What lies beneath – Claire Connolly on St Joseph’s cemetery in Cork and a botanical garden

An Irishwoman’s Diary

Garden centres are getting busy. Many of us are out walking, taking the odd cutting and on occasion digging out plants from the ditches to bring home. Covid-19 has made possession of a garden more of a luxury than ever while the inequalities sharpened by the pandemic are visible in the green space around our homes.

Some of my own walks have taken me to St Joseph's Cemetery in Cork, founded by Fr Theobald Matthew in 1830 and admired by the antiquarian John Windele as "the Père Lachaise of Cork".

It was not always a cemetery. Rather, in 1808, the Royal Cork Institution had first developed a six-acre site (known as "Lilliput") as a botanical garden. The institution employed a young Scottish botanist named James Drummond to plant out the gardens and promote agricultural experiments. Unable to sustain himself on the institution's salary (£180 or around £12,000 in today's money) and seeing their support for the enterprise fade, Drummond set up a nursery from which he sold trees and plants. His hothouses are long gone and none of the older planting remains. Still, the old stone walls serve as a kind of memorial to the institution's enlightened optimism– albeit hopes that had faded within a generation, when it became a Catholic cemetery, and but a distant memory by the end of the following decade, by which stage countless victims of hunger and disease lay buried within the old walls of the botanical garden.

Botanical gardens were part of a wider imperial culture of improvement, with Kew Garden in London the hub for plant and seed exchange across continents. The Cork gardens followed on from Dublin Botanic Garden, built on land in Glasnevin purchased by the Dublin Society in 1795. The Royal Cork Institution funded the city's gardens but closed the enterprise when they lost their parliamentary grant in 1829. By then, though, the gardens had borne witness to violence.

On the night of November 18th, 1826, Drummond shot dead a young Catholic man named Cornelius Hyde whom he suspected of robbing plants. A witness reported on freshly dug plants and "chrysanthemum plants with blood among the leaves". A few days later, a coroner's inquest heard that Drummond's gun had "accidentally discharged" and returned a verdict of death "caused by . . . the defence and preservation of his property".

The Scottish botanist sold off his plants by auction in 1829 and emigrated to the Swan River colony in Western Australia.

When the garden at Glasnevin opened in May 1800, it was the largest public botanical garden in the British Empire after that of Kingston, Jamaica.

Irish author Maria Edgeworth was among those who arranged for seeds to be sent to Glasnevin, sometimes from her brother in India (for whom the deciduous shrub "Edgeworthia Chrysantha" is named) and on other occasions via a correspondent in North Carolina. The carefully wrapped packages included Venus fly-trap seeds, pods of cotton, crocus and primrose bulbs, a humming bird's nest, the wings of a rice bird, grasshopper legs and alligator eggs– the flora and fauna of the empire.

And so in St Joseph’s, a cemetery where a young man was shot and a botanical garden is buried, it is the dark history of gardens, their capacity to inspire hope and their complicity with the violence of empire, that comes to mind. “The garden is a heap of disturbances”, as the Caribbean-American writer Jamaica Kincaid put it in a recent New Yorker article.

Not least among these disturbances is the location of St Joseph's, near to Musgrave Park rugby ground and the silent Vita Cortex factory.

These days, St Joseph's is surrounded by houses built by Cork Corporation between 1948 and 1960. What was once countryside outside the city, home to bog, fields and market gardens, became, in the early years of the new State, the site of an ambitious public housing project. Around a thousand houses were constructed, all with gardens front and back. With a church and schools, the idea of improvement for public good was revived, now in the hands of the Catholic Church rather than Protestant gentlemen.

In 1968, Cork Corporation took over the care of the cemetery.

To visit St Joseph's now is to take roads named Botanic Avenue and Tory Top Road, to walk past neat planting and well-kept lawns, to notice where gardens have been cut away to allow cars to be parked.

Little remains of the botanical culture of empire but everywhere there are gardens that border on history.