Great Irish Gardens: Ardcarraig

A lesser-known horticultural masterpiece near Galway

By Todd Vogel

Ardcarraig Irish Garden near Galway
Ardcarraig Irish Garden near Galway

My wife and I have the pleasure of leading garden tours to Ireland each May through our tour company based in Oregon (we’re both Oregon Master Gardeners). We like to seek out quirky, unusual gardens to share with our small tour groups. A few years ago, we found a true one-of-kind garden named Ardcarraig, overlooking beautiful Lough Corrib near Galway.

Ardcarraig is a beautiful, imaginative, boggy garden built on what seems like an impossible site: 4+ acres of windswept, gorse-infested, rocky wasteland. Its creator, Lorna MacMahon, is a slight, dynamo of a woman, who’s spent thirty-odd years carving out a masterpiece in this hostile environment. When she and her husband Harry bought the property in 1971, it consisted of a newly- built house on about one acre of scrubby, stony wilderness, covered mainly with hazelwood bushes. Today, her garden has 17 distinct areas, each one highlighting a different type of plant or garden feature.

This is a world-class garden by any measure, appreciated by professional and amateur gardeners alike. Cut out of the hillside single-handedly by Lorna, Ardcarraig has a wide range of plants flourishing in this rainy, horticulturally inhospitable place. Countless rhododendrons, azaleas, hostas, ferns, primulas (over 40 varieties including the striking candelabra types), and beautiful Himalayan blue poppies adorn the hillside. More than you can shake a shillelagh at! The plants come from every continent, with many from Asia and Australia. Streams course down to eight different pools, each with their own individual charm.

In the Japanese Garden, the pool is surrounded by colorful maples (Acer spp.), punctuated by an antique snow-viewing lamp from Thailand carved from stone. According to Lorna, it nearly broke the backs of some hefty Irishmen who brought it in. But it was worth it, especially since I didn’t have to help! A recently constructed Japanese Moss Garden is also something special — right out of Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People! I could see all the Irish 40 shades of green in this visual treat, and more moss than you’ll ever find on an old Oregon barn roof!

Shakespearian Herbs

Other more recent additions include a Mediterranean herb garden built on an old tennis court. When was it ever dry enough to play on, I wonder? Interestingly, this section is devoted to herbs mentioned in the works of Shakespeare and the Bible. The Bible’s bee balm and dill, and Shakespeare’s rosemary and fennel are but a few of the herbs here. Each area is subdivided into herbs for medicinal and culinary uses. A central knot bed is filled with aromatic plants such as lavender, marjoram and oregano.

Lorna’s husband has, unfortunately, passed on. Her latest creation is Harry’s Garden, named in his memory. Hewn from a formerly gorse-choked plot, it’s a memorial fashioned with plants from friends and family, on some additional land purchased from a neighboring farmer.

Ardcarraig is open year-round for visitation, by appointment only. It’s advisable to call a good month in advance to set up your tour. Once a year, in mid-May, Lorna holds “Garden Open Day,” when the garden is open to the general public for a modest admission (she has held this event each year since 1984). She gives tours and offers already-potted, rare plants for sale. All of the proceeds go to one of her favorite charities, The Galway Mental Health Association, where she also volunteers, providing horticultural therapy to patients.

Directions: Ardcarraig is located at Oranswell, Bushypark, County Galway (about 5 km north of Galway City off the Oughterard-Clifden Road). Call 011 353 91 524336 (and tell her that Todd and Pattie sent you). A small donation is usually requested.

Todd Vogel (along with his wife, Pattie Mullane-Vogel) owns Quantum Tours in Salem, Oregon. The couple leads a tour of “Ireland’s Extraordinary Gardens” each May, as well as several other Irish tours (and one of New Zealand as well For more info, visit their website at or call 1 800 995-2666.

Also: In the east, try Wren’s Wood: A Wicklow Garden in Stone Located within County Wicklow, known as “The Garden of Ireland,” is a small private garden known as Wren’s Wood. The plantings are wonderful, but the most striking features are the abundant dry stone walls, cairns, walkways and steps fashioned from the native Cambrian rock. Entirely hand-made, they are a testament to the passion of their creator, Alexander Mattei. And if you would have visited in the past on Friday afternoons you might have been able to savor some of Alexander’s homemade bread as well. Wren’s Wood is located in Kiltimon, Ashford, County Wicklow. You’ll need to contact them at 011 353 1 2810274 for a visit.