Last May, my sister and I spent a week in the Dublin area and one day we took the train out to the seaside village of Howth. I had read about a mountainside that had been planted in rhododendrons over a century ago, and although I only had a vague sense of how to get there, we set out to see what we could find.
What we found was a garden straight out of a fairy tale, with magic, beauty, a little foreboding, and a very happy ending. We climbed the road out of town past Howth Castle, which has been in the same family for over 800 years. The road led on to a hotel above the castle, and behind the hotel, a small path led back toward the gardens.
We timed our visit well with many of the rhododendrons in full flower. In my home state of Vermont, rhododendrons are a small shrub that struggle to survive the harsh winters, but rhododendrons in Ireland do not struggle with harsh winter weather. These plants had been planted out along the cliff face in the late 1800’s, and because conditions are so favorable, theyhave grown and thrived for generations since then. Our first glimpse of the gardens was beautiful, 20’ tall plants in the late afternoon sun were luminescent in their shades of pink and rose and lavender. As we walked under the first few plants, a pathway appeared and we followed it in.
The pathway soon slanted uphill, and the forest around us closed in. The path itself was clear, but there were turns off the path and we wondered which way we were going. Once we headed in to the rhododendron forest, we saw petals on the ground and occasional glimpses out over the garden below us but for the most part, the flowers were high above our heads. We climbed, and we climbed, and we climbed. When we began to really question whether we would be lost forever in this maze of pathways, two young hikers and their dog came along and reassured us we were headed up to the plain above the garden where we could survey the rhododendron forest from above.
The pathway widened out once we got off the cliff face, and not long after, we climbed out of the forest of mildly menacing twisted trunks to emerge on a rocky expanse. We left the twilight of the thick rhododendron forest, and as promised, the patchwork of colorful flowering trees opened up below. And what a sight it was! My sister and I sat on the edge of a rocky cliff, looking down over swaths of color, with Howth Castle, the bay, and the island of Ireland’s Eye out to sea. It was a perfect evening and a very happy ending to our quest to find the rhododendron garden.