Gentleman gardener

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There are those who, though they may be long gone, exert a persistent charm and fascination. The O'Mahony of Kerry, who died in 1930, is one such character. Gardener, planthunter, member of parliament, friend of Parnell, self-styled chieftain, breeder of wolfhounds, altruist and big, big spender: a marvellous personality indeed.

Born Pierce Charles Mahony on the 9th of June 1850, he changed his name by deed poll when he was 62 to The O'Mahony of Kerry, declaring that he was the head of a breakaway section of the clan founded by Dermot Og O'Mahony in 1327. The fact that "The O'Mahony of Kerry" was not one of the titles recognised by the Office of the Chief Herald seemed not to bother him, for he was a man who always followed his own inclinations and wisdom. For a time he espoused Greek Orthodoxy, but in old age, when he was living in the Wicklow mountains, he turned to Roman Catholicism. Dressed in full chieftain's regalia - saffron kilt, green bonnet, cloak and jacket - and leading a leash of wolfhounds, he marched across the hills to Mass, preceded by two pipers in similar outfits.

Pierce Charles's love of gardening emerged early: when he was just five years old, he bought a plant - a fern - with his first pocket money. From that precocious start he went on to develop an interest in plants and horticulture that consumed him until the end of his days. He passed up no opportunity to do a bit of botanising, especially while travelling around the country as Assistant Commissioner in the Land Commission. It was on one of these trips in 1884 that he was pleased to discover the rare Killarney fern, Trichomanes radicans, for the first time in Co Donegal. The delicate, filmy plant, which requires constant high humidity to survive, had been rendered almost extinct by over-enthusiastic Victorian collectors, and although it had been found in other counties it had never been seen in Donegal.

The O'Mahony's Killarney fern discovery is well-documented, unlike some of the other plants associated with his name. Over the years there have been references to a unique snowdrop called `The O'Mahony', but careful research has failed to substantiate it, and the experts suggest that Galanthus `The O'Mahony' is none other than the Irish hybrid `Straffan'. On the other hand, some plantspeople insist `Straffan' and `The O'Mahony' are quite different. There is further confusion about a daffodil that also bears the O'Mahony monicker.

The O'Mahony was a frequent visitor to Russia and Bulgaria, and from these trips he brought back much plant material including two varieties of Haberlea (a member of the African Violet family), Geum borisii, primulas and a graceful, red-flowered Clematis viticella. In Russia, he pursued a large fortune that had belonged to an extinct wing of the family. Eventually, in 1905, he managed to prove his claim. The inheritance, in gold, silver and property, was said to be worth £300,000, a fairly tidy sum - in today's economy, the equivalent of £21,711,690 and 21p. By the time the O'Mahony died, he had managed to run through almost every penny, and his son inherited practically nothing. But much of the money the father had spent on truly generous acts: as well as sponsoring at least one plant expedition, he set up a large orphanage in Monastir in Macedonia. And he settled six Bulgarians in Ireland, some of whom he educated at Trinity College.

At the end of his life, he divided his time between two houses in Wicklow: Coolballintaggart and Mucklagh. His gardens were filled with wonderful plants: roses, rhododendrons, meconopsis, primulas (he had a special rampart built on which to grow over a hundred Primula winteri), and countless exotic trees and shrubs, ferns, bulbs and alpines. Some of his plants were grown from seed, others from cuttings that took up to three years to root: he was famed for his finicking and infinite patience in striking cuttings. He jealously protected his plants from draughts and grew thick hedges of griselinia to shelter them.

Alas, Coolballintaggart is in ruins and Mucklagh is nearly so, but traces of their gardens remain. Last month I drove high up into the mountains, through land that alternated between untamed bog and dark-green, manmade forestry, to see if I could find Mucklagh. Suddenly, two noble monkey puzzles appeared by the roadside, and beyond them the five dormers of the sad, derelict house, at one time a neat hunting-lodge. And there, rising out of the mossy desolation, were the griselinia hedges, now 30-foot trees, and a Podocarpus salignus, one of the species he was known to have propagated. There also were bamboos, rhododendrons and roses, including a special Chinese one with blood-red thorns, Rosa sericea subsp. omiensis.

And across the little road, an otherworldly avenue of monkey puzzles, unfamiliar conifers and rare rhododendrons marched proudly down the hill, going nowhere in particular but forming a fragile, living link between the past and the present.

Diary Date: Wednesday, February 11th, 8 p.m. Royal Marine Hotel, Dun Laoghaire: Charlie Wilkins, broadcaster and gardening correspondent for the Examiner newspaper, gives a lecture, "The Suburban Garden Illustrated by Slides", in association with South County Dublin Horticultural Society. Admission £2.

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