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Garnish Island Ireland

To sum it up in a nutshell, this is a place unlike any other in Ireland. Garnish Island is a small island 37 acres (ca. 15 hectares) in size situated 1.5 km off the coast of Glengarriff in Bantry Bay, West Cork. 

The unique climate of the area, combined with an extravagant idea and foresight in the 1910s led to the creation of these impressively landscaped botanical gardens with complimenting grandiose architecture

The development of the gardens and building design was carried out privately by the Bryce family, who later bequeathed the island to the Irish State in 1953.

Garnish Island is now a major tourist attraction in the West Cork area and is run by the Office of Public Works. 

Garnish Island in County Cork – One Island with many Names 

This small island is known by several names, which can be a little confusing to say the least.

Garnish Island Cork vs. Garnish Island Kerry

Garnish Island is widely used to refer to the island. However, this is not without some problems as there is another less famous island off the coast of County Kerry, which also happens to be called Garnish Island. This, however, is not home to any elaborate gardens.

Garinish Island

You will also see the island referred to officially as Garinish Island, which is used by the Office of Public Works and the official Ordnance Survey Ireland Maps (No. 85 Cork/Kerry of the Discovery Series if you are wondering).

Ilnacullin and Illaunacullin

Ilnacullin, which means “Island of Holly” in Irish on the other hand, was the preferred name of the Bryce family, particularly Violet Bryce, who helped establish the gardens and lived a large part of her life on the island.

To complete the name options, there is also the other variation of Illaunacullin, which appears to be more seldomly used. 

Occasionally, Garnish Island is also referred to as the Garden Island

Brief History of Garnish Island 

Glengarriff Harbour is a very scenic location in West Cork. (Photo: Leamus via Canva)

The Bryce family, based in Belfast, were well known in academic, business and political circles. Glengarriff in West Cork was one of their preferred holiday locations and they frequented the area often.  

The Initial Idea (1910s)

John Annan Bryce, who at the time was a Member of Parliament of Great Britain, purchased Garnish Island in 1910. Back then, it looked nothing like the gardens that are there today and was simply a rocky outcrop in Bantry Bay.

Bryce’s vision combined with the input of the renowned Italian landscape architect Harold Peto transformed the island into a sub-tropical garden with remarkable architecture. Some people have gone as far to claim it was the “Irish Riviera”.  

The Continued Transformation (1920s)

When John Annan Bryce died in 1923, his widow, Violet, moved from their London home to live permanently on Garnish Island. 

During the 1920s, the garden was developed further with the help of the esteemed Scottish gardener, Murdo Mackenzie. It was through his in-depth understanding of gardening, Mackenzie created shelterbelts of trees, which helped to protect the sensitive plants from adverse impacts of the weather in the mild climate around Glengarriff and enabled them to thrive. 

The sheltered location of the island in Glengarriff Harbour benefits from a microclimate of mild humid conditions that enables the growth of plant species that would not typically survive in the Irish climate. 

Continued Development and Plans for the Future (1930s onwards)

In the early 1930s, Roland L’Estrange Bryce, the son of John Annon and Violet, moved to the island and lived with his mother and their staff. Further building work was carried out and a larger Edwarian style house was redesigned from what was once the cottage. 

After his mother’s death, Roland who had no family, continued to live on the island and set about the process in which Garnish island would be handed over to the Irish State upon his death. Initially, this plan ran into difficulties, as the State was unsure of whether the costs of running and maintaining such a location were justifiable. Roland’s plan did work out in the end and in 1953 when he died, the island was gifted to the State

Both the gardener, Murdo MacKenzie and the housekeeper, Margaret O’Sullivan, served the family their entire working lives and continued to live on the island after they retired.  

Garnish Island Gardens

The Colourful Italian Garden is one of the main highlights on the island. (Photo: Luke Abrahams via Canva)

The main feature of the gardens is the famed Italian Garden, complete with a Caita tea-house that was designed by the architect Peto. The sunken garden, complete with pool is one of the most iconic images of this island. 

Another architectural surprise on the island is the Grecian Temple with impressive views of the Beara Peninsula. From here one can wander through the colorful array of diverse flowers in the “Happy Valley”. 

Many of the exotic plants, trees and shrubs which grow in the famous gardens originate from the many from the Southern Hemisphere.

Flowers from many parts of the world are found in these gardens, including many from the Southern Hemisphere. (Photo: TG23 via Canva)

Some highlights include Giant Tree Ferns from New Zealand, impressive Dahlias, and many different species of Rhododendron, including the Japanese Rhododendron yakushimanum.

(It is worth mentioning that Rhododendron is one of the worst invasive species found in Ireland and its prolific growth and shading severely impacts native flora and fauna. Read about Irish flowers here, as well as problematic invasive plants.)

Other impressive parts of the island include a Clock Tower and Walled Garden, which is home to many other internationally sourced ornamental plants.

