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Ardnamona Wood and its Gardeners

Ardnamona Wood and its Gardeners

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Published by Tengallon
The story of an ancient Oak woodland on the shore of Lough Eske in Donegal, described as “romantic, picturesque with an appealing beauty”
The story of an ancient Oak woodland on the shore of Lough Eske in Donegal, described as “romantic, picturesque with an appealing beauty”

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Published by: Tengallon on May 18, 2013
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ARDNAMONA WOOD and its GARDENERS
 
beside LOUGH ESKE DONEGAL
 
Louise Price
On the western shore of Lough Eske in the shadow of Banagher Hill lies a remnant of an ancient Oak woodland that is now rare in our island. Here in a demesne which once had a frontage on the Lough of over two miles, the wood has predominantly been left in its natural state. The writer Violet French was captivated  by it: "I first saw Ardnamona from the lake on a fine August evening, romantic and picturesque with an appealing beauty which clings around the heart as if it belonged to a dream world". The beauty, mystery and the whole atmosphere of this place can still be felt today. But this woodland and its ancient structure is important in other respects: it is of scientific interest for its size, natural heritage, and flora. The wood displays habitats of dry areas dominated by Oak, and wet woodland with Alder. Ash, Rowan and Downy Birch also occur in the high canopy with Holly, Hazel, and Willow in the understorey. (
Ardnamorna
 is listed on Annex I of the EU Habitats Directive).
 
 
2
It is interesting that several notable Irish Gardens have found shelter in such ancient woodland: Ardnamona, which in its time has boasted fine gardens, is no exception. The story of what several of the owner/gardeners of Ardnamona have contributed to both the woodland and the gardens is told below.
George and Charlotte Wray c.1831-1878
(the first ‘Gardeners’)
 
It was George Cecil Gore Wray JP (born in 1811) from a wealthy family with property in County Donegal and Londonderry, who occupied Ardnamona House from the early 1830s after it had been built as a Dower House to nearby Lough Eske Castle. The castle was built and owned by George Wray
’s cousin, Thomas
Brooke.
George’s energies were
mainly devoted to farming the land and he is remembered for ploughing
Ardnamona’s
 lower fields with bullocks
 – 
 
land near the lake was too soft for horses’ hoofs.
George also found time to fish the lake for salmon and white trout, occasionally catching the rare char in the autumn months. In winter he and Thomas Brooke shot woodcock and pheasant on the mountain and wild duck in Wood Bay. George was married in Armagh Cathedral in 1844 to Charlotte Waller, daughter of a colonel in the artillery, and it was Charlotte who was mainly responsible for the planting of trees in the Pinetum. This is a long ride of conifers leading down from the south side of the house to the lake shore 300 yards away where a jetty gave access to boating and fishing. The Pinetum remains a major feature as it included notable specimens of Nikko Fir (
abies homolepis
), Oriental Spruce (
 picea orientalis
), the large Wellingtonia (s
), the huge Coastal Redwood (s
equoia sempervirens
), Cedar of Lebanon (
cedrus libani
),
 
Monkey Puzzle (
araucaria araucana
) and Hiba (Cypress family)
 – 
 Pinetum photo is on page 4.
 National Inventory of Architechtural Heritage
Ardnamona House in its setting on the western shore of Lough Eske and in the northern half of its woodland demesne. George Wray bought the property in the early 1830s. The large clump of trees on the lake shore to the left of the house is the end of the Pinetum which hides the rest of the ride of conifers behind it leading away towards the house. The steep slope of the ground rising up to the Banagher Hill skyline is disguised in this aerial photo - see page 6.
 
3
Heike Thiele
Ardnamona trees viewed from the Lough, a century after first plantings by the Wrays
Donegal, with its difficult access to isolated farms, suffered severely in the Great Famine, which also caused the Wray family at large substantial losses. It was on Boxing Day 1849 towards the end of the famine that two kegs of explosive were set off at night just outside Ardnamona house where George, his wife, Charlotte, their son, Georgie Atkinson (aged 4), daughter,
Margaret Lucy (aged 1), their mother’s brother, Lieut
Charles Waller, and four servants were sleeping. It was a sort of late Christmas present from some disaffected tenants at Tawnawilly where George was acting as land agent. His style as agent with an
uncompromising attitude to eviction is described as “ruthless”
, and this was taken to be what sparked the attack. No one was hurt but there was much damage and wide concern among other agents. Thereafter the Wrays spent the winters in Milford and only the summers at Ardnamona, a reflection of the wide division in society that then existed. It was
Charlotte Wray’s
 description of this near disaster to her family that alerted people to her talents as a writer and also as a landscape artist. William Allingham, the Donegal poet, is said to have been inspired by the beauty of the scenery around Ardnamona with Edergole and the Bluestacks beyond, to which he refers in
the opening lines of his famous poem “The Fairies”, beloved by Queen Victoria’s family, no less.
 
Charlotte’s best known painting
, at the heart of this beauty, is of the lovely stretch of lakeside which looks north along the Ardnamona shore and is
called “The Fairy Glen”
.
Charlotte Margaret Wray née Waller, on her marriage to George Wray 1844

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