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Brief History of the Gardens
Last updated: July 27, 2011
In 1790, the Irish Parliament, with the active support of The Speaker of the House, John Foster, granted funds to the Dublin Society (now the Royal Dublin Society), to establish a public botanic garden. In 1795, the Gardens were founded on lands at Glasnevin. The portrait of John Foster (below right) by William Beechey (1813) in Leinster House shows him sitting at his desk holding a map of the Botanic Gardens.
By the 1830’s, the agricultural purpose of the Gardens had been overtaken by the pursuit of botanical knowledge. This was facilitated by the arrival of plants from around the world and by closer contact with the great gardens in Britain, notably Kew and Edinburgh and plant importers such as Messrs. Veitch. By 1838, the basic shape of the Gardens had been established. Ninian Niven as Curator had in four years laid out the system of roads and paths and located many of the garden features that are present today.
The ever increasing plant collection and especially plants from tropical areas demanded more and more protected growing conditions and it was left to Niven's successor, David Moore, to develop the glasshouse accommodation. Richard Turner the great Dublin ironmaster, had already supplied an iron house to Belfast Gardens and he persuaded the Royal Dublin Society that such a house would be a better investment than a wooden house. So indeed it has proved.
David Moore's contribution to the Gardens, to its plant collections and to its reputation nationally and internationally is unsurpassed. His interests and abilities were wide ranging; he had studied the flora of Antrim and Derry, fungi, algae, lichens, bryophytes, ferns and flowering plants, before taking up his post at Glasnevin. While at Glasnevin he developed links with Botanic Gardens in Britain, in Europe and in Australia (his brother Charles became Director at Sydney). Moore used the great interest in plants that existed among the estate owners and owners of large gardens in Ireland to expand trial grounds for rare plants not expected to thrive at Glasnevin. The collections at Kilmacurragh, Headford and Fota, for example, attest to this.
It was David Moore who first noted potato blight in Ireland at Glasnevin on 20th August 1845 and predicted that the impact on the potato crop would lead to famine in Ireland. He continued to investigate the cause of the blight and correctly identified it as a fungus but narrowly missed finding a remedy. David Moore was succeeded by his son Frederick, who was made Curator at the age of twenty-two. Some of the gardening establishment figures of the day were sceptical that such a young man would be up to the job. Frederick Moore soon justified his appointment and went on to establish Glasnevin as one of the great gardens of the world. In due course he was knighted for his services to horticulture.
The scientific purposes of the Gardens was overshadowed by its horticultural reputation during Frederick Moore's term of office. The Scientific Superintendent of the Gardens, William Ramsay McNab, died in 1889 and was not replaced. This hiatus lasted until the appointment of a plant taxonomist, Brian Morley, in 1968 and the transfer of the National Herbarium with two botanists, Maura Scannell and Donal Synnott, from the National Museum in 1970.
A development plan for the Gardens, published in 1992, led to a dramatic programme of restoration and renewal. Primary amongst these was the magnificent restoration of the Turner Curvilinear Range of glasshouses completed for the bicentenary of the Garden in 1995.
A new purpose-built herbarium/library was opened in 1997. The 18th century Director's House and the Curator's House have been refurbished. New service glasshouses and compost storage bays have been built. Additional lecture rooms for the Teagasc Course in Amenity Horticulture were opened in 1999. Improved visitor and education facilities have been provided in a new Visitor Centre. In tandem with the restoration and expansion of the buildings, upgrading of the collections and displays has also been in progress. The work of plant identification and classification, of documenting, labelling and publishing continues, as does that of education and service to the visiting public.
The Botanic Gardens came into state care in 1878 and since then have been administered variously by the Department of Art and Industry, the Department of Agriculture, Dúchas the Heritage Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage the Gaeltacht and the Islands, and the Office of Public Works (OPW), which currrently has responsibility for the Gardens.