garinish island – once regarded as Heaven

Garinish IslandBernard Harrington remembers in ‘A History of Glengarriff’*:

I have been led to believe that Glengarriff, Killarney and Bundoran are the three oldest tourist resorts in Ireland. From the day when business people, retired people and honeymooners used to come and stay for a week, there have been some enormous changes in patterns of holidaying. …

When I was a boy, the traditional family run Hotel was the heart and soul of the Tourist Industry. Some of our hotels were known and respected for their food and hospitality all over the British Isles, the Continent and the ‘States. They were at their peak in the late ’40s and early ’50s – remember “Rationing was still enforced in England but you got plenty of food in Glengarriff” was the saying. …

The Eccles 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 IslandNero 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 fourty 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.
*In the Bantry Anthology “It Might Have Been But Yesterday” by GP Denis Cotter

the soil on garnish island

garnish island glengarriffIt is thought that the Bryces brought over tons of topsoil from the mainland, but this is only speculation, as there was a ‘quarry for soil’ marked on Harold Peto’s map of Garinish Island. American writer Harold Speakman (1888-1928) describes his encounter with Violet Bryce in „Here’s Ireland“ (1925):

The lady greeted me cordially. ‚I hope,’ she said, as we went up a path made rich by the scent of early roses, ‚I hope that you haven’t heard the ridiculous story about our bringing boatloads of earth here from the mainland!’ ‚Millions of boatloads…’ I quoted. ‚Now where could you have heard that!’ she demanded with some warmth. ‚I never knew anything so stupid!’ ‚It was an old woman coming over the hill,’ I said. ‚But it doesn’t seem so bad to me. If a place were barren and one wanted to live here, why shouldn’t soil be brought from anywhere?’ She looked at me imperiously and a little scournfully. (Evidently this was a subject of long standing and some delicacy.) ‚In the first place, there isn’t land on the mainland to take away; in the second, the thing is too silly. I can’t imagine any one doing a thing like that – except perhaps an American millionaire!’ ‚Whew! This isn’t beginning very well,’ I thought. But in another moment she had forgotten her annoyance and was showing me a path so completely carpeted with fallen pink blossoms that in places it was entirely hidden from sight.

However it took years to enrich the existing thin peaty soils which was mainly Murdo Mackenzie’s achievement as he was known to collect leaves and other natural debris from the mainland to enrich his compost heap. In the Irish Times from 13 February 1931 the issue was described as follows:

The greatest compliment paid to Mrs. Bryce is the legend that all the soil for the garden had to be imported: some say from the mainland, and some say from England. This of course is quite incorrect, the fertility of the island being due to its own soil and climate, together with a great deal of well applied industry. In fact there is no reason why the mainland should not yield the same results if properly cultivated, and the possibility of fruit-farming in the district is one that could well be investigated.

© of Harold Peto’s map: OPW Office of Public Works, Dublin

Violet L’Estrange Bryce

Garinish Island GlengarriffMost people think of Violet Bryce as a ‘British society lady’. But she was extremely proud of her Irish roots and was very fond of the Irish language. In a letter to the editor she wrote in 1930: “… I beg to say I was brought up on Joyce’s ‘Names of Irish Places’, my father having been a keen Irish scholar, and know ‘Goul’, ‘Gowel’, ‘Gabhal’ means a fork, but information was taken from from a pre-Joyce book which I found … in an old book …which contained a description of Glengarriff and its surroundings, and mentioned Sleive Ghoile (spelt thus) as meaning ‘the hill of the mist’ or ‘the hill of the little men or people’. This description pleased me so much that I have always thought of it as ‘the hill of the mist,’ and I feel that so long as we do not call it ‘Sugar Loaf’ we can put our own interpretation to the name.”

bryce’s residence in london

Garinish Island GlengarriffViolet and Annan Bryce owned a magnificent house in London W1 which was decorated over and over with pieces of art, antiques and exotic objects especially from the far East like Burma, where Annan had worked (around 1885). They invited the London society for balls and could provide for up to 600 guests.

violet bryce loved glengarriff

Garinish Island Glengarriff

The Rev. T. Harrington at the Agric. Show in Glengarriff on Aug 15th 1910:

“I need not say I refer to Mrs. Bryce, and I say that because it was on her fertile brain and sympathetic heart that industrial movement had its origin. It is so owing to her influence … that Glengariff has been blessed with the presence for the past six months of such a competent official as Mr. Cunneen – the result of whose instructions is that there are at present in the parish 60 holdings in which various kinds of vegetables are cultivated, in some cases, on plots on which nothing ever grew before, but weeds and rushes …”

george russell (AE) and garinish island

garnish island glengarriffAmerican writer Harold Speakman (1888-1928) describes his encounter with Violet Bryce in „Here’s Ireland“ (1925):

’That is Shaw’s place where you are sitting,’ said my hostess. She went on to tell of the things she had heard him say there, and of the brilliant, fiery play of ideas, rising like a winged flame above certain gatherings in which that astonishing commentator on men and gods (and sometimes women) had struck the first spark; of an actual élan, an almost physical impact of opposing theories and their discharge into verbal flashes of lightning, making for some the chaos less chaotic, but for others, the darkness dark indeed. He loved the island and knew its moods. Then too, this was a place where an interviewer would not be popping up from beneath every rose bush, or swinging coyly down from every ginkgo tree … ‚This is the bachelor quarters,’ said the lady, ‚and this is where A.E. stays when he is here.’ I looked about the wide room with its fluted marble columns, its chaste, classical decorations, and its stone floors covered by the skins of tiger and bear and deer. Beyond the other was the beauty of the sea. And I thought to myself, ‚If George Russel is the man of his poems, there are times when this spot would suit him very well.’ … ‚He tells me he likes it here,’ went on the lady, ‚he has painted every nook and corner of the island.’ ‚And that,’ I said, looking at certain indelible marks on the stone floor of the portico, ‚is where he cleans his palette.’

garnish island glengarriffThe bachelor quarters mentioned above is the Casita which was used as a guest house for the many illustrious visitors of Violet Bryce.

constance markievicz and violet bryce

Garinish Island GlengarriffEurope’s first women minister Countess Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth, 1868-1927) and Violet Bryce were not only good friends, the politician-to-be lived in the Bryce’s house in London while she went to study arts in a renowned college. The two women where even related to each other through a common ancestor: Colonel Henry Peisley L’Estrange (born 1776). The L’Estrange-girl Mary Sibell was married to Constance’s brother. Violet Bryce contributed to her biography by Sean O’Faoláin (published 1934).