Annes Grove from the past to the present

Following its recent transfer to the care of the OPW, Peter Murray traces the history of Annes Grove in North Cork which will open to the public later this summer

In 1611, when James I confirmed the rights of Anglo-Norman grandee David Lord Roche, Viscount Fermoy, to ownership of extensive lands in North Cork, a tract of fertile grassland known as Ballyhimmock was included in this grant. Ballyhimmock, the ‘townland of the colts’, is located a mile north of Castletownroche, midway along the road that runs parallel to the Blackwater River, linking Fermoy and Mallow. However, Roche was not destined to enjoy his properties for long. Barely fifteen years later, reduced to poverty through the machinations of his implacable enemy Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, Roche was forced to sell Ballyhimmock. Amounting to over four hundred acres on the banks of the river Awbeg, the estate was acquired by William Grove. Originally from Middlesex, the Grove family had lived for a time near Doneraile before moving to Ballyhimmock where they built extensive coach yards, stables, barns and an oval stone midden, original 17th-century features that still survive today, tucked in behind the Georgian house. In due course, the Groves also built the present house; the front façade and some internal details, notably the staircase, date to around 1720. In 1766, the heiress Mary Grove married Francis Charles Annesley, later 1st Earl Annesley, and over the following years, while they lived at Castlewellan, Co Down, their Cork estate – now known as Annes Grove – was rented to Richard and Anne Aldworth, who carried out improvements to both farm and garden. Lime kilns and local limestone provided both fertiliser and building materials. In 1792, the eighteen-year-old Arthur Annesley, nephew of Francis, inherited Annes Grove, on condition that he add his aunt Mary’s surname to his own. Over the ensuing decades he and his wife Elizabeth carried out extensive alterations to the house, and raised no less than six sons and eight daughters, being obliged to convert the attic storey into a giant nursery. After inheriting in 1849, the second of these offspring, Richard Grove Annesley (1815-1892), and his wife Sara Bolster continued the building work, adding elaborate plasterwork cornices and centrepieces to ceilings, and replacing nearly all joinery, including doors, bookcases and window cases. Some sections of early 18th-century panelling survive, along with the original staircase, but the interior of the house is mainly early Victorian in style. During these renovations, original furniture was dispersed amongst the many children, with pieces ending up in different families, including the Acton family in Wicklow. A new avenue at Annes Grove was built – disturbing a pre-historic cist grave at a site known as the ‘Killeen’ – and a massive gate lodge in the Gothick style, designed by Benjamin Woodward in 1854, announced the presence of garden and demesne to travellers.

In 1892, Richard Arthur Grove Annesley, then just twelve years old, inherited Annes Grove. When he and Hilda Phillips (née Macnaghten) married in 1907, they began another ambitious programme of restoration, creating a romantic garden extending over thirty acres (Figs 2&5). Companies of soldiers from Fermoy barracks were employed to replant and landscape. A flower garden was created within the old walled orchard. Waterways that had become choked with weeds were cleared and planted with lilies; pathways were embellished with exotic plants, while rustic bridges were built onto the ornamental island on the Awbeg (Fig 2). Summerhouses, sundials and bird feeders provided focal points, as did a shallow well, traditionally associated with the poet and military strategist Edmund Spenser, who lived nearby, at Kilcolman Castle, in the 17th century.

As one of the sponsors of Frank Kingdon-Ward’s horticultural expeditions to Tibet, Burma and Nepal in the 1920s, Annesley received many seeds, particularly of rhododendrons, which he planted mainly along the avenue to the gate lodge. The landscaping and planting style was up-to-the-minute, and followed the precepts of William Robinson, the landscape designer who began his career as garden boy at Curraghmore in County Waterford, and who, along with Gertrude Jekyll, championed a more naturalistic approach, eschewing the formal flowerbeds so beloved of Victorian gardens.

