Like many others in this country, I can trace my ancestry—within a couple generations—to the auld sod. My Irish forebears, the Kenneys and the Brackens, settled down to farm in Western New York when they first came here in the mid-nineteenth century. Times changed, and so did their occupations, but gardening—sometimes even farming still—has always been important to my relatives on that side of the family tree. Here are a few thoughts about being Irish and being a gardener.
-Potatoes! I love them and still try to grow them, but not very successfully. Fortunately, Western New York is a magical place for potatoes and our professional farmers, including my CSA, produce wonderful varieties.
-Even though St. Patrick’s day is not the big deal in Ireland that it is here, March 17 marks a weather turning point here in Buffalo—as well as brings with it an epidemic of public intoxication and leaves behind it a wide swath of green debris. This is the day by which we expect our last big snowstorm. By now, it’s reasonable to look for spring bulbs to begin to appear.
-Wildflowers. Some of my favorites are native to the island, including yellow ranunculus (buttercups), the various galliums (bedstraws), many wild geraniums, and many wild orchids. As much as I would love to see the Helen Dillon and Altamont properties, I would be equally happy just to wander the countryside and take my chances.
-A culture of gardening, not yards. From my reading and discussions with Irish gardeners, it seems clear that, just as in the UK, gardens are more likely to be gardens here, not lawns with shrubs.
-The books of Molly Keane. Known earlier as M.J. Farrell, her novels have more to do with hunting and star-crossed romance than gardening, but gardening is always in the backdrop. In one book, Full House, “Aunt Louisa’s water garden” provides major comic relief:
There was always room for a new nymph, cherub, or bird-bath, and the establishment of these would reinstate both her interest and her confidence in her garden and herself. After all, grey stone and Nepita, water and pink water lilies—what could be more pretty and attractive? And it was marvelous how well palms did here in the mild winters. Yes, palms were here, too, in all their want of propriety to an Irish garden. Everything that should not be was here. … In these days when so many people have such successions of good ideas about gardens and put them into execution with such practical efficiency, it comes as a kind of inverted pleasure to see a really good gross unbelievable muddle like this.
I have no idea what Keane’s idea of good gardening was; maybe someday I’ll get over there to see the ones she admired.