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'I was once homeless, but now I'm best friends with royalty and stars'

Award-winning Irish gardener Diarmuid Gavin reflects on how he overcame personal challenges to cultivate a successful career

By Barry Egan

George Bernard Shaw once said: "The best place to find God is in a garden. You can dig for him there." Diarmuid Gavin hasn't found God but he has perhaps found some kind of truth about existence while digging around the gardens of the world ...

The 50-year-old has just got off a plane from the South of France. (He lives on planes - dividing his time between TV work in England and projects with his team all over Europe, the Middle East and America.) For over a year, he has been working on the sprawling gardens of a truly magnificent villa, with a Byzantine- style church, which once belonged to the late Rudolf Nureyev.

The Soviet-born ballet deity, it is said, used to dance al fresco in his estate, particularly along the stone pathway overlooking Monaco, which Diarmuid has, he says, retained. "It's now a gorgeous new garden," he adds, "soft and romantic in nature, that will surround the villa on the crest of a hill."

The mansion on the hill was bought by a family from Eastern Europe for £190m. They wasted no time in hiring Diarmuid for the huge redevelopment. The acclaimed Irishman has had a team of 25 men and women from Belfast, Dublin, Kildare, Kerry and Wicklow working on this project in the Riviera for the past year.

Diarmuid says, matter of factly, that he will be meeting Prince Albert of Monaco for coffee in a couple of weeks.

A thousand or so kilometres to the north east of Monaco, in Prague, Diarmuid's team number 2 - "an interesting mix of 12 Czechs and Irish" - are putting the finishing touches to another of Diarmuid's designs.

This equally grand enterprise was "a remarkable futuristic and undulating" landscape designed for a client who wanted, says Diarmuid, "no flowers" to settle his James-Bond-villain-type home into its hillside location, dominating views of the city.

Created over the past 10 years by architect Eva Jiricna, the house looks and feels "like a high-tech yacht and pushes the boundaries of architecture, technology and materials," explains Diarmuid who visits once a month - "more often during the intense planting period, supervising the local workforce who've never seen anything like it," he gushes excitedly. "There is a lot more to my work than what I do on TV. I do an awful lot of garden projects all over the world."

Diarmuid adds that he was asked to be a consultant to the gardens of the Presidential Palace in Damascus, Syria, as the current war was beginning. He declined.

During a two-hour lunch, there are also tales of Louis Walsh arranging for him to pitch garden ideas to fellow X Factor judge Simon Cowell and Louis subsequently lending him his London flat for a 'rendezvous' with Jerry Hall: "I paid her £10,000 to lie on a bed for a few hours so I could sketch her shape as inspiration for a garden".

There are also stories - there always are with Diarmuid Gavin - of Mohamed Al-Fayed closing Harrods in Knightsbridge for an evening, once upon a time, "to host a party for me"; and "almost skinny dipping in the Queen's pond at a Buckingham Palace garden party."

It wasn't always thus for Diarmuid Gavin. In the early 1990s, he says without overstatement that he was "regarded as a bit of a hopeless case."

Seriously?

"Very much so."

By who?

"Everybody."

"I was all over the place. I was homeless. Actually, I was living in a flat; subsequently I became homeless - only for a couple of months, and homeless in a very ... sleeping on friends' couches kind of way. I was kicked out of my flat. My stereo system was repossessed by a TV rental company."

I can't believe my ears. "They had never repossessed a stereo system before!" Diarmuid continues.

"The repossession man looked at me so sadly, slightly pathetically but also sadly. I loved my music and that was gone. Everything was gone.

"My clothes - which were all I had - went into a couple of black bags and a friend brought them on his bicycle and put them in his dad's garage. And for a couple of days they were in the garden because his dad needed the space in the garage."

I ask him did he lose the flat in Ranelagh because he couldn't pay the rent. "Oh, yeah."

Was he too ashamed to tell his parents, who lived only up the road?

One of the most famous Irishmen in the world nods his head. "Probably. But I didn't want to go home. I had a fantastic home, but I was always ... They were very tough times." He pauses for reflection. "They were very tough times because I let a lot of people down. And, also, I was somebody with very real dreams. I was dismissed as a fantasist."

He remembers a moment around 1992 at the 16 bus stop in Dublin. "I was out of my flat and I had nowhere to go. I remember a moment at the bus stop. Total humiliation. I had lost everything. I remember thinking: 'There is only one way to go. And even if it is only little steps, every decision you make now has to be right.' I wouldn't walk down Grafton Street for a year in case I saw anybody I knew and it would be embarrassing if I owed them money. That was all built up in my mind. I probably didn't owe them money. I was paranoid.

"I didn't know how it was going to end up. I kept letting people down. I was manically interested in creating gardens, but I wanted to create gardens that were different. I didn't understand why I didn't fit in with the genre of suburban Irish or classically Irish garden-making."

Why does Diarmuid think he didn't fit in?

