that Frank now has good health. I remember one visit to the hospital: we were remembering a visit to Paris and I said, “as soon as you’re well, we’ll go to Paris.” And we did. Four of us went and it was just lovely – it gave Dermot that feeling “I’m back”. He loves Paris as much as I do.

I’m from Clonmore on the Carlow/Wicklow border. My father was an amazing gardener. We weren’t wealthy, but we had a flower garden and dad grew all his own veg. After school, I worked in an office, did some teaching, then saw an ad for a scholarship to study horticulture at An Grianán. I went back to college at 22 – and absolutely found what was right for me.

I started off the garden centre 36 years ago at the back of my home. It has just grown – now I employ 64 people. People do turn to gardening, to things like growing their own vegetables, when times are difficult.

I often take the train up to Dublin for meetings, then meet Dermot in the afternoon, have a chat, go for a bite to eat, enjoy catching up. When I first met Dermot, I thought he seemed a very nice person and he’s certainly that and more: he’s a pleasure to be with. He can talk about anything and everything from diamonds to plants to antiques. He’s a bad influence in relation to his interest in gemology – my husband thinks he is anyway. We’ve an interest in antiques, and we’re both interested in cooking.

Gardeners are great people for sharing and I do believe the customers who come into the Arboretum are nice people. Frank and I have a good garden now, but seven or eight years ago, we took part in a TV programme called The Mentor. On camera, Dermot ticked me off about the state of my garden! We still remained friends after that, and he agrees, it’s up to scratch now.

Dermot is just such a kind, caring good, good person . . . we bonded instantly. Ours is a lifelong friendship. I know Peter and Maura, Dermot’s parents, very well, and my two sons and their wives would treat Dermot as part of our family. There’s never an event in the Doyle household that Dermot wouldn’t be invited to.