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Heritage Ireland


Secrets of Ilnacullin, Garinish Island

Terri Sweeney Meade
with assistance from
Deirdre Spring

John Annan Bryce MP (1844–1923), was a Belfastborn merchant and Liberal MP who had worked in Burma and Siam as an East India Merchant and held, among other roles, directorships of the Bombay, Baroda and Burma Railway Companies. He was a member of the Council of the Royal Geographical Society, the Alpine Club and the Savile Club. He was appointed to the Royal Commission on Congestion for Ireland during his time as an MP. Garinish Island was sold to him by the British War Office in 1910. Not long after that, he commissioned his friend, renowned English architect and landscape designer, Harold Ainsworth Peto FRIBA (1854–1933), to design and set out an Arts and Crafts style garden, an Italian Garden and a series of carefully conceived garden buildings and elements. Peto had previously been commissioned to design the 1st class accommodation on the Mauritania in 1907 (sister ship of the ill-fated Lusitania).

Bryce and his wife Violet (1863–1939), née L’Estrange, cousin of Constance and Eva Gore-Booth of Lissadell, Co. Sligo commenced the transformation of Garinish Island to Peto’s design in 1911, employing more than one hundred men between 1911 and 1914. Work continued apace until the outbreak of the First World War. By this time, many of the Italianate Renaissance-style buildings along with a two storey gardener’s cottage, constructed of local stone with green slate roof in an Edwardian picturesque style, had been completed. Peto brought a collection of Architectural stone carvings purchased in Italy, Spain and France, to display in the gardens and intended to integrate them into a new grand house on the island. The palatial seven storey house was never executed due to the collapse of the Russian market in 1917 which brought with it the decline of the Bryces’ financial fortunes. However, hundreds of species of exotic plants had been introduced to the island by this time.

Image of Violet L’Estrange Bryce’s Bedroom
Violet L’Estrange Bryce’s Bedroom

Following the death of her husband in 1923, Violet Annan Bryce took up permanent residency in the gardener’s cottage. By this time the cottage had been extended to include an extension to the drawing room. In 1925 the gardens were opened to the public to generate income, thereby creating a relationship between the island and the public.

In 1928 Scottish Gardener, Murdo Mackenzie, was appointed by Violet. Much of Peto and Bryce’s early planting had perished in a series of storms. Mackenzie began the planting of new shelter beds of Scots and Monterey Pine and the gardens began to flourish.

Violet’s son, Roland L’Estrange Bryce, joined her in 1932. Shortly afterwards, in 1940, the cottage was remodelled and extended into an Edwardian middle class home; 2 storey over basement, with 6 bedrooms and separate quarters for the owners and guests and for the staff.

On the death of Roland in 1953, Garinish Island was gifted to the Irish people and entrusted to the care of the Office of Public Works. Mackenzie continued to tend the gardens until his retirement in 1971, and lived and worked there until his death in 1983. The Bryce’s housekeeper Margaret O’Sullivan lived and worked there from 1926 up until a few years prior to her death in 1999.

Following this the house was entirely vacant and as a consequence deteriorated significantly. But there remained, miraculously, evidence of a way of life forever gone, still visible in the fragments that had been left behind. A project team was established by the OPW and its goal was to open Mrs. Annan Bryce’s family home to the public and share its stories and secret life in a museum and exhibition style presentation, and to make the house, garden and unique features universally accessible.

Statue of Mercury – The Lily Pond
Statue of Mercury – The Lily Pond

Orchestrating the transition from private residence to public building, while all the time trying to retain and protect a delicate and fragile story within its walls, proved to be the real challenge. The cataloguing of the contents of the house yielded a treasure trove of items that illustrate the ‘story’ of Garinish Island and the Bryce family. This inspired the creation of an exquisite and thought-provoking exhibition. Architectural interventions included: a reception room, conservation works to the existing building fabric, installation of a lift, hard landscaping and environmental and infrastructural improvements.

Archway & New Entrance
Archway & New Entrance
House & Patio Area
House & Patio Area

The official opening was performed on the 9th September 2015 by Minister Michael Ring T.D., Minister of State for Tourism and Sport. In attendance were Claire Spencer and Marianne Tudor Craig, descendants of John Annan and Violet Bryce.

