The Botanic Gardens (Glasnevin) and their Neighbourhood

[From the Illustrated Dublin Journal, No. 10, November, 1861]

HERE is no fairer village in the land than Glasnevin, of old and classic memory; none shall there be more frequented of the footsteps of our city toilers, thanks to the relaxation which has made them free of its beautiful Botanic Gardens, on that one day which must be perforce, from their necessities, at once their day of rest and their day of recreation. Sometimes it may be when they have journeyed to this spot of popular pleasure, they may go beyond the gate of those gardens, ere they enter within, for the sake of a walk along the quiet road which has not been disdained by the tread of Swift, of Addison, of Stella, which has echoed the caustic aphorisms of the gloomy Dean of Saint Patrick's, which has rung to the lighter sarcasm of Parnell, and gave back the gentle and graceful accents which dropped from the lips of the author of Cato.

We must confess to an old habit of loitering on the bridge which spans the Tolka, just at the foot of the village, and which separates Old Glasnevin, on its further side, from New Glasnevin on its higher bank, and we must plead guilty to a desire that others should do the same. Since the first time we have lingered there we have wandered to the origin of the brawling stream, which frets and flows beneath those arches, and saw it as it rose clearly, bubbling from its springs amid the green cattle pastures of rich Meath. So, often as we look across the parapet wall down upon the pellucid waters, our thoughts retrace its devious course back to many a far meadow, where the lambs are bleating at eventide, and herds of cattle low softly along its banks. Thus as we hear the murmur of the river, fancy rises in the ascendant, and imagination sways its way even into Dreamland and realms of Faery. Said not the German poet well when he exclaimed under the influence of some such spell —

But what do I say of a murmur,
Which, can no murmur be —
'Tis the water-nymphs are singing
Their roundelay to me."

We are beguiled by the invisible syrens far from Glasnevin in such mood, but retrace our rovings, once more to remember its peculiar sublunary associations.

The "Annals of the Four Masters" have record of Glasnevin, in detailing the death of its abbot Berchan, in the year 544. Berchan was a poet, and wrote sacred songs. He also penned a record of Saint Bridget. We have puzzled our brains many a day, to think where his Abbey stood, of which there is not now, nor for many a hundred years has there been, one stone standing upon another. Where does the dust of Berchan lie, we marvel? In what spot amid all those undulations of mead and cornfield, of wood and wold, is the abbot laid with his monks? Somewhere by the river-side no doubt, where the plash and drip of the water make most sweet lullaby for the sleepers, among the dead and gone.

In 1178, we find in the same annals that St. Laurence O'Toole, Archbishop of Dublin, made a grant of a third part of Cloghnei, a third part of Killalen, Lesluan, Glasneodan and Magdurnia, to the Church of the Holy Trinity, to enjoy and possess for ever. By a bull of Pope Alexander this grant is confirmed in the year 1179, and in the bull we find this old place particularized as ''Glasneodhen of the mill." Woe worth the day! the clatter of the mill is long silent, though the stream that turned its wheel goes by dancing as gaily in the sun, or surging as roughly to the wind as in the days when Pope Alexander memoried Glasnevin by its mill. Gone is the miller—gone his household—gone the mill, and the river is witness of the change; whilst the church of the Holy Trinity still possesses the land whereon the mill ground the corn of the Irish denizens of the neighbourhood, in those quaint old times.

From the bridge where we gossip thus, the distance to the little church is not far, and here it was that Dr. Delany, the friend of Swift—his host and companion—officiated in days when Irish land revered no name more sincerely than that of the erratic Dean. The little grave-yard of the church contains the bones of Delany, and a wall divides his grave from his former residence—Delville. Delville has been commemorated by Swift in verse, and it yet contains memorials of him and his. A little temple stands amid its walks inscribed with the motto "Fastigia despicit urbis." Opposite the entrance within it is a medallion of Stella, injured and worn by time. The living Stella herself has trod amid those garden paths, bearing in her heart of hearts that grim secret of her peculiar connexion with Swift, which wore her life out at last. What must it have been? Did her thoughts run like those of that fair damsel in the lowland ballad—

"Proud Maisie is in the wood,
Walking so early;
Sweet Robin sings on the bush,
Singing so rarely.

