Peter Donegan, award-winning Irish landscape architect plants and carves history across the Somme Battlefields, to Cardiff and onto Oldham, Greater Manchester, doing Ireland proud. 

In 2018, Peter Donegan was selected by a French jury to design and realize the Irish WW1 centenary Peace Garden in the heart of the Somme Battlefields. Before I attended the September 2019 inauguration of the garden on a day out organized by the Irish Embassy Paris and Irish in France, I knew little about a landscape architect’s work. I imagined it involved landscaping beautiful plants and trees and though that is part of the equation, it’s far from the full story. Donegan writes a story in stone while artfully conveying messages through his aesthetic gardens.

His Peace Garden honors Irish soldiers, from North and South, who fought to protect future generations. It creates a happy, welcoming place in the optic of “lest we forget” peace can never be taken for granted… Creating the Peace Garden, (aka “The Garden of Eutychia”, after the Greek goddess of happiness), Donegan took the Château de Péronne’s 9ft deep, 14th-century dried-up moat, constructed to keep people out, and transformed it into a garden that draws people in. After lockdown, the sounds of children playing can again be heard on land formerly soaked by the blood of Irish WWI soldiers. The semi-circular low stone wall like seat inspired by ‘Dún Ducathair,’ the ancient fort on Inis Mór, cocooned in the shade of hawthorn trees, instills a sense of magic, history, continuity, and Irishness.

Donegan is great craic and a natural public speaker and during his inauguration speech and on the drive back to Paris I learned about his modus operandi. Ireland's revolutionary landscape architect delights in not only turning the earth in the gardens he transforms upside down. After taking in vast, unfiltered stimuli while capturing the lay of a commissioned site, like a reconstruction artist he implodes and recreates before bestowing new life.

The complexity of his projects involves taking into account not only where they’re located, the local and visiting communities, but also the history of the site and foretelling its future. With draconian focus, he mixes and magics the elements into a Donegan state-of-the-art project. He explained that for him “ultimately, the success of garden design comes down to a picture that didn’t previously exist, seeing others smile because of a dream I saw. People coming together and holding hands for the journey of the project and seeing others smile together throughout and enjoying the end result; that is always the prize”.

Donegan doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet. After being the first Irish person accepted at the “RHS Cardiff Show Garden” (2019), and pocketing the silver medal he is now preparing to be at the very epicenter of international landscape architecture gardening with his “Northern Roots Oldham Garden” project for the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, rescheduled from 2020 to July 2021 due to Covid-19. His show garden will bear a vital ecological message while reminiscing through the stone on the history of Oldham. The logistics of building it required teaming up with terrific craftsmen; Burnham Landscaping, CED Stone Group, ProCook, and growers Hortus Loci. Another important part of his work is including others in his vision, and a number of businesses have pledged their support with Park Cakes at the fore, along with MioCare Group, Manchester Cabins, Walker Simpson Architects, and NLTG.

Just getting a project accepted at the prestigious “RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show” is a huge honor. However, the “Northern Roots Oldham Garden” project has been doubly honored, firstly through being selected and secondly because the show garden will be permanently relocated to Oldham after the RHS show, where it will be the centerpiece, of a 160-acre eco-park. Northern Roots project director Anna da Silva commented: “something inspirational is happening in Oldham. 160 years after Oldham became the textile epicenter of the industrial revolution, another revolution is gathering pace: a green revolution”. Northern Roots will also include a visitor’s center, market gardens, community plots, sports and educational facilities, spaces for cultural activities and festivals, a camping site, and even a romantic site where to tie the marital knot!

While researching Donegan’s project I learned about the “Lancashire Cotton Famine,” (1861-65). Oldham, with its cotton mills, was formerly one of the greatest English industrial towns. In 1861 when supplies of raw cotton from the US were cut off the mills stopped turning; workers lost jobs and families became destitute. “Alexandra Park”, which backs onto Snipe Clough, where Donegan’s show garden will be relocated, was created in 1865 as an effort to employ the laid-off textile workers. That same community spirit is reflected in the Snipe Clough 160 acre eco-park and Donegan’s show garden. The “Irish World Heritage Centre” Manchester is also located not too far away from where Donegan’s show garden will be permanently located.

For “Northern Roots Oldham Garden”, Donegan used authentic 19 century Oldham stones that will paradoxically honor heritage in this futuristic project. The central futuristic structure will shelter a welcoming table which will be surrounded by those ancient Oldham stones. Using original York stone and sandstone salvaged from Oldham’s iconic 1841 grade II listed Georgian neo-classical town hall, the old 19th-century cotton mills, and the railway line is Donegan’s nod to the past. He chose to merely clean the old stones, without reshaping or resizing them to maintain authenticity. The roof of the central structure constructed by Frank Rothwell of “Manchester Cabins” is undulating and unusual; its blast of burnt orange color is a product of Donegan’s daydream and an expression of childlike escapism and a visual reflection of Roald Dahl’s “if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely”. It was constructed with bolts used in a similar way to how steel was pieced together way in the 1840s, versus today’s welding process. Aesthetic planting will join the dots between the old stones and futuristic structures.

During what he describes as his “magical mystery tours” Donegan weaves strong bonds with the Irish diaspora. A child prodigy who picked up tools and set out on a flower-strewn path at the age of five, he later added a love of history to horticultural brilliance. Donegan enables Ireland’s name to be stamped far and wide, on award-winning projects, where people come together and smile.

Read more: The beauty and danger of Blarney Castle's Poison Garden

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