From Ballybeg to Point Ellice: The Trees of Peter O’Reilly

Tim Fitzthum, Volunteer, Point Ellice House Museum & Gardens

The O’Reilly archives include many artifacts which provide a clear indication of the importance that Peter O’Reilly placed on his garden as well as his home. Peter’s diary, family letters, house accounts, seed catalogues, horticultural books, and photographs provide many examples of the time, money, and effort spent over the years to develop, enlarge, and maintain the grounds at Point Ellice House.

Once the O’Reilly family moved to Point Ellice House in 1867, Peter took an active role in making his garden – he did not rely on others to determine the layout and plantings. The early years saw the development of foundation and shrub beds, a kitchen garden, a wide lawn for recreation and scenic enjoyment, pathways, and the placement of orchard and forest trees.

Recent research shows that Peter did not approach the task of garden making without any prior experience, study, or interest. To understand the origin of Peter’s inspiration one may consider his life in Ireland before arriving in Victoria in 1859. Unfortunately, there is no diary available to tell us more, but we can learn much by focusing on the Ballybeg estate in Ireland where his family lived and operated their tree nursery.

From the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, Ballybeg in County Meath flourished as one of the most well-known and largest tree nurseries in all of Ireland. The nursery focused on forest and fruit trees as well as shrubs. In the 1780s, Ballybeg covered 39 acres and later expanded to 100 acres and employed 80 people by the mid-1830s. The nursery was the joint effort of Terence O’Reilly (likely Peter’s uncle) and Patrick O’Reilly, Peter’s father.

Ballybeg House, County Meath, Ireland

In 1827, John Claudius Loudon, famed botanist, garden designer, and author, regarded Ballybeg comparable to four other significant nurseries in Scotland and England. Although no plant catalogue for Ballybeg has been found, one can get a good sense of the nursery’s likely offerings by looking at the catalogue of the Bristol Nursery in England, one of the four similar nurseries cited by Loudon. The 1826 catalogue featured a wide range of forest trees including oak, beech, birch, chestnuts, sycamores, elms, hawthorns, maple, ash, larch, pine, and fir. There were also fruit trees, shrub roses, lilacs, azaleas, rhododendrons, holly, viburnums, yews, hedging plants, and plants suitable for greenhouses or hothouses listed. When describing Ballybeg, Loudon also reported that one of the O’Reillys focused on ornamentals and regularly traveled to England to obtain new and rare hardy plants. In regard to holly, a well-known native shrub in Ireland, Loudon noted the development of a variegated, Ballybeg-named variety.

The layout of the Ballybeg property can be seen in an Ordnance Survey map from 1837. Ballybeg House and its outbuildings sit at the end of a lane passing through a woodland crisscrossed by pathways or access roads. The woodland, labeled “Nursery”, was possibly an area for tree propagation. South of the house there were smaller plots showing rows and access roads which suggest an area for shrubs and other smaller scale plants. Near the property entrance archaeological investigations from 2004 revealed the remnants of heating chambers possibly associated with a hothouse or greenhouse which could have been used to support overwintering and propagation.

Ballybeg House and Nursery, 1837. Ordnance Survey of Ireland, First Edition 6-inch (1829-1841)

It was in this setting of an active and successful tree nursery that Peter O’Reilly grew up after his birth in 1827. Given the exposure to the operations of the nursery one can imagine young Peter helping out with his father’s business and learning the basics of horticulture and trees, building a knowledge base that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Peter probably saw the Ballybeg nursery in its heyday as by 1876 there was little evidence that a nursery once existed there. By that year Peter had been long gone from Ireland and the grounds of his Point Ellice home were well underway with horse chestnut, elm, walnut, black locust, hawthorn, maple, mountain ash, sequoia, and fruit trees planted. Most of these were readily available from Irish or English nurseries during his youth. And, as in Ireland, hollies were frequently found in his Victoria landscape.

Was Peter thinking of Ballybeg when he created his Point Ellice gardens?

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