What started out two years ago, as in most people's eyes, a unique opportunity to see the wonderfully-restored Claregalway castle, has turned into one of the must-attend festivals in the west and also into one of the leading horticultultural events in the country. And in ten days, the Galway Garden Festival is back for round three, and this time it is to spawn a series of events that will see the lights on at the castle for months to come. Galway has many festivals, and indeed, many festivals in July, all honed over the years into something special. But none of these made the instant impact that the Galway Garden Festival did when it was inaugurated in 2010, over two days of differing climatic conditions at the beautifully-restored Claregalway Castle.
The thousands who thronged to the castle over the past two years knew it was something special — for the first time in centuries, people moved in droves on its grounds and now it is to happen all over again with this year's festival to run over two days on Saturday July 14 and Sunday July 15.
This year, the theme of the event is 'Glorious Gardens' and among the star speakers this year is well-known TV gardener Diarmuid Gavin who is acknowledged as a most innovative and original garden designer. Another is Erwan Tymen, one of France's very well known landscape and garden designers.
Others include respected author, journalist, broadcaster and garden consultant and Dublin-resident Helen Dillon who is also a Distinguished Counsellor to the Board of the New York Botanical Garden; Dr Matthew Jebb, Director of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland and has Keeper of the Herbarium and Taxonomist of the Gardens since 1998; three-times Garden Writer of the Year winner Joy Larkcom; gardener food writer and teacher Tom Moggach and many others.
A variety of nurseries and garden suppliers from across Ireland will attend and offer a range of plants, trees, seeds, shrubs, herbs, tools, baskets, pots, garden furniture, art work and equipment.
Expert craftspeople including stone masons, thatchers and weavers will be present to demonstrate and advise on their crafts.
Several Irish businesses will showcase their recently launched, new gardening products. Birdwatch Ireland, The Irish Seedsavers, The Organic Centre, Rossinver, the Green Sod Land Trust, GIY Ireland and other impressive organisations will be here to advise and share a range of knowledge and experience.
An extensive range of gardening books, botanical art books etc will be available in the bookshop.
The selected work of five Irish-based botanical artist will be on exhibition throughout the event and this exhibition will continue at the castle for some weeks.
crafts and fun
Music is a key feature of the festival each year and The Summer Music Opera Ensemble, The West Coast Jazz Band, St Patrick's Brass Band, The Army Band of Western Command and The Baytones Acapello Group will all be playing during this festival.
Quality food from celebrated Irish chefs as well as drinks, ice cream and more are available each day. Children's entertainment will be provided each day.
It was a tremendous event which breathed new life into the village, but which also created a wealth of funding for an Irish-charity which treats blindness and debilitating eye conditions in many areas of the developing world.
For the event, castle owner, renowned eye surgeon Eamon O’Donoghue threw open the gates of the restored building and people came in their thousands, to look, to experience and to hear what was a high level of horticultural debate that won the event many friends right across these islands.
Entry to the event is just €5 and all of this will go towards CBM — an international Christian development organization, committed to improving the quality of life of people with visual disabilities in the poorest countries of the world.
The charity was chosen by Mr O’Donoghue who has funded and overseen the restoration of the castle for the past decade, bringing in some of Europe's top stonemasons and conservationists to ensure that the castle is returned to its original state. In the process, he had to overcome many obstacles in his mission to ensure that the castle was restored to the style in which it was constructed.
Were it not for his drive, the castle would be left to fall like the 27 other castles which are in various states of ruination in the hinterland of Claregalway and Turloughmore and Knockdoe.
When he acquired the castle in 2000, the building was in danger of collapse. The roof of the castle had been removed in 1653, following the famous Siege of Galway by Cromwellian forces. Mature trees sprang from the upper floors and the stone work was under threat. A major reconstruction programme was drawn up under conservation architect David Johnson, a former inspector of national monuments with The Office of Public Works.
Eamonn O’Donoghue never forgot the childhood picnic shared with his brothers and sisters and parents beside the bridge at Claregalway Castle. His father, Tom, a Toomevara man, a great hurler, and a civil engineer with Cork County Council, had a passion for Ireland’s romantic ruins. A photograph was taken of all seven O’Donoghues lined up grinning at the bridge. The family still have it at their Cork home. But Tom’s passion passed on to several of his children. Eamonn studied medicine in Cork, and archaeology under Michael J O’Kelly, the man who brilliantly interpreted the ancient tombs at Newgrange.
Shortly after his appointment as ophthalmic surgeon to the Western Health Board (HSE ), Eamonn set out to find the castle. He had no idea where it was, except that it was near the city. He drove out every approach road to Galway until one evening there it was ...a vast crumbling tower, ivy-clad, with ruined buildings within its courtyard, exactly as he remembered it as a child.
On that very first evening of re-discovery, Eamonn met Canon Callanan, the local parish priest and an entertaining classicist, who told him some of the history of the area. Taken in conjunction with the spectacular ruins of the nearby Franciscan abbey, the medieval bridges, the village itself, the ‘ghosts of other buildings and landmarks (really only visible from the air ), it soon became clear to Eamonn that this was a monument of major significance. Its battlements not only protected a main road into Galway, but looked down on the ancient Barony of Clare, which originally incorporated the vast and fertile plains of east Galway, known in pre-Norman times as Magh Seola, and witnessed its evolving story.
The castle was owned by John Buckley jr (formerly of Spiddal House ), then living in Indonesia, who agreed to sell. The next challenge was to get the various permissions required for a major transformation, and the team to make it happen. Two friends, David Newman Johnson, former keeper of national monuments, and archaeologist Leo Swan, gave moral and expert support. Galway County Council was, from the start, supportive in principle, but there were difficulties with the many conservation agencies along the way. “I wanted to do the job as correctly as possible, but there is a need to re-evaluate the evolution of conservation principles in Ireland today,” said Mr O Donoghue.
Delays were costly and drawn out. And now, more than a decade later, the restoration programme is almost complete on this important 15th century tower house; one of the largest and most significant tower houses in the west of Ireland. At the festival, visitors can get a close view of the sympathetic restoration programme carried out by master builder Micheal Herwood from Cloonacauneen and French stonemason Jean Baptise Maduit.
The Garden Festival is a truly wonderful event. Go along and see for yourself. For more information on the Galway Garden Festival, check out www.galwaygardenfestival.com