War of the Roses – An Irishwoman’s Diary on a thorny subject


I have this love-hate relationship with roses. It all began on the morning of my wedding.

The gardener in the People’s Park in Limerick was a friend and offered to supply the roses and construct my bouquet for me. On that special morning my brother drove me to the park to collect my flowers only to find that my gardener friend was on holidays, having forgotten completely about my big day.

One look at my face and his next in command hurriedly cut a dozen of their best long-stemmed roses for me.

They were, indeed, beautiful but they had fierce thorns that dug into my fingers as I tried to tie them together in great haste that morning some 50 years ago. I didn’t ever want to be reminded of that episode again, therefore I am reluctant to plant roses in my garden.

A couple of years ago someone gave me a climbing rose for my birthday and I had no choice but to give it a life. I thought it might grow up a wooden trellis to camouflage the heating-oil tank. I didn’t give it a whole lot of attention but it bloomed that summer with massive clusters of crimson flowers, and I forgot all about my war of the roses, and even frequently called passers-by to come and admire it.

Then the oil man came put the nozzle of the hose into the tank and, while checking out something in his truck, the hose somehow worked itself loose and fell onto my gorgeous roses, spraying both flowers and roots with vile smelling heating oil. Suffice to say, the poor roses died an ignominious death.

If you mention roses while my daughter is present, she wags a finger and reminds me of Paris. That was the time I insisted that I had to go to Malmaison to see Josephine’s rose garden.

She was such an avid rose plant collector that she almost bankrupted Napoleon with her extravagance – roses, apart from himself, of course, were her passion and they were extremely expensive in those times.

So precious were those roses that, even during the war with England, the British navy was issued with orders for their safe conduct to France.

Josephine had over 200 varieties of roses and her expert gardeners also created new varieties. The tea rose, which is in the parentage of most modern roses, was developed at Malmason. So, I put aside my war of the rose to visit Josephine’s garden outside Paris.

Yes, and I can still see my daughter on that day, as instructed, we took the Metro to its final stop and walked in drizzling rain miles only to discover that we were going in the wrong direction and had to double back.

Herself became more and more annoyed with me saying that she was starving and had to be fed before we went another step. We got a baguette and ham and cheese at a supermarché and sat on tiny swings under dripping trees in a children’s playground to picnic.

Eventually, wet through, we found our way to Malmaison but alas Josephine’s rose garden was no more. It had been dug out for replanting. My daughter gritted her teeth and growled at me.

But roses did creep back into my garden by default. I buy what I call the “wallflowers” left on supermarket shelves and I resuscitate them. Recently I rescued three discarded rose bushes from a skip at our local garden centre. I think it was the challenge of bringing them back to life, coupled with a touch of sympathy for their condition that, once more, made me forget my love-hate relationship with roses.

This summer those roses have finally paid me back for a couple of years of TLC. I have three of the most gorgeous exotic creatures towering above the lesser beings in my garden.

Today, I am in my sunshiny garden wallowing in the perfume of my roses. My little grandson is helping me to re-pot some geraniums when the phone rings. I leave him with the flowerpots and a bucket of compost. Minutes later I return to find the heads of my exquisite roses stuck in compost in three flower pots. “Look, Grandma – look what I did for you,” he says, smiling up at me with those glorious blue eyes and golden curls.

When I can find my voice I’ll think of some way of thanking him. But from now on the only roses I’ll be looking at will be those in Tralee.