Conservation Restoration of a Georgian Garden

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Restoration of a Georgian Garden, 73 Merrion Square (Belinda Jupp & Brendan Twomey, 2011)

It is always exciting when a plan finally ‘comes together’. In the spring of 2011 the long-cherished ambitions of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (RSAI) and the Irish Georgian Society (IGS) to recreate the urban Georgian garden in the rear of No 63 Merrion Square finally ‘came together’. The result is an important addition to Dublin’s Georgian heritage - the only conserved and restored urban Georgian garden in Dublin which can now take its place beside similar restored town gardens in Limerick and Bath. The garden in Merrion Square has always functioned as an ornamental or vegetable garden and the layout of the restored garden has followed the same plan as that shown on the 1838 Ordnance Survey map.

No.63 Merrion Square, which has been the headquarters of the RSAI since 1917, is located on the south side of the Square. The house was built in 1792 and it retains most of its original features including two fine ornate plaster ceilings by Andrew Calnan. Unlike almost all townhouses in Dublin (and indeed in London and other Georgian cities) No.63 has a fully intact rear garden and coach-house. Together the house, garden and coach-house represent a rare survival of a complete Dublin townhouse complex stretching from the under-pavement bunkers at the front through to the stable lane at the rear. The coach-house was restored by the Irish Landmark Trust, and the upper storey serves as high-quality self-catering accommodation. The stables in the coach-house are occasionally used by An Garda Síochána as a rest and recuperation site for their mounted unit.

The total cost of the Georgian Garden project was approximately €37,000 - these costs were shared between the RSAI, IGS, Dublin City Council and Brian O’Donnell Solicitors. The IGS financial support for the project was provided by generous donations from Edwina Sandys and Richard Kaplan who wished to honour the work of Arthur Prager for the IGS in the US for many years, and from New York based IGS supporter Beth Dater who has a keen interest in Irish gardens. The project involved numerous specialists including conservation architect (Paul Arnold & Co), historic garden consultant (Belinda Jupp), gardening specialist (Graeme Hanna and the Happy Gardening Co.), and archaeologists (Cóilín Ó Drisceoil – Kilkenny Archaeology and the Discovery Programme). The overall project was coordinated by a committee made up of members of the council of the RSAI and from the IGS.

The work on the garden was carried out over three years. In 2009 major conservation work was undertaken on the eastern boundary wall and in the spring of 2010 the garden was prepared after a survey of the existing plant material. This was followed by a geophysical survey, carried out by the Discovery Programme, and a licensed archeological garden excavation. Archaeological finds included large quantities of 19th and 20th century glass and pottery and a dog grave-marker, dated to 4 July 1883, and dedicated by F.S. Sankey to ‘Prince’ a white Spitz. Most significantly the archaeological excavation work confirmed both the existence and the exact location for the oval-shaped path which is depicted on the 1838 Ordnance Survey map. The footprint of the path has therefore been the site of the garden pathway since the house was first built in the 1790s. During the summer of 2010 a replacement path surface, of red Indian sandstone slabs matching the pre-existing paving in the rear yard, was laid. Finally, in the autumn of 2010, and in the spring of 2011, the planting scheme was implemented.

Since the early 1960s the garden at No. 63 had been lovingly tended by Mr and Mrs. Behan, caretakers for the RSAI. The part of the garden located nearest the house was laid out with shrubs and summer bedding in the wall borders and the oval-shaped pathway was surrounded by box hedging. The rear half of the garden had been a vegetable garden until the early 1990s, but this had become overgrown.

Very little is known about what use private town gardens were put to in the eighteenth century. There was little space to grow vegetables and possibly the garden could be enjoyed as a purely decorative space, with a lawn, flower beds and seating. Fruit trees were often grown along the walls and the planting would also have included culinary and medicinal herbs as well as ornamental plants. The planting scheme for the Merrion Square garden utilises all of these elements and the plants are species and varieties known to have been grown before the early nineteenth century. They include ornamental plants such as Acanthus spinosus and Persian lilac as well as herbs like mint and parsley. The verdant lawn in the middle of the garden has a quince tree as its centre-piece. Other fruit trees are old varieties of apple, pear and cherry growing in the wall borders. A major feature is the small-leaf box hedging, which surrounds the oval path and replicates the previous box hedging that straddled the path. Though sparse at present, in time the mixture of trees, flowering shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs will flourish and fill this delightful garden.

The authors would like to express their thanks to all who helped in the successful implementation of the Georgian garden restoration project and in particular to their fellow garden committee members Aideen Ireland , Charles Doherty, Kelly Fitzgerald, Niall Brady, Bill Doran, Martin Kelly, Máirín Ní Cheallaigh, Cóilín Ó Drisceoil, Graeme Hanna, Donough Cahill, and the Knight of Glin.

Belinda Jupp & Brendan Twomey

Belinda Jupp is an historic garden consultant. Belinda planned the conservation and restoration of the renowned town garden at Pery Square in Limerick.

Brendan Twomey is the Hon. Treasurer RSAI, he was the Chairman of the Merrion Square Georgian Garden Restoration Project Committee.