There is also a Martello Tower, which was built on the island in the Napoleonic Era as a beacon to warn of a possible invasion. Unlike many other Martello Towers scattered around the coast of Ireland, the design of this one is slightly different with the walls standing vertically (rather than slanting inwards towards the top, like most).

Did you know? Some of the botanicals used in Garnish Island Gin are gathered from the gardens on the island. 

Bryce House Garnish Island

A tour of Bryce House will allow you to step back in time into the household of this family. The original paintings, drawings and books belonging to the family are still on show, as per the wishes of Roland. 

The tour takes guests through the kitchens of this house where many a meal was prepared for some very famous people down through the year including Douglas Hyde, the first president of Ireland and good friend of Roland, George Bernard Shaw and Agatha Christie to name but a few!

There is a drawing room, library and bedrooms, as well as a beautiful veranda outside the house,

Plan a Trip to Garnish Island Ireland

There are many stunning views from Garnish Island. (Photo: TG23 via Canva)

How to get to Garnish Island – Garnish Island Ferry Operators

There are four different ferry operators that offer ferry services from Glengarriff to Garnish Island leaving direct from the harbor or a short distance outside Glengarriff on the Casteltownbere Road. 

Boats depart frequently in the high season, but it is a good idea to book ahead in during busy times.

For up-to-date Garnish Island ferry prices, as well as Garnish Island ferry times please check the ferry boat operator websites.

Important Tip: It is worth noting that the ferry price does not include the admission fee to visit Garnish Island.

(Heritage Card owners do not have to pay the fee for the Garnish Island tickets.)

Things to Do and See on Garnish Island

In addition to enjoying the beautiful sights of the gardens, house and impressive viewpoints, visitors can also pick up a coffee and a light snack in the Garnish cafe on the island. 

Lucky visitors can also enjoy some of the local wildlife, particularly on the short ferry journey. The Glengarriff Harbour area is designated a Special Area of Conservation, so on the way to the island, you should keep an eye out for the local wildlife.

Seals are a common sight in Glengarriff Harour. (Photo: Bruno_il_segretario via Canva)

It is a good area for bird watching or for catching a glimpse of harbour seals that are often spotted in the waters and sunbathing on the rocks. 

Bonus Tips: Visitors during the summer months of June and July should keep an extra good lookout for inquisitive seal pups

For those interested in open water swimming, keep an eye out for the annual local charity swim around Garnish Island, called GaddinAbtGarnish, to raise funds for the Bantry Inshore Search and Rescue Association (BISRA).

FAQ about Visiting Garnish Island in Cork

How far is Garnish Island from Glengarriff?

Garnish Island is located about 1,5 km outside of Glengarriff Harbour. The ferry to Garnish Island takes about 15 minutes by boat. 

There is plenty of free parking in Glengariff that can be availed of, if you are travelling by car.

When is the best time to visit Garnish Island?

If you want to plan your trip to the island to coincide with some of the best floral displays, then plan to visit in May or June.

Garnish Island is popular at this time, so expect plenty of visitors and try to visit on a weekday to avoid some of the crowds. 

Is Garnish Island open all year round?

The Walled Garden on Garnish Island. (Photo: TG23 via Canva)

Garnish Island opening hours vary by season and it is not open during winter or early spring period. 

During the summer season between April 1 and September 30, Garnish Island is open between 10am and 4.30pm daily. Between October 1 and November 6 (2022), the closing time is a little earlier at 3.30pm.

Note: Remember to bring some cash with you as there are no credit card payment facilities on the island.

How much time should I plan for a visit to Garnish Island?

It is best to plan about two hours for your visit. As the island is not particularly big, this amount of time usually suffices.

There is a trail through the island that is enjoyable to wander at your ease. A self guiding booklet of the trail will help make sure you don’t get lost.

Can I visit Bryce House?

It is possible to visit Bryce House, but only as part of a guided tour. (Places on this tour are limited, so check before you go for more information.)

Is Garnish Island buggy friendly and wheelchair accessible?

Some of the boats used to get to the island are wheelchair accessible (but not all, so check in advance).

Only limited parts of the island are accessible to wheelchair users, prams and for people with mobility issues. There is a wheelchair accessible toilet, baby changing facilities and a lift in the Bryce house. 

There are steep areas, as well as uneven ground in some areas on the island. 

Good Tip: In general, it is a good idea to pack sturdy, comfortable shoes with you as there are plenty of uneven surfaces including the lawns and gravel paths around the island. 

Can you stay on Garnish Island?

No, it is not possible to stay overnight on Garnish Island, but there are plenty of excellent accommodation options in and around Glengarriff, including the famous Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff.

What facilities are on Garnish Island?

There is a small cafe on the island for light snacks, as well as baby changing and toilet facilities (including one special needs toilet).

Are dogs allowed on Garnish Island?

Dogs that are on a leash at all times are allowed on the island and the boat operators state that they take (small) dogs on the boats. 

If you want to discover more in the Cork area, check out Day Trips from Cork.