By Sarah Turner
Although horticulture was not an option when she was a child, Kathleen McGeown has managed to plant roots right here in Armagh.
McGeown, 65, is the owner and proprietor of Ni Eoghain Bed and Breakfast , home to the hidden treasure of a vast, lush garden she has built for more than 10 years.
Tucked away in the rolling green hills outside Armagh, this Irish country house and garden attract international visitors and locals who enjoy walking along the three acres of winding paths.
"People do like to come out here and walk through the garden," McGeown says. "It's something that attracts them to the bed and breakfast."
Since 1993-94, McGeown has spent her time and energy on her B&B, leaving behind a previous career of 15 years as chef at the Education and Library Board. The shift in work suits her just fine, though, because she enjoys running the garden and B&B more than being a chef.
McGeown spends several hours working in the expansive garden, and sometimes upon arriving, guests will find her kneeling down with her hands in the earth. Providing evidence of her hard work, bright daisies, lilies, and purple hostas are sprinkled among the clematis vines and taller hawthorne trees.
Visitors who follow soft trickling sounds can also find water gardens festooned with urns filled with flowers at each corner and koi swimming beneath the water's surface. There is a formal boxwood garden. Nearby is a rose garden enclosed within a lattice fence, and its grassy paths create beds shaped in an intricate design. Variegated rose blossoms form burstsof apricot, pink and red, and a Victorian gazebo stands in the center, roses climbing through its lacy mesh.
McGeown has slowly built her garden over the past 15 years. She has paid attention to all the senses: pine trees dot the garden with small, black cones; the scent of lavender wafts in the air while various exotic plants like the castor bean draw attention to themselves. Carefully positioned burgundy and lime green bushes stand next to each other, creating a breathtaking contrast, while decorative elements include a burnt orange tin man and a decorative wooden sleigh whose bench is covered.
While sweet scents linger in the air when visitors walk next to the rose garden, delicious food is being prepared in the B&B kitchen. In order to offer the full bed and breakfast experience, McGeown prepares an Irish breakfast every morning for her guests. Traditionally, breakfast includes sizzling bacon, eggs, sausage and tomatoes, but with McGeown's masterful hand, the food resembles a floral arrangement. This inspiration may come from the vegetable garden that lies close to the house. Within the garden, a mouthwatering collection of cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, and various herbs grow.
It is clear that McGeown is a master of every domestic art, especially having grown up on a farm just a few roads away.
"Armagh is very different now than it was when I was a girl," says McGeown.
Characterizing her memories of Ireland as being similar to what it might have been like during the famine years, McGeown notes the isolation her family endured. They relied on the land for food, and from an early age McGeown worked in both the kitchen and garden with her mother, learning the skills she has now.
Today, McGeown's B&B has become uniquely successful in Armagh. Although it is small, accommodating only eight guests at a time, she recently hired someone to help with the cleaning, allowing her to focus her full attention on her garden. This is important because tour buses stop by on occasion, bringing with them between 50 and 75 visitors.
There is plenty of room to stretch travel-worn legs here, and McGeown's dogs might lead the way. The paths will wander through narrow sections covered with trees, only to spill out into wide-open grassy fields.
In addition to the garden, McGeown has planted 15 acres of hawthorne trees. Some have grown to great heights, while others remain smaller, yet each has a unique importance.
McGeown seems to be most proud of the flowers she tends, so proud, in fact, that she recently entered an all-Ireland competition. McGeown's garden has already been visited by the judge; the winner will be announced in August, and the award ceremony for the winner will take place in September.
"I don't want to sound overconfident, but I'm keeping my calendar open in September," says McGeown, with a wink and smile.
Kathleen McGeown is the owner and proprietor of Ni Eoghain Bed and Breakfast, located on Ennislare Road in the rolling countryside outside Armagh. For more information or for reservations, in Ireland call 028 3752 5633.
Story by Sarah Turner
Photography by Cate Oliver
Video by Roisin Kelly
Web design by Charlotte Levins