Italian garden on Garnish Island. Photo Courtesy of TG23.

Violet Bryce, her Cavan relations, and Garnish Island

In this week's Times Past column, historian Jonathan Smyth tells us about Violet Bryce, the daughter of a Cavanman named Chamgagne L'Estrang. Whe was responsible for the establishment of Garnish Island, a State-owned gardeners' paradise off Bantry Bay, Co Cork...

In 2015, having undergone restoration, Bryce House on Garnish Island, situated off the coast of Glengarriff, Co Cork, was officially re-opened to the public by Minister Michael Ring. The minister said at the time: “I have often been to Garnish Island, and I love coming here but now Bryce House is a credit to the OPW who have worked so hard to restore this jewel to its former.”

The island was once a barren rock, with just a Martello tower, until it was bought in 1910 and transformed by John Annan Bryce MP and his wife, the spirited socialite Violet L’Estrange Bryce. I would like to thank Concepta McGovern who brought the fascinating story of Violet L’Estrange Bryce and her Cavan connection to my attention.

John Annan Bryce, a brother of Viscount Bryce (the British ambassador to Washington), was born in Belfast and served as a Liberal MP. As a successful merchant, he performed business duties in Burma and Siam for the East India Merchant Company, and sat on the directorates of several railway concerns, for example the Bombay, Baroda, and Burma companies. Bryce’s wife Violet was born in Mauritius and was the daughter of Captain Champagne L’Estrange and Mary Fairbanks L’Estrange. Her father was one of the L’Estrange family of Kilmore, Co Cavan.

Lissadell cousins

Born at Fort William, Mauritius, on 10 October 1863, Violet L’Estrange’s mother was a Canadian woman, from Halifax, Nova Scotia and her father, the extravagantly named Champagne, was born on May 3, 1832, at Lisnamandra, Kilmore. He was a son of Sir George Burdett L’Estrange and Louisa Vincentia Stepney who was a daughter of Herbert Rawson Stepney of Durrow Abbey, Co Offaly. The L’Estrange family were descendants ‘of the very ancient Norman family of Le Strange, of Hunstanton, Norfolk’.

Champagne L’Estrange died on March 5, 1900, in the Seamen’s Hospital, Floriana, Malta, where he lived for 11 years as a resident magistrate. In his younger days, Champagne had served in the navy and saw action in Crimea, ‘seeing the horrors of that war, and taking part in the siege of Sebastopol’. In 1872, he received his first appointment, as resident magistrate, from Earl Spencer, to serve in Mohill, Co Leitrim. The L’Estranges were a distinguished family and amongst Violet’s cousins there were the Gore-Booth sisters, Constance (Countess Markievicz), and Eva of Lissadell House, Co Sligo. Glengarriff was familiar territory to Violet who had spent her childhood holidays in Cork by the sea, in the company of her Sligo cousins, the Gorebooth sisters.

Garnish Island

In 1910, John Bryce bought Garnish Island from the British War Office. He and Violet were intent on transforming it into an idyllic living space. Because of the warm currents that flow from the Gulf Stream into Bantry Bay, the island has a tropical microclimate and could grow plants that otherwise would not survive the Irish Climate.

They hired the celebrated English architect and landscape gardener Harold Ainsworth Peto FRIBA, to make their dream a reality. The Heritage Ireland website explains that they had asked Peto ‘to design and set out an Arts and Crafts style Garden, an Italian Garden and a series of carefully conceived garden buildings and elements’. In 1911, Peto’s designs for the gardens were being conducted by more than one hundred men. Along with the gardens, a beautiful cottage in ‘an Edwardian picturesque style’ was completed.

However, the proposed star attraction, a seven-storey mansion that would incorporate the old Martello tower had to be abandoned before works got off the ground; the Bryce family fortunes took a serious nose-dive due to the collapse of the Russian market in 1917. Never-the-less, the gardens were well on their way with the planting of many exotic plants and shrubs.

Rebel with a cause

Jackie Keogh writing in the Southern Star, on September 11, 2010, recalls some of the fascinating stories told by a local tour guide named Eliane Zimmermann who recalled that ‘Violet’s sympathies’ were with ‘the Irish cause’. Her support was active and in 1920 she was arrested in Holyhead having crossed by ferry to speak at a public meeting ‘in Wales’ on the topic of ‘reprisals’. Her endeavour earned her a night in prison, before being unceremoniously deported home to Ireland; but the matter did not end there, and the issue was raised ‘in letters’ to the Times and ‘in the Houses of Parliament’ where her husband worked as an MP. A strong champion of women’s rights, Violet’s daughter Margaret took after her, becoming a suffragette.

George Bernard Shaw

Following the death of her husband in 1923, Violet came to live permanently on Garnish Island and resided in the gardener’s cottage. Over the years she spent vast sums of money transforming the 37-acre island into what the Irish Independent called ‘one of the world’s most beautiful gardens’ and she had friends like George Bernard Shaw who came to stay; in 1923, Shaw famously wrote his play St Joan during one of his visits. In the same year, Violet founded the Glengarriff Agricultural and Industrial Show, which proved a great boon to the area’s local economy.

In the years following her husband’s death, Violet found a new helper in the gardens when around 1932 her son Roland Bryce came to live and work on the island. Roland added many new features and would continue the family legacy after Violet’s death in 1939, aided by their trusty Scottish gardener Murdo Mackenzie. After Roland’s own death in 1953, both his housekeeper Margaret O’Sullivan and Mackenzie the chief gardener were allowed to continue living and work on the island after it was handed over to the Irish State per the Bryce family’s wishes. Today, Garnish Island and its magnificent gardens are a major tourist attraction run by the Office of Public Works.


A notice appearing in the Sydney Herald, on September 29, 1841, offered a reward of £20 for information on James Moore, Dapto, Illawara, Wollongong, a sawmill employee of Peter Larkin who had absconded, taking with him, another man’s wife. The Sydney Herald said that Moore had taken Mary Stewart, wife of Alexander Stewart of Sydney. Alexander, the woman’s husband, said that Mary, his lawful wedded wife aged 20 years, was an emigrant on the ship, the Lord Western, and that she had a character reference signed by Mrs Pentland of Liskeard, County Cavan.


High flyer Valentine first to fly plane over Cavan