More than just bricks and mortar: it’s history

For some they were a symbol of oppression and decadence. Now they are simply a fascinating example of history brought to life, writes Mary Leland.

The Irish Country House: Its Past, Present and Future

Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgeway, editors

Four Courts Press; €55

VISITORS to the palaces, stately homes or large country houses in Ireland or abroad are often directed by their guides towards a particular theme of occupancy; in Ireland this is perhaps too often suggested as the life experience of household staff, from scullion to groom, from dairy-maid to butler. It is as though the identification must be with life below stairs or beyond the green baize door.

There is no denying that accounts of the servant routine can be fascinating, providing one doesn’t have to share it. Kitchens, their customs and commodities are especially intriguing when well presented, and if there are well-managed gardens or surviving stables or farm buildings (although sadly these are often left to decay) then these too support the idea of the labourer rather than the lord as the vital element of the visitor experience.

Yet although the landowner or proprietor is central to the property’s provenance and significance, correctives to such trends are not usually popular, especially again in Ireland. Here, as RV Comerford writes in his introduction to The Irish Country House, the Big House had been made into a symbol of oppression and decadence in order to justify such political developments as the land war or the witless and malicious destruction inflicted both during the War of Independence and the Civil War. Still perceptibly lingering in Ireland such an attitude, writes Comerford, reveals “a pathetically narrow understanding of history”.

On the other hand organisations such as An Taisce and the Irish Georgian Society took up early defensive positions articulated as “a morally charged, uncompromising notion of preservation, or restoration to a supposed pristine state”; opposition which suited land-hungry developers very well as it could be (and was) dismissed as “cranky or simply unrealistic”. It is to find the best way between these two responses that the essays collected here have been invited. They have been amassed since 2004 from the annual conferences on the Historic Houses of Ireland held by NUI Maynooth’s Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates; they review in their wide-ranging and extremely well-researched scope a hundred years, from 1911 to 2011, a century in which, as the editors suggest in their preface, “Animosity, vandalism and neglect have given way to appreciation, preservation and restoration.”

In his consistently scholarly and equable approach Dr Terence Dooley, founder of Maynooth’s Centre, gathers the arguments without losing sight of their central theme, the survival, if there is to be one, of the Irish country house: “historic” is not always applied as in a sense all these remaining estates are implicity historic. And this is the focus of what may be the most intriguing and futuristic chapter in the book. Written by co-editor Christopher Ridgeway, ‘Making and Meaning in the Country House’ provides a long and intensely interesting argument for the preservation not only of a house itself but of its written records, its muniments. For these are the history of the place, of the estate, of the village or town, of the townland, of its farms and holdings.

No-one who has been to Doneraile Court, for example, could ignore the fact that even in its current condition of managed indifference the house, its gardens, orchards, laundry, dairy and all associated offices operated much as an industrial estate does now. Typically of its function and status it formed a crucial element of the local economy; it was located close to the main street of the town and drew many of its staff, outdoors and indoors, from the people of the town.

In houses such as this leases, rent agreements, merchant and tradesmens’ bills, land sales, property allocations and allotments, marriages and annuities, disputes, issues of schooling, politics and religion all came to be recorded and in many cases those invaluable records survived.

It is on the discovery of such documentation for example that the marvellous Famine Museum could be developed at Strokestown Park in Roscommon, quoted here as a miraculous comparison with Wentworth Woodhouse in Britain, where the last Earl FitzWilliam burned 16 tons of estate and family papers in a bonfire that blazed for three weeks.

“It was the papers that saved Strokestown,” new owner Jim Callery is quoted as saying, showing how the story of the house was spread far beyond that of its immediate occupants. Clonalis, ancestral home of the O’Conor Don, has a special manuscript room where more than 10,000 documents remain in the care of the family as items integral to the identity of the house.

Ridgeway’s essay tackles other contentious or complex issues relating to historic properties There is always the question of presentation, of when a house is to be set still, of when its history might be thought to have ended.

In other chapters there is a disturbing examination of our most vicious expression of animosity, that triumph of reprisal and sometimes undisguised greed, which for a few years made Ireland resemble the Zimbabwe we learn of today with cattle drives, stolen stock, and the sometimes brutal destruction of thriving farms.

The historic context is well established and narrowly examined as with the impact of the Act of Union and of the Wyndham Acts: an aspect of this legislation which promoted the sale of property from landlord to tenant was the still-rumbling argument on sporting rights, with landlords anxious to hold on to bogs and beats for shooting or fishing. Such a compilation of dedicated studies on a troubled and wide-ranging topic is not often handled with such a pleasing balance of scholarship, experience and commitment. From Castletown to Castle Hyde, from the building of Adare Manor to the burning of country houses in Offaly from 1920 to 1923 and the integration of educational as well as recreational opportunities in the management of historic properties, ‘The Irish Country House, Its Past, Present and Future’ celebrates above all the ability of such places to transform themselves, time after time.

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