The plantings at Annes Grove closely echo those carried out at Garinish Island and Fota during those same years, and there was much exchanging of plants and seeds between the Annesleys, the Smith-Barrys at Fota and Annan Bryce on Garinish Island

Annes Grove attracted many scientifically-minded people; while employed at Regent’s Park botanic garden in London, William Robinson had enrolled in the ‘Working Men’s College’, where John Ruskin was a tutor. Charles Darwin sponsored Robinson’s membership of the Linnean Society, while his key supporter in Ireland was David Moore, curator at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin. Moore’s son, Sir Frederick Moore, continued the connection, providing advice to the Annesleys as work progressed. The plantings at Annes Grove closely echo those carried out at Garinish Island and Fota during those same years, and there was much exchanging of plants and seeds between the Annesleys, the Smith-Barrys at Fota and Annan Bryce on Garinish Island. Christabel Macnaghten, cousin of Richard Arthur’s wife, was married to Henry Duncan McLaren, Lord Aberconway, who visited Annes Grove. As well as being a sponsor of Kingdon-Ward, Aberconway was chairman of John Brown & Company, the shipbuilding firm that built the Lusitania. Robinsonian in style, his gardens at Bodnant in Wales were gifted to the UK National Trust in 1949. Richard was also a close friend of the 4th Marquis of Headfort, who, in 1900, in the face of great opposition, had married the Tipperary-born chorus girl Rosie Boote – connections and friendships that are intimated in the beguiling charm of these gardens. At Headfort, the aptly named Ghost tree Davidia involucrata flowers briefly once a year, its large white flowers fluttering like handkerchiefs, while the Spur Leaf tree, also brought from China, is the only example of its kind in Ireland. At Annes Grove, where there are also Davidia trees, a Himalayan Weeping Juniper – Juniperus recurva vercoxii ‘Castlewellan’ – was a gift from the Annesleys of County Down, while the ‘Judas’ tree, Cercis siliquastrum, according to Annesley family lore, only produced its intense pink flowers on Good Friday. A vanilla tree from Madagascar added an exotic aroma when the sun shone, while the flowering shrubs and trees included eucryphia, embothriums, myrtuses and magnolias. Two species of Horeria, or New Zealand lacebarks, Hoheria sexstylosa and Hoheria populnea, have cross-pollinated at Annes Grove, their white-flowering shrubs proliferating like weeds throughout the gardens. The paths by the river are lined with pink and white spiraeas, while palm trees and bamboos are planted with alders and ash, creating a wonderful mix of exotic and native species. The glory of this was recognised in 1942 when Annes Grove won an award at the Horticultural Society of Ireland’s autumn show. Although the bamboos died away in the 1980s, as did many throughout the world, this opened new vistas in the gardens.

The plantings at Annes Grove closely echo those carried out at Garinish Island and Fota during those same years, and there was much exchanging of plants and seeds

Richard Arthur lived on to 1966, dying at the age of eighty-seven. A traditional sundial inscription, translated into Gaelic and carved on a sundial at Annes Grove, sums up his philosophy: ‘ní áirmim ach na h-uaire grianmara’…. (I remember only the sunny hours). Not all his hours had been sunny. His opposition to the marriage of his older son meant that Annes Grove was inherited by his younger son, Patrick (b. 1911). In the course of time, Patrick’s son, Patrick Annesley (b. 1943), married Jane Holder, and in 1978 they opened the gardens to the public. In 2016, a decision made a decade earlier to gift the house and gardens to the Irish State was finally realised. In January of that year, the keys were handed over to Simon Harris, Minister for State, representing the Office of Public Works. Under the care of the OPW, both house and gardens are now undergoing an extensive programme of restoration, in readiness for re-opening to the public this summer. The front façade has been re-rendered and painted a faded peach colour. New black-painted railings flank the entrance steps, while the glazed front porch, a later addition to the Georgian façade, has been carefully restored. The Actinidia chinesis vine, with its heart-shaped leaves, planted by Patrick’s grandfather Richard, has been stripped from the façade of the house, along with evergreen Euonymus fortunei. Some trees that concealed an ugly 20th-century extension to the house have been removed; but the extension remains. The ornamental gate lodge, designed by Benjamin Woodward in 1854, is now managed by the Landmark Trust, while the family have retained a house on the estate for their own use. Recent storms and hurricane-force winds felled some of the garden’s finest trees, but the future for Annes Grove, in contrast to many other endangered heritage houses and gardens in Ireland, is assured.

The author acknowledges with thanks the assistance of Patrick Grove Annesley, and also of Cressida Grove Annesley, in the writing of this article.
Peter Murray has published widely on Irish art and architecture.