The Violet who transformed Garinish


It’s 100 years since John and Violet Bryce moved to a rocky island off Glengarriff in Co Cork and set about creating their own garden paradise – high time perhaps for Violet’s story and achievements to be more widely known, writes GEMMA TIPTON

Garinish Island, or Ilnacullin as it is also known, celebrates the centenary of its transformation this year. The island is in Glengarriff Bay, which is itself so beautiful that Thackeray declared: “Were such a bay lying upon English shores it would be a world’s wonder. Perhaps if it were on the Mediterranean or Baltic, English travellers would flock to it in hundreds.”

Visitors today take a short ferry ride across, itself a treat, as fat seals swim about. Graceful in the water, they look more like boiled haggises as they flop on to rocks to sun themselves. On the island you can stroll around Italianate, Japanese and Robinsonian gardens. Climbing the Martello tower, the view takes in a stunning panorama of gardens, sea and shore. There are follies, rare plants, mature trees, a unique atmosphere.

Most accounts of Garinish credit the work and the vision to owner John Annan Bryce, his architect and garden designer Harold Peto, and gardener Murdo Mackenzie. After Bryce’s death, the histories blandly state that “the development of the gardens was continued by his widow, Violet”. But if anyone deserves to have a book written about them it is Violet Bryce, and the anniversary of the island’s transformation seems a good time to celebrate her place in the story too.

Born in Mauritius to the improbably named Capt Champagne l’Estrange, Violet l’Estrange was a cousin to Countess Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth. Spending summers in Glengarriff with her cousins, it was Violet who began to have designs on the island, persuading her husband to buy it from “His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the War Department” (Garinish had been considered of strategic importance at different points in history, hence the Martello tower).

Locals will tell of a family farming the poor land before the arrival of the Bryces, and amid the unrest in Ireland at that time, the arrival of the Bryces and the removal of the original family would not have gone unremarked upon. Violet’s sympathies, however, were with the Irish cause and, in 1920, she was arrested in Holyhead after crossing on the ferry to address a public meeting in Wales on the subject of “reprisals”. After spending the night in prison she was deported, and the matter was raised both in letters to the Timesand in the Houses of Parliament, where her husband was an MP.

She was an early champion of the womens movement, and her daughter, Margaret, went on to become a well-known suffragette. At Garinish, Violet and her husband planted trees to shield their sensitive plants from the sea winds, and brought boatloads of topsoil over from the mainland. This was a sore subject with her, as the American, Harold Speakerman, wrote in Here’s Ireland in 1924: “The lady greeted me cordially. ‘I hope,’ she said, as we went up a path made rich by the scent of early roses, ‘I hope that you haven’t heard the ridiculous story about our bringing boatloads of earth here from the mainland!’ ‘Millions of boatloads,’ I quoted. ‘Now where could you have heard that!’ she demanded with some warmth. ‘I never knew anything so stupid!’ . . . (Evidently this was a subject of long standing and some delicacy.)”

A mansion was planned, in which the Martello tower would become Violet’s bedroom, but the Russian goldfield collapse of 1917 wiped out a great deal of the Bryce fortune and only the gardener’s cottage was built. Nevertheless, illustrious guests included George Bernard Shaw, who stayed on the island in 1923 while writing his play, Saint Joan,and the poet Æ (George Russell).

Roland Bryce, the couple’s son (one of those given responsibility for drawing up the borders of Yugoslavia) gave up his glittering foreign office career to live on Garinish and take over the work of looking after the gardens. On his death, historian Jim Larner describes how he left the island to the Irish people, although he had to exercise a little “ingenuity” to do so. At the time, guidelines for bequests stipulated that there must be sufficient endowments to run them, as the new Free State government did not want to become saddled with hundreds of expensive houses and no money to maintain them. Bryce got round this by leaving Garinish directly to the taoiseach. De Valera hemmed and hawed, but John Costello, following him, accepted the gift, and put Garinish in the hands of the Department of Agriculture. It is now looked after by the Office of Public Works.

Celebrations of the Garinish centenary include photography and garden competitions; an exhibition on the island and its history at the tourist information office in Glengarriff; and a series of talks on aspects of the island, its history and its flora and fauna – although not, unfortunately, on Violet l’Estrange.

Garden country Glengarriff guide

The Ewe Sculpture Garden and Galleryis a series of four hillside gardens with wild and wonderful sculptures in unexpected settings. Some are interactive, and there are games to play, as well as a cafe, courses and workshops. The Ewe is a quirky, beautiful place and can be inspirational too. Admission charges apply. See

Glengarriff Bamboo Parkis reached through striking oriental gates, and inside you’ll find bamboos, a collection of tree ferns (from a species older than the dinosaurs), romantic pathways, a private beach, amazing views, plus a cafe. Admission charges apply. See

With 300 hectares of forests, including ancient oaks, rivers, streams and walks (ranging from the relaxing to the demanding), Glengarriff Nature Reservedemonstrates where the town got its name, Gleann Gairbh, meaning “rugged glen”. See

As for Garinish, a good way to explore the stories of the island is to go with a guide. Markus Baeuchle conducts tours not only of Garinish itself, but also of the Glengariff Nature Reserve and environs. See

The way to get to Garinish is to take a boat(between March and October), from Glengarriff Pier ( harbourqueenferry. com) or from the Blue Pool ( bluepoolferry. com). The prices on the ferries are approximately €10 per adult, and there is an additional admission charge for the island (€3.50 per adult).