History of the Gardens

Garnish Island

Garnish Island


Ilnacullin, the ‘island of holly’ or Garnish Island was a barren rock covered with rough furze and heather, which was dominated by the British Army’s Martello tower when it was purchased by John Annan Bryce in from the War Office 1910. Bryce was a Belfast businessman and Scottish MP who drew up plans for a magnificent garden and house on the Island.

To help him execute his dream, Bryce commissioned Harold Peto to design a garden on the island. From 1911 to 1914 over one hundred men were engaged in moving soil to the island by boat, blasting rocks, planting trees, laying paths, as well as building a walled garden, a tall clock tower and a wonderful Italianate garden complete with casita, pool and pavilion.

Much of the early planting was damaged by inclement weather this problem was solved only when Murdo Mackenzie the outstanding Scottish gardener was put in charge of the garden in 1928. Mackenzie realized that to protect the exotic plants he would need to create a sheltered microclimate and he planted shelter belts of Scots and Monterey pine to take the brunt of the Atlantic winds and then proceeded to build up the splendid collection of rare and tender plants for which the island is now famous.

The Bryce family donated the Island to the state in 1953 and Mackenzie remained in charge and retired in 1971. His remarkable work at Ilnacullin stands as one of the great success stories of Irish horticulture.