"Because I used to question things too much," he answers.

"My influences were very different to anybody else's, I felt, in the genre. I loved music and movies. I loved architecture and other forms of design. So, why would I follow a style of gardening that bore no relation to how I lived my life in suburbia?" he asks.

"I was very confused that things could only be classical or twee - and nothing in between. If you had studied a bit of Andy Warhol or something like that and understood that people could make up their own mind about what art was, why would you fit in if you were in what you felt had to be one of the most creative disciplines? Because look at what you work with ... materials ... ideas. You work with plants, which are the most incredible things, because they change all year.

"So it is the most vibrant art form I think there is. But why would your influences have to stop (at) a hundred years before? I didn't get that. It was not only Irish gardens. It was British gardens. Ireland was still 10 years behind London in gardening terms at that stage and I wanted to do things that were different.

"I was hugely driven," he continues. "And I had a personality that could bring people around me and make people believe - and then I would let them all down, one by one. I found letting people down very hard."

He explains that he was doing this by "bouncing cheques". Who did he bounce the cheques on? "Oh, suppliers. Garden centres. I never took advantage. I wasn't a good business man, balancing the books. It got to a certain stage that I could always get work because I had been brought up well and I was personable and I could design a really beautiful garden on the back of an envelope.

"So getting work was no problem, winning the awards was no problem. But when the work wasn't fulfilling, the creative thing, I started doing the work badly and not finishing the gardens. Therefore not getting the cheques and going back to the flat and going under the duvet."

Diarmuid also believes he was letting people down "by continually talking about dreams and not having anything to back it up. By going to the RDS and winning the Gold medal time after time - I won it two or three times, more than anybody had - whenever Mary Robinson was made President because she presented the medal."

I ask him was being thrown out of his flat before or after being awarded a gold medal by the President of Ireland.

"It was probably after!" he says with a laugh.

"That's how pathetic things were. There is no point in winning medals and travelling on a bicycle when everybody else that we were competing with had fleets of vans. You'd get all the glory in a year and then everybody around you would say: 'Now will you make something of your life?' I never did."

Why was that?

"I never did because it wasn't there for me to do it. I knew I wanted to do stuff that was different but I didn't know what that meant. And until somebody gives you a chance - or listens to you or believes in you."

And that somebody was the late, great (Irish newspaper columnist) Terry Keane. She put his life back together, Diarmuid Gavin says matter of factly. "Yeah - she did, absolutely. When everybody else is saying you're this, you're that or whatever, negative stuff, (everybody else) was saying 'don't' - Terry believed in me and said, 'Go for it.'"

He remembers meeting Terry for the first time: at the awards ceremony when he had won the RDS Gold Medal in 1993. "We met and she wanted me to build her garden in Ranelagh. I never left the house after that. It was amazing. She introduced me to my wife," he says, referring to Justine Keane.

He ponders where he would be now if he hadn't met Justine. "I dread to think."

Does he think he needed someone like Justine to say, cop on? "Not someone like Justine. I needed Justine to say: 'I believe in you.' And I remember the night she said it." It was in bed in Justine's flat in Dublin in 1993. "We were just talking about things," he recalls. He adds that Justine and her mother, with this love and support and belief in him, effectively rescued his life when he was "going nowhere fast".

Despite all the talk of gardens globally, Diarmuid says that his most important role in life is being a dad to his young daughter Eppie. "I value this gift I've been given above any other and take the role seriously. All that matters at a certain stage in your life is ensuring that you give the next generation the best foundation you can.

"This doesn't mean the 'stuff' that kids will inevitably be surrounded by in the western world. It's trying to share good values, to teach the next generation what life is all about, to inspire them and prompt them to be individual," he says.

"I'm besotted with Eppie. I treasure every moment spent with her and have delighted in each day of her 10 years. I'm a strict dad, with rules. And she's a great kid. We have great fun together, surfing on the west coast, swimming and dreaming up gardens which she wants me to create."

I ask him what he was like as a kid himself. "As a child," he says, "I was lost. When I was six my younger brother, Conor died. A situation like that messes with a family. We survived, but there were tough years. I withdrew into myself for maybe 15 or 20 years, and became a dreamer."

So, Diarmuid Gavin didn't find God in a garden. But maybe more importantly, he found himself.

Sowing the seeds of stardom

  • Born May 1964, Diarmuid Gavin studied horticulture at the College of Amenity Horticulture in Glasnevin, Dublin
  • He has won numerous awards for his gardening creations, including an RDS Gold Award in 1991 and 1993, a bronze medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in 1995, a silver-gilt medal in 2004, and a silver-gilt medal in 2007, as well as a gold at Chelsea for his 2011 creation, The Irish Sky Garden
  • His television career has included appearances on Gardeners' World, Home Front and the Great British Garden Revival which will air on BBC Two in 2014
  • In 2004 he was a guest on the first series of the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing

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