The hope is that Garinish Island will continue to inspire and enchant a whole new generation of visitors, like it has been doing for over ninety years.

The storm has passed – the wind now gently lulls
The waves, so lately on destruction bent,
Firm Garnish stands, while round it sweep the gulls,
Magnificent in every element.

Extract from Glengarriff and Garnish (sic) by Nigel Erskine Bryce (November 1892-February 1910), Eton, 4 December 1909. Nigel was the youngest son of John and Violet Annan Bryce.

Interior – Staircase & Hall
Interior – Staircase & Hall

Margaret O’Sullivan – Last resident on Garinish Island (IInacullin)

When Margaret O’Sullivan (1908–1999) first arrived at Garinish Island to work for the Bryce family in the 1920s, little did she think that she would spend her life here and eventually become mistress of the house! The youngest of 12 children of a farmer from Bocarnagh, three miles from Glengarriff on the mainland, she was a teenager when she went to work in place of her sister who had emigrated to America.

Margaret served as housekeeper first to Violet Bryce and later to her son Roland, forming with him and Murdo MacKenzie a remarkably hospitable trio. During her lifetime, she had the distinction of serving tea to almost all the Irish Presidents and was photographed with President Seán T. O’Kelly and his party in the 1940s. One of her favourite memories was the visit of Roland’s friend, Dr. Douglas Hyde, who conversed with her in the Irish language. Known as An Craoibhín Aoibhinn, Hyde was a leading figure in the Gaelic revival and served as the first President of Ireland from 1938 to 1945. After Roland’s death in 1953, Margaret continued to live and work at Ilnacullin, as resident hostess, showing the same generous service to the Irish State as she had to the Bryces. Over her lifetime, she welcomed hundreds of native and foreign dignitaries, and thousands of sightseers, charming everyone that she met with her easy manner.

Margaret was a very independent woman by all accounts, rowing herself to the mainland in her own boat. Every Sunday, regardless of the weather she rowed across to attend Mass there accompanied by her dog! As the island’s last permanent inhabitant, Margaret lived alone in the house during the 1980s and early 1990s, coping admirably with the challenges of island life. In 1992, she was honoured by Glengarriff Tourism and Development Association for her contribution to tourism in the locality. Margaret died in 1999.

Roland Bryce, Margaret O’Sullivan & Murdo MacKenzie
Roland Bryce, Margaret O’Sullivan & Murdo MacKenzie

Murdo MacKenzie – Award winning gardener (1896–1983)

Murdo MacKenzie was born in 1896, in the north east of Scotland. Murdo MacKenzie served in the Seaforth Highlanders in World War I and worked as a forester before he moved to Ireland in 1928.

When Murdo MacKenzie arrived on Garinish Island, it was totally devoid of soil except for a few pockets of marshy bog and there was no shelter from the frequently ferocious prevailing winds.

Murdo MacKenzie overcame these obstacles by his single-mindedness and experience. Shelter belts were created and the slow process of creating soil from compost. Gradually a suitable environment for the reception of rare, delicate and exotic plants and shrubs from tropical climates took shape. Plants from Australia, New Zealand, Africa and Europe were carefully planted and nurtured and the evolution of Garinish Island progressed.

In 1953, the Bryce family bequeathed Garinish Island to the State and the Commissioners of Public Works. The Commissioners were exceptionally pleased to have acquired such a rare and beautiful natural gem. They quickly recognised the contribution of Murdo MacKenzie and acknowledged that he was an integral part of the Island. Consequently, he was employed by the Commissioners to continue his labour of love. In 1966, Murdo MacKenzie was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland’s Medal of Honour, for conspicuous service to horticulture in Ireland. In February the following year Murdo MacKenzie was made an “Associate of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Society of the UK” in recognition of his services to horticulture and was presented with a Gold Medal.

During the 1980s, he was recognised by the Irish Tourist Board (Bord Fáilte) for his outstanding contribution to the creation and care of Ilnacullin – Garinish Island for 43 years.

He continued to work and live on the island even after his retirement. He died in January 1983 aged 87.

Murdo MacKenzie receiving his Royal Horticultural Society-of-Ireland’s-Medal-of-Honour-from-Lord & Countess of Rosse
Murdo MacKenzie receiving his Royal Horticultural Society-of-Ireland’s-Medal-of-Honour-from-Lord & Countess of Rosse

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