So what was life really like inside the ‘Downton Abbeys’ of Ireland?
Yes, they were lavish homes with battalions of servants and thousands of acres and the occupants spoke with upper class British accents, even though many regarded themselves as Irish.
But the ‘landed gentry’ are now a part of history, often regarded as eccentric and many of their elegant homes, the so-called Big Houses, are in ruins.
Their descendants are still around, however, and love to recall their family stories and memories of carefree, youthful days in the stately homes and expansive estates surrounding them.
Stories of the Shelswell-Whites of Bantry, the Sharp Bolsters from Kanturk, and the Dennys, Kenmare and Lansdowne estates in Kerry, to give just a few examples, are woven into the history and lore of the countryside.
Most can trace their origins back to families that came here from England in the 16th and 17th centuries, acquiring vast tracts of land, confiscated from Irish owners.
Marrying and mixing among themselves, they became an elite caste and truly lived in a privileged world of their own, well apart from mainstream society.
But massive change came with the War of Independence. The majority of the families were seen as pro-British and upwards of 200 of their mansions were burned down during the violence that led to independence in 1922.
Following the establishment of the new State, many of remaining houses went into gradual decline and the families became more alienated, in numerous cases selling their crumbling properties and leaving the country.
To this day, nevertheless, there is a fascination with the lives of the gentry and what went on behind the walls of the Big Houses, as evidenced by the recent success of the TV series Downton Abbey.
The people who can remember everyday life in the houses are now ageing but, due to timely research by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe from Tralee, they have recorded their recollections and helped trace their family histories.
Interviewed for a new book by Ms O’Hea O’Keeffe, Voices from the Great Houses, Cork and Kerry descendants of the families offered valuable insights into a vanished way of life.
The Somerville family has maintained an unbroken link with West Cork since the 1700s and the old home, Drishane House, in Castletownshend, is owned by barrister Tom Somerville who lives there with his family.
Although his great-great-uncle Boyle Somerville, a retired royal navy admiral, was shot dead by the IRA in 1936, Mr Somerville said relationships between the family and local people had always been very good.
“Also, it may have been known that the family was broadly in favour of Home Rule, my great-great-aunt Edith certainly was. She wrote a letter to the London Times pleading for clemency before the British, very stupidly, shot those involved in the 1916 Rebellion,” he said.
And everything about life behind the high stone walls wasn’t as idyllic as generally perceived. Indeed, it could be repressive for children as the late Egerton Shelswell-White of Bantry House once recalled.
Comparing the estate wall to a prison wall keeping him in rather than others out, he said: “So, I had to run down a hill and jump over the gate to get out. It was easier than having to ask my parents for the key all the time and it felt like escaping from prison!”
The book, published by Mercier Press, will be launched in Muckross House, Killarney, on Saturday by Arts and Heritage Minister Jimmy Deenihan.
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