The House and Gardens

Read about the History of the Island Below
Bryce House, formerly the gardener's cottage, remodelled c. 1940. OPW.

After acquiring the island in 1910, the Bryces planned to build a large Italianate mansion incorporating existing structures such as an obsolete Martello Tower erected in the early 1800s. These plans were curtailed by the First World War and the family’s financial difficulties, brought on by over-investment in Russia. The family’s London residence and its collection of art and artefacts was sold after the death of John Annan Bryce in 1923.

His widow Violet retired to Ireland and lived in the modest gardener’s cottage, built around 1912 along with the gazebos in the Walled Garden. After Violet’s death in 1939, her son Roland extended and upgraded the house and outhouses, a construction project that continued through much of the Second World War and cost more than £5,000.

Garinish Island is renowned for its richness of plant form and colour, changing continuously with the seasons.

Harold Peto, 1854 - 1933.

Harold Ainsworth Peto was a landscape architect and garden designer who was responsible for the Italianate conception of the gardens at Garinish. He was the son of a prosperous builder, engineer and railway-contractor and spent his childhood at Somerleyton Hall in Lowestoft, Suffolk. In 1876 Peto went into partnership with architect Ernest George and designed houses in Kensington and Chelsea, as well as country houses. In 1883 Peto became a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

He travelled extensively in the 1880s and 1890s and kept diaries recording his travels to Italy, America, Spain, Greece, Egypt, Germany, France and a round-the-world trip that included Japan. His partnership with Ernest George ended in the 1890s and in 1899 he purchased Iford Manor in Wiltshire. There he re-designed and expanded the garden, experimented with new concepts, incorporating the artefacts collected during his travels around the world.

The garden at Iford, which is his best known, illustrates particularly his Arts and Crafts approach to architecture and garden design. Other famous gardens include Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, West Dean House, Sussex, and his island garden collaboration with the Bryces in Co. Cork.

Murdo MacKenzie, 1896 - 1983.

Alongside Maggie O’Sullivan, Murdo MacKenzie, was synonymous with the island. The son of a gardener in Forres in Scotland, Murdo saw saw active service in the First World War in the Seaforth Highlanders. After the war he became a forester at Darnaway Estate before gaining employment with the Bryces in 1928. The gardens had become neglected by the 1920s and strong winds damaged much of the early planting but Murdo successfully established shelter belts, of mostly Scots and Monterey pine, before proceeding to build up the splendid collection of rare and tender plants for which the island is now famous. After ownership of the island passed from the Bryce family to the Office of Public Works in 1953, Murdo remained in charge, retiring in 1971.

Murdo was recognised for his remarkable work, one of the great success stories of Irish horticulture, with awards and medals. In 1966, he was awarded the Horticultural Society of Ireland’s gold medal and the following year he was given the the honour of being made an Associate of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Society of the UK and presented with a Gold Medal. During the 1980s, he was recognised by the Irish Tourist Board who presented him with an engraved crystal rose bowl and citation in recognition of his 43 years’ service to the island Garden. In 1982, he received the UDT Endeavour Award for tourism which took the form of a beautiful sculpture of silver swallows. Murdo, who was unmarried, died at the age of 87.

President Sean T. O’Kelly with a party visiting in 1940s.

The Eccles hotel in Glengarriff was owned by the McDonnell family and some very famous people stayed there. The story goes that George Bernard Shaw stayed there in 1923 and he used to go daily to visit Garnish Island, where apparently he got inspiration for writing his famous play “St. Joan”. On the day he was leaving Garnish, Lady Bryce came to the slip way to say goodbye. “Goodbye Shaw” she said “I hope me meet in Heaven”. He looked at her and said “Madam, are we not already?”

The old postcard shows George Bernard Shaw posing between Homer and the young Garinish Island Nero at the Sunken Garden (‘Italian Garden’) on Garinish Island – or rather Ilnacullin as Violet Bryce wanted her Heaven to be named. Shaw was probably inspired by the Bryce’s daughter Marjory, who led a procession on horseback dressed as Joan of Arc at the Women’s Coronation Procession in London in the year 1911. She led some forty thousand women from almost thirty suffrage organisations whose members celebrated Joan as a perfect symbol to lead women in their appeal for formal admission into the councils of the nation. Marjory’s father Annan Bryce was strongly against suffrage.

There have been many famous visitors to the island through the years. Writer and painter George ‘AE’ Russell visited the island in 1920s. President Sean T. O’Kelly visited with a party in the 1940s. Famous English writer Agatha Christie left her signature in the guest book during her visit in 1959.

Read more about the family who purchased the island and commissioned the gardens.