Garnish Island – papering paradise

Garnish Island – papering paradise

garnish island

Lying only a few hundred yards offshore in the quiet waters of Glengarriff harbour, Garnish island – or Ilnacullin as it is also known – can hardly be described as a remote island. Those who make the journey soon realise that it is a place apart, however  – as did George Bernard Shaw, who came to the island several times. As he was leaving at the end of his final visit in 1923 his hostess, Violet Bryce bade him farewell with the words  ‘Goodbye, Shaw – I hope we meet in heaven’. ‘Madam, are we not here already?, he replied before stepping into the boat.

The island’s Italianate gardens, laid out by the English designer Harold Peto for the M.P.  Annan Bryce and his wife Violet  in the early years of the twentieth century, draw thousands of visitors a year, and are managed by the Office of Public Works. This year, the O.P.W. completed a major refurbishment and restoration of Bryce Cottage, the house where two generations of the family lived during their visits to the island. The cottage was originally intended as the gardener’s house, but Peto’s original designs for a huge, Lutyens-esque mansion built around the Martello tower on the island’s highest point never materialised, after the family lost most of their wealth in the Russian revolution, and guests like Shaw or Agatha Christie had to make to do with bedrooms of quite modest dimensions.




Both generations of  Bryces were evidently lovers of wallpaper, and enough remained on the walls or at the back of cupboards to enable many of the rooms to be papered with copies of the patterns which had been used in the house. These are mostly patterns of the mid-twentieth century, and cover quite a range of styles – from the intricately drawn toile-style paper in the drawing room, to perkily avant-garde geometrics, right down to bog standard cottage florals made in Ireland  by Kildare Wallpapers.  Papers from the early twentieth century were less in evidence, apart from small fragments of a pattern combining symmetrically flattened floral motifs set in strapwork, found in the entrance hall and upper corridor, and which might have been admired by G.B.S.







The problem of sourcing suitable patterns for the earlier period was solved thanks to the resources of the Irish Heritage Trust’s recently established archive of historic wallpapers, stored in Fota House. Two very attractive patterns from the Fota archive were copied and used in Violet Bryce’s bedroom and another guest bedroom. Also from the archive, a complete pattern – similar in style to the fragments found in the entrance hall – was copied and re-coloured to match the fragments.



Altogether, we made twelve ‘new’ old papers for Bryce Cottage, most of them screen-printed in our studio in Leitrim, but some – for reasons of economy and speed – digitally printed. These now form a fitting backdrop to the furniture, paintings and memorabilia of the Bryce family and their two remarkable servants, the Scottish-born head gardener Murdo Mackenzie and the housekeeper Maggie O’Sullivan (1908-99), who in her lifetime on the island  ‘cooked tea for all the Irish presidents except one’.


For more on Garnish Island and its inhabitants, see this excellent blog (from which some of the above images have been sourced):