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Meet the 2024 Antiques at the Gardens Honoree: William R. Ireland, Jr.

Around the Gardens Blog


Bill Ireland jokingly calls himself a “reluctant gardener,” but as he scrolls through photos of flowers in bloom and freshly cut boxwoods in the established English-style gardens at his recently purchased Redmont Park home, it’s clear that an appreciation for gardens was passed down from his mother Fay, a prodigious gardener with deep roots in the Birmingham Botanical Gardens history.

“What they don’t tell you about gardening is that it’s never done,” said Bill. “There is always something that needs attention, whether it be upkeep or adding and subtracting from the landscape. Just because you inherit a garden, doesn’t mean the job is done,” he mused.

It’s much like that with his family’s philanthropic work, in that he sees himself as inheriting and representing a broader Ireland legacy. “As honoree, I hope it to be a celebration of my mother and the philanthropic legacy of the Ireland family. My function is to carry forward that legacy and honor their passion and vision.

“My family—my grandmother Kitty; my Aunt Mallie; my cousins Kacy, Mallie, and Nonie; and especially my mother, Fay—they’ve all been supporters of the Gardens, so I’m continuing and preserving a family tradition.”

Bill Ireland, 2024 Honoree

Visitors to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens see the impact of the Ireland family in obvious ways. For example, the Ireland Iris Garden, the Ireland Old-Fashioned Rose Garden, the Ireland Room …but they may not notice the more subtle influences. For example, the turkey statue in the Ireland Iris Garden and the heron sculpture “Interlude” in the Hill Garden are both gifts to the Friends from the Ireland family and a nod to Bill’s father’s love of Alabama wildlife and wildlife art.

But Fay’s contributions have breathed life into the Gardens. Fay donated the Shumard oaks at the Gardens’ entrance in honor of her grandchildren. Other contributions were even more personal. “Mother loved digging in the dirt,” says Bill. “You could often find her working in the potting shed with other volunteers and City employees. That’s what she liked the most.”

Many perennials in the Gardens are plants that Fay gifted to the Gardens. The popular Fall Plant Sale evolved from the Fall Fiesta, started by Fay. She also lent her talents to leadership roles, serving on the master plan committee throughout most of the 1980s, and later by serving on the board of directors.

Bill continues to honor his mother’s legacy by serving multiple years on the board of directors and the executive committee for the Friends of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

“I come from the perspective that the Gardens are great for Birmingham. They are an asset for economic development, and certainly for quality of life here.

I understand that the better the Gardens become, the better Birmingham becomes,” said Bill. “So many people walk the Gardens and enjoy it as an attraction. If they are local, it enriches their lives; if they are visiting, it enriches their opinion of Birmingham—it is another jewel that makes Birmingham a better place.”

He continued, “Any improvements made to the Gardens will improve Birmingham. My father saw that. He was very community-oriented—and supporting the Gardens was supporting my mother’s vision.”

The Irelands’ philanthropic roots run deep. “My grandmother Kitty (Katharine Ireland) grew up during the Depression. Her sons, Glenn, and my father, ‘Little Bill,’ pulled her into philanthropy from a place of hardship, and that brought her joy. I believe philanthropy is a learned behavior. Someone has to model that for you.”

Bill said his models were exceptional. “Dad and Glenn typified the moniker of the ‘Greatest Generation,’ becoming the driving forces in philanthropy in our family, and of course, that was taught to the next generation. I am proud to carry that torch for my family.

“It’s not by happenstance that all of the things that I work on philanthropically are extensions of my parents’ passions,” said Bill. “I’m also currently raising money for The Nature Conservancy—my father was one of the premier conservationists in Alabama. Through the Ireland Opportunity Fund, we are buying and protecting strategic and vulnerable pieces of land to preserve key habitats for endangered species or important plants. That’s conservation in perpetuity, which I think is very valuable. And it’s complementary to the Gardens and the work the Gardens does to showcase Alabama’s biodiversity.”

Like his garden at his new home, Bill knows that work at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens will never be “done.” He believes that the best days for the Gardens lie ahead. “I see wonderful things on the horizon for the Gardens. We have the opportunity to elevate the Gardens’ stature as one of the premiere gardens in the Southeast, if not the nation.

“The devotion that my mother had for the Gardens is shared by so many,” he said. “The many hours invested by the team of chairs, volunteers, and staff to bring Antiques at the Gardens to fruition demonstrates that.”

“I appreciate the kind recognition of my family’s support of the Gardens. It’s meaningful. Not only is this event an important fundraiser for the Gardens, but it serves to showcase this oasis in our city. There is potential to be unleashed that will be ignited by people’s passion for the Gardens.”