Andy Donnell’s 65 years of crafting Dunmore House’s ‘Secret Garden’

A HAPPY MAN... Andy Donnell has been working in the gardens of Dunmore House for 65 years.
A HAPPY MAN... Andy Donnell has been working in the gardens of Dunmore House for 65 years.

Almost a century dedicated by a local family to sculpting one of Ireland’s finest walled gardens has created the perfect “secret getaway” in a small village on the Derry-Donegal border.

For the last 65 years, Andy Donnell has been cultivating, pruning and weeding the gardens and grounds at Dunmore House in Carrigans.

THE MAIN MAN... Andy Donnell, head gardener at Dunmore House.

THE MAIN MAN... Andy Donnell, head gardener at Dunmore House.

He donned the ceremonial head gardener’s hat when it was passed on to him by his father who, himself, had taken charge from Andy’s uncle in 1940.

Nestled along the banks of the River Foyle, the gardens have a rich history dating to pre-Famine times.

Traditionally, they produced fruits and vegetables to feed the household and estate workers at Dunmore. In more recent years, the grounds have blossomed into what Andy describes as a “Secret Garden-style” location which the current owners (the McFarland family) have made the centrepiece of Dunmore’s unique offering as a rustic manor house wedding venue.

The walled garden to the front of the 18th century Dunmore House (the current house dates from 1742 while the original was built in the 17th century) spans two acres and more than three centuries.

Carrigans native Andy, who lives at Braehead Road in Derry, is custodian of the garden and its rich history - having started working in the grounds as a 15 year-old.

He knows every inch of the grounds and walls: “The garden walls were built in 1847 as part of a Famine relief scheme. We don’t know much about the earlier period but William McClintock kept a detailed diary of what happened between 1845 and 1846. He wrote everything down. The gardener was getting 1 and 6d a day, his helper was getting 6 pence a day - and three women brought in during the summer to do the weeding got thruppence a day,” he reveals.

“There are also entries about sending a horse and cart to Derry for lentils and pulses for soup for the poor. There probably was a soup pot here.”

Andy officially came to work in the gardens in 1955. His father, Sam, had been working at Dunmore since 1940 alongside an uncle who was head gardener for a number of years prior to that.

“When the colonel - Robert Lyle McClintock - fell ill, his sister-in-law, Mrs Lansdale, came to look after him. She returned to her own home after his death in 1943 and took my uncle to work with her,” says Andy.

Dunmore was then sold to Thomas Keys, of Keys timber yard. Andy and his father continued to work for Thomas Keys. Andy was balancing helping out in the garden while working full time at Coolkeeragh Power Station when, in 1968, his father died suddenly. Before he knew it, he found himself in charge of the gardens at Dunmore.

There’s no rushing things at Dunmore Gardens. The passage of time and the seasons are an inevitable part of life and Andy’s work: “It’s a thing you can’t rush - nature. You have to do it right, dig out the weeds properly and take them out by hand. It’s been a long time growing, you just can’t change it overnight,” he says.

These days, Andy is on hand to reveal anecdotes from the rich history of the place to wedding parties, corporate event attendees and those enjoying countryside breaks in the B&B at Dunmore House.

“The weddings create a great buzz around the place and, although it’s a new venture for the McFarland family, garden parties, and other events - like the hunts and gymkhanas hosted here at Dunmore - have always been fantastic affairs here.”

Despite recently turning 79 years of age, and recovering from a hip replacement operation, Andy has no intention of hanging up his garden hoe anytime soon.

“Sure, what else would I be doing but sitting watching TV,” he says.

Andy, who took early retirement from the power plant in 1995 to look after his late wife, adds: “It’s not about the work, it’s about getting out and meeting people and seeing what needs done every day. It’s not like working in a factory, there’s no set routine. The garden’s part of you and you’re part of it,” he says.