The Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (RHSI), founded in 1816, is a charity, dedicated to promoting and improving the knowledge, skill, and practice of horticulture, arboriculture, and floral art while encouraging respect for the environment and creating a sense of community amongst its members.The RHSI is run on a voluntary basis with membership spread throughout the island of Ireland.

In celebration of the RHSI’s two hundredth anniversary, the board decided to revive the awarding of medals, a practice that had lapsed over many years, but which is consistent with the Society’s aims in fostering excellence in horticulture.

Last month, the RHSI awarded its gold Medal of Honour to Seamus O’Brien, Head Gardener at the National Botanic Gardens, Kilmacurragh.

Seamus O’Brien is one of Ireland’s most outstanding present-day plantsmen, and is widely known throughout the island, and in the U.K. His interest started at an early age, coming from a County Wicklow farming family, receiving his formal training at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin. He holds an International Diploma in Botanic Gardens Management from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Seamus is a corresponding member of the RHS (UK) Woody Plant Committee. He contributes to numerous publications, including Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, and the International Dendrology Society’s Year Book, as well as the Irish Garden Plant Society’s newsletter. It is as an author that Seamus has reached an international audience. Published in 2018, his magnificent In the Footsteps of Joseph Dalton Hooker, a Sikkim adventure retraces Hooker’s 1847 expedition to Sikkim, where he would discover botanical treasures previously unknown in the West. Seamus’s first-hand account, based on his own travels to Sikkim, traces the discoveries which were supplied as seedlings to Kilmacurragh, many of which still grow there.
He is also the author of In the Footsteps of Augustine Henry, and his Chinese plant collectors, published in 2011 and based on his own travels to that country. Many of Henry’s introductions are to be found growing today at Kilmacurragh. Seamus is known by a wide circle, for his passionate interest in the history of the Acton family, former owners of Kilmacurragh, and in the estate where they assembled one of the greatest plant collections in Ireland, the restoration of which he is overseeing.

Robert Myerscough, President of the RHSI, and Seamus O’Brien

At the beginning of 1939, the Society decided it would from time to time award a Gold Medal of Honour, for distinguished services to horticulture in Ireland. There have been notable recipients over the years. In that first year, the 4th Marquis of Headfort, who was president of the Society for a remarkable thirty years from 1915 to 1945, was one of the five recipients. The others included Sir Frederick Moore, Curator of Glasnevin Botanic Gardens 1879 – 1922, and later RHSI president from 1945 to 1948; Hugh Armitage Moore of Rowallane Gardens, and J.W. Besant who succeeded Sir Frederick Moore at Glasnevin. Also, that year Edward Horace Walpole (1880 – 1964) under whose hand Mount Usher Gardens reached its preeminent position and international fame completed a remarkable group of horticulturalists.
The following year, Robert Lloyd Praeger, (1865 – 1953) naturalist, writer, and Ireland’s greatest field botanist, who had published The Way that I Went in 1937 received the Medal of Honor and was later RHSI president from 1948 – 1949.
Other famous recipients include Michael Parsons, 6th Earl of Rosse in 1961, who at the time was president of the Society (1959 – 1969). Lord Rosse had stocked the gardens at Birr Castle with rare trees and shrubs from China, Japan, and the Himalayas, making it one of the most important collections in Ireland today. In that same year Richard Grove Annesley, who devoted much of his life to creating the famous Robinsonian garden at Annes Grove, Co. Cork, was recognised. Another less well know figure in Irish circles to receive the medal in 1961 was the Hon. Sir David Bowes-Lyon, who died later that year; he had been made RHS president in 1953 and was an authority on orchids. It is not clear what he did for horticulture in Ireland, perhaps it was simply because he was the much loved brother of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother!
Professional growers were recognised too; in 1963 Alec Dickson and Samuel McGredy, both internationally renowned rose growers from Northern Ireland were awarded the Medal of Honour.
Perhaps the most iconic of Irish gardens is Garinish Island, or Illnacullin, in Glengarriff Harbour, the creation of Annan Bryce over some 70 years, whose son Rowland received the medal in 1947, and was to be followed in 1966 by his gardener, the outstanding Scotsman, Murdo Mackenzie.
This glittering gallery was joined by three of Ireland’s most notable modern-day horticulturalists in the Society’s bicentenary year, on 3 December 2016, when RHSI Patron, Helen Dillon, Thomas Pakenham, and Charles Nelson were awarded the Medal of Honour.

Seamus O’Brien, speaking at the RHSI reception where he was awarded the Medal of Honour

The Hetherington medal has been inaugurated to celebrate Francis Hetherington, gardener to the 2nd Earl of Charlemont, of Marino, who convened a meeting of fellow gardeners in the Rose Tavern, Donnybrook, on 30 September, 1816, and thus founded what is now the RHSI. The first formal meeting of the Horticultural Society of Ireland was held on 1 January 1817.
This silver medal is to be awarded from time to time, to those members considered to have given exceptional service to the Society, in furthering its objectives in the advancement of the knowledge, skill, and practice of horticulture and arboriculture in Ireland for educational purposes, over a period of years.
The first recipients, both of whom have more than met the criteria, are Brenda Branigan, and Peter Harrison.

Congratulations to all the recent recipients!