Leading horticultural scientist died 19 days before beloved wife

 

JGD LAMB and HELEN LAMB: JGD LAMB, who has died aged 91, was one of Ireland’s foremost horticultural scientists and gardeners. His wife, Helen Lamb (née Tobias), who died just 19 days after him, was aged 93.

A scholar of Trinity College, Dublin, Helen Lamb graduated in 1939 with a degree in classics. She went into teaching and became headmistress of Hillcourt School in Dún Laoghaire, which was later amalgamated with three others (The Hall, Park House and Glengara Park) to create the Rathdown School for girls.

JGD Lamb, who was known informally as Keith, was born in Dublin in 1919. He turned deaf in his early childhood. The only person to diagnose the correct reason for this sudden deafness was Oliver St John Gogarty, a close friend of Keith’s father Francis, who was another of the “medicals” mentioned in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Joyce’s Ulysses.

Lamb attended Wrekin College in Shropshire, England, where the headmaster at that time, Walter Maxwell Gordon, was a fellow Irishman. Lamb began to read for a degree in agricultural science at Reading and returned to Ireland to study at University College Dublin under Prof G O Sherrard who, on his appointment in 1938, was the first professor of horticulture in these islands.

Lamb completed his doctorate in 1949 on The Apple in Ireland; its History and Varietiesin which he discovered up to 53 distinct Irish apple varieties, much of the fieldwork having been carried out in the post-war years on his bicycle.

Being thereafter noted as a pomologist, he became accustomed every summer to receiving boxes of apples from orchard owners all over Ireland seeking the identification of their apple trees.

His life’s work in this regard has found due recognition with the establishment on the campus of University College Dublin of the orchard of old Irish apple varieties known as the Lamb Clark Historic Apple Collection, inaugurated in 1997 by then president Mary Robinson.

In 1952, he married Helen, who gave up her career in education to be a full-time wife and mother. Their first home was in Co Wexford, where their three children were born and Lamb worked in An Foras Talúntais at Johnstown Castle, including pioneer research on blueberry varieties suited to Irish conditions.

The idea of introducing to Ireland the cultivation of American high-bush blueberries was his brainchild, and he helped to establish a 10-acre commercial operation in bogland, near Portarlington, Co Laois, that is still in production as the Derryvilla Blueberry Farm.

In 1961 he took up a post at the Agricultural Institute’s Kinsealy research centre where he was later appointed senior principal research officer. The family spent many happy years in Malahide where Helen was an active member of the Church of Ireland and sang in the church choir, in the Malahide Singers and the Culwick Choral Society. She was also a member of the board of governors of Sutton Park School where their children attended.

Lamb specialised in plant propagation leading to his co-authorship of the Nursery Stock Manual, a standard handbook for nurserymen, first published in 1975, revised, republished a number of times, still in print and used internationally. It was followed by his co-authorship of the book Peat in Horticulture(1982).

In 1982, Lamb retired having spent 35 years in horticultural research, and he and Helen went to live in the 18th-century family house at Woodfield, Clara, Co Offaly, Keith’s ancestral home. He was especially proud of a 1765 map of the lands of Woodfield that showed a formal garden with hedges and topiary in front of the house as well as an orchard and, unusually for Ireland, a hop-yard.

Helen Lamb was content to play a supporting role to the achievements of her husband, but her poetry, painting and music demonstrated an inspired love of nature. She was a frequent contributor to The Irish Timeswith poetry and letters to the editor.

In 2002, her poem Rapewas published as part of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council’s book, Celebrating Boglands.

In 2007 she was celebrated in Ranelagh Gardens as the oldest living descendent of Ireland’s ballooning pioneer Richard Crosbie, brother of Helen’s direct ancestor Sir Edward Crosbie who was beheaded by the crown in 1798.

Keith Lamb used his professional talents to good effect at Woodfield. He restored his father’s rock garden, transplanting many alpines from his own noteworthy garden at Malahide that he had carefully cultivated during the years that he worked at Kinsealy.

He also converted an old kennel yard into a series of raised beds, made a woodland garden in a grove of trees and lined the avenue to the house with colonies of choice bulbs that flower happily each year under the beech trees.

There the plantsman might find the original tree of the early-flowering cherry cultivar known as Prunus x incisa“Woodfield Cluster”, the result of one of his childhood experiments in plant propagation, or the early-flowering snowdrop named Galanthus“Castlegar” found by him on the estate of the Mahon family at Ahascragh, Co Galway.

The garden became a destination for horticulturists from all over Ireland and beyond, especially for members of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland and the Irish Garden Plant Society and for visitors such as the members of the International Dendrology Society from abroad.

He wrote many articles for horticultural and gardening journals during this period and co-authored, with Patrick Bowe, A History of Gardening in Ireland, the first book to chart the development of gardening in Ireland from earliest times.

Published in 1995 as part of the bicentenary celebrations of the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, it is an important contribution since many of the people who gardened in Ireland had an influence far beyond the shores of this country.

As Woodfield was situated on the edge of Woodfield Bog, Lamb took a special interest in the conservation of Ireland’s remaining peatlands and was a keen supporter of the Irish Peatland Conservation Council.

He was an active recorder for Co Offaly of the venerable Botanic Society of the British Isles, the leading organisation for the identification of British and Irish native plants.

He was a past president of the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland and a recipient of its medal of honour (1982), an honorary life member of the Royal Dublin Society and of the International Propagators Society. His other awards include: The Institute of Horticulture Award (1997), the Euro-Toques Award of Merit (2002), and the Kildare Medal (2007).

Keith and Helen Lamb were able to remain together at home for the final two years of their 59 year marriage only because of the great sacrifice of their daughter Eleanor and the help of many carers, friends, pharmacists, nurses and doctors.

Helen is to be buried today beside her husband in St Brigid’s churchyard in Clara, where they will join Keith’s parents who died nine days apart from each other in 1959.

They are survived by their children Henry, Eleanor and Melissa, their grandchildren Fiachra, Jonathan, Patrick, Oliver and Ruth, and Helen’s sister, Eirene.


JGD (Keith) Lamb: born August 19th, 1919; died January 27th, 2011. Helen M Lamb: born May 18th, 1917; died February 15th, 2011