Tell me, thou bonny bird,
When shall I marry me?
When six braw gentlemen
Kirkward shall carry ye.

Who makes the bridal bed,
Birdie, say truly?
The gray-headed sexton
That delves the grave duly.

The glow-worm over grave and stone
Shall light thee steady;
The owl from the steeple sing—
Welcome, proud lady!"

Well! the Dean of St. Patrick's and the fair Stella have been united long ago,— the grave has joined them, and their dust has commingled in its union. Peace to their memory; the one was a great soul somewhat warped by circumstance from its greatest purpose; the other was a true woman—very fair—loving much and sorrowing greatly. For the sake of the patriot we reverence her he loved— but for the sake of her patient tenderness in all the bitterness of her mysterious fate, we must have a feeling deeper and holier for that womanly nature, so fond, and so incomprehensible in its fondness.

Leaving the bridge and its associations, let us return to the Botanic Gardens. Pleasantly falls the sunlight of the Sabbath evening on tree and flower, and more pleasantly still, on the gathered groups along the walks. Here on this rustic seat let us tell the story of the institution of this "pleasaunce," as old Chaucer would call it.

In the year 1790, the members of the Royal Dublin Society first conceived the idea of a Botanic Garden, and having made application to the Irish Parliament, received from it an annual grant up to the year 1794, of £1,700, for the purpose of providing and maintaining a Botanic Garden. A committee, composed of members of the Society, having been appointed, pursued this object until 1795. In March of that year, the Lord Bishop of Kilmore, on behalf of that committee, reported that after examining several sites they had found none so eligible as ground at Glasnevin, held by Major Tickell from the Dean and Chapter of Christ's Church Cathedral. The demesne had belonged to Tickell the poet, and the house on the ground was that in which Addison resided when he came over to this country as private secretary to the Marquis Wharton in 1714. Tickell was assistant secretary, and afterwards, on Addison's death, became the literary executor of that eminent man. The professor's house was his residence, and in one of its apartments he composed his poetical piece of Colin and Lucy. Further up through the garden—if we pursue the walk by the river to its termination— we pass into that memoried as the favourite of Addison. Here he has passed many a quiet and thoughtful hour pacing its boundary "with solemn step and slow," indulging in those musings which have left the most graceful impress upon English literature. If ghosts revisit this orb, as men have said, in "the pale glimpses of the moon," what spot could be more grateful to the wandering shade than this! Shadowy trees over-arch it solemnly—voice of falling waters murmurs near with mysterious cadence—and the winds drift in fitful gusts through the whispering leaves above.

In consequence of the report of the Committee of the Royal Dublin Society, this ground was obtained as desired. In the years 1798 and 1799, Parliament appropriated a further sum of £1,300, and in the year 1800, it assigned £1,500 for the garden, and for its purpose of giving agricultural instruction. With this intention it appointed a professor of botany, and Dr. Wade was the first who held the appointment. The prospectus was issued about the same time, and it details the divisions or classification of the departments of the Garden. Those were, as we find them in this plan, the Linnaean Garden, the Scientific Garden, the Botanic Garden, the Cattle Garden, the Hay Garden, the Irish Garden, and the Dyer's Garden. So far we find that the establishment had become an accomplished fact. In its progress to this point, it owed most of its success to the efforts of a man whom Ireland yet remembers—Mr. Speaker Foster. He it was who sat in the Speaker's chair of the House of Parliament on the evening when the Union was carried. In the creation of this establishment, for public benefit, we have yet a standing memorial of his desire to advance the elevation and progress of his countrymen.

