California redwoods in Ireland? Yes, you can find a fine grove at Avondale Forest Park in County Wicklow about an hour’s drive from Dublin. Avondale, now a national historic site and home of the Irish Forest Service, was the family estate of Charles Stewart Parnell, whose brilliant career as national leader in Ireland’s fight for Home Rule was wrecked by the revelation of his liaison with the married Katherine O’Shea.
To visit Avondale and experience its green lushness is to understand the wellspring of Parnell’s attachment to the land (he was president of the Land League – a movement to make tenants owners of the lands they farmed) and by extension to the nation. Established in 1904 as the center of reforestation in Ireland, it contains one of Europe’s finest collections of trees; elm, beech, oak, spruce, maple, fir, larch, ash and other species were brought from all over the world and thrive here in this beautiful valley.
The great California redwoods are not the only American association at Avondale, for Parnell’s mother, the beautiful Delia Stewart, was the daughter of Commodore Charles Stewart, “Old Ironsides” of War of 1812 fame. She came from Boston and Washington to the then 4,000-acre Wicklow estate in 1835 as a bride of 18. She bore nine of her eleven children there, but found the isolation oppressive, and left them and the estate as often as possible.
Avondale House, the estate’s mansion, was built around 1777 by Samuel Hayes, a Parnell cousin, whose enthusiasm was the cultivation of trees. As mansions go, the house is simple – the land was of more interest to Hayes than the house. However, its very plainness is pleasing to modern eyes.
Of neo-Georgian design, the mansion’s white facade is decorated with four medallions enclosing curls of light blue plaster ribbons, and its light and airy interior is a combination of pastel walls, white plaster floral ceiling decorations, and dark wood floors and doors. By far the most attractive rooms are the peach-colored entrance overlooked by a polished wooden minstrel gallery, and the Blue Room – a lovely dining room furnished with period pieces and containing large windows that look out over the Vale of Avoca, upland meadows and rounded hills. The nursery is curiously, but conveniently, just off the hall on the main floor.
The overall effect of Avondale is that it is a house you could live in. But it is the grounds that charm most visitors. The house sits on 528 acres on the west bank of the River Avonmore, is home to a wide range of Irish wildlife such as otters, badgers, sloats and hares, and offers forest paths, river walks and picnic grounds.
The “Exotic” Tree Trail is a two-mile walk that winds down to the river through eucalyptus trees, Western Chinese pines, Chilean pine or Monkey Puzzle trees, Norway spruce, and a collection of American trees including the giant sequoias, which though very large are still considered juveniles.
The Pine Trail is a half-mile in length and loops back to the house. This is billed as the easiest trail, having no “steep pitches.” There is also a four-mile fiver walk for ambitious visitors.
The estate itself is set within a particularly scenic and historically rich part of Wicklow. The Vale of Avoca and the “Meeting of the Waters” – the confluence of the Avonbeg and the Avonmore rivers – are just a few miles away.
“There is not in this wide world a valley so sweet/As that in whose bosom the bright waters meet,” Thomas Moore wrote after visiting Parnell’s grandfather at Avondale. The village of Avoca straddles the river of the same name and is internationally famous for its weaving enterprise. Public demonstrations of hand-weaving are offered daily. A mile north towards the picturesque village of Rathdrum is a sign-posted turnoff for Motte Stone, a large granite boulder on top of a hill covered in heather. Legend has it that Finn MacCool used the boulder as his hurling stone. Another legend tells that the large iron staples embedded in the stone were put there by a local landowner as rungs so that his bride could climb to the top and fully appreciate the size of his estate. On a clear day, the top of the hill commands a view as far as the mountains of Wales. ♦