In 1802 we have the first published catalogue of the Botanic Gardens. It contains a plan of the hot-houses and conservatories then erected. They were five in number, and were divided into a centre and wing-houses, and they stood on the site now occupied by the walk which leads from the entrance gate to the Octagon house. They were built facing the west, and remained until the year 1817, when having been reported faulty, they were removed. In the year 1804 the committee reported that a sum of £9,746 had been expended on the arrangement of the gardens during the four preceding years. The first necessary arrangements may now be considered as being made complete, and we find that the business of the gardens was carried on without much extra cost until the year 1815, when Mr. Thomas Pleasants, a member of the Dublin Society, built the two gate lodges at his own private cost. A report was made soon after to the Society, that the construction of the principal range of hot houses was very imperfect for their object, and their removal was recommended. This was effected during the two years 1817 and 1818, and in the year 1819. The Octagon house was built in 1819 to accommodate a splendid specimen of the Norfolk Island Pine, which plant unfortunately was lost in the process of its removal. In the year 1826, Doctor Wade, the veteran professor of botany, and one of the zealous founders of the institution, died, and Dr. Litton was appointed in his stead. The principal departments of the garden remained still under the same arrangement as at the time of the prospectus issued in 1800; but in 1834, owing to the advanced age of Mr. Underwood, the curator from the commencement of the establishment, Mr. Niven was appointed to that duty, and on his assuming office, the old plan of the garden was broken up.

In consequence of the new arrangement, the splendid range of curvilinear wrought-iron conservatories were built, at a cost of upwards of £5,000. Four thousand pounds were contributed by the Government, in two sums granted for the purpose. The plan of the first house was drafted by Mr. Ferguson, the head master of architectural drawing in the Government School of Art. All the other houses were designed by Frederick Darley, Esq. The workmanship of all the houses planned by Mr. Darley, was carried out by the eminent iron-founder, Mr. Turner, of the Hammersmith Works, except the first, which was constructed by Cloney.

In 1846, Professor Litton died, and his chair has since been occupied by Dr. Harvey, who delivered two courses of lectures annually, one at the House of the Royal Dublin Society, Kildare-Street, and the other at the Botanic Gardens. This arrangement continued until 1854, when a change was made by the Government respecting the professorship and his lectures of office. At present they are delivered by Professor Harvey, partly at the Royal Dublin Society's house, partly at the Botanic Gardens, and partly at the Museum of Industry, Stephen's Green.

The funds for the support of the Botanic Gardens were mainly supplied out of the sum annually voted for the Royal Dublin Society, until the year 1854. Since that time it has been included in the vote for educational purposes in connection with the Board of Trade. When the vote for the Royal Dublin Society was reduced from £10,000 to £5,300, this institution suffered from the retrenchment in common with the other establishments under that Society. However since 1854 it has been more prosperous. The gardens cover an extent of ground, in the gross, amounting to thirty-one statute acres. The exquisite taste and fortunate arrangement in which it is laid cut, need no encomium from us. The soil is favourable for the growth of most plants, except, perhaps, to some species from the American continent, being mainly extended on that geological strata, known as calpe limestone. The abundance and variety of the vegetable productions, fostered within its limits, will be soon a matter of common notoriety, as the gardens become more and more familiarized to our people. We are of those who augur the best results from the facilities which they afford to our working-classes, in the new arrangement which throws the gates open to them on Sundays. We not only believe that the toilers in our city will derive health and pleasure from the concession to their necessities, but we are certain educational improvement must follow. The stimulus which is afforded to the working man by the opportunity to study the science of botany in its very seat, will not, we are assured, be lost by him. In other countries, from the working-classes have issued some of the greatest names in the repertory of knowledge, simply because of the opportunities afforded them for obtaining it. France has her Cuvier, second to none in comparative anatomy; America could boast of her Burrit, distinguished in philology; Scotland tells, in her rugged genius, of the geological research of Hugh Miller, the mason of Cromarty; and England has a thousand memorials of the efforts in mechanical science of all those hard-handed, large-brained sons of labour, who have issued from her factories, from the days of George Wedgewood down to those of the last and greatest—George Stephenson. Perhaps in days to come, our own land may have to speak of some name with pride, from the same ranks as those distinguished men, which may be symbolical of the enlargement of our ideas in the circle of that science which preaches of the wisdom of God, in the teachings it draws from the flowers in our path or the grasses at our feet, more wondrous, in their exquisite organism, than all the art of man hath created, or all his brain hath conceived in its most fertile impulse of production.