Pictures take you upstairs and downstairs in the ‘Big Houses’ of Ireland

An exhibition of Big House photos reveals some intimate moments in the lives of both the families and staff, says Tommy Barker

Pictures take you upstairs and downstairs in the ‘Big Houses’ of Ireland

A BIT like the advice on how to eat an elephant (in small bites, apparently) perhaps the way to look back into our past and the ‘Big Houses’ of Ireland — the Downton Abbeys of our shores — is through small snapshots and seemingly random flavours: that’s what a taster-plate exhibition in Cork has set modestly out on.

Today, thanks to the freedoms of digital photography and camera phones, everyone’s a photographer. In the 170-year history of the medium of photography, there’s been an exponential explosion in ‘capturing’ moments of time.

As a small example, Ireland’s National Photographic Archive in the National Library of Ireland has swollen from 630,000 images to more than 5m in the past two years alone. Once, we froze captured images on glass plates, on slides, on negatives, in a sort of printed aspic; now, with Facebook and file-sharing, such images are in the virtual cloud, countless at least, if not unlimited, and unarchivable.

So, eye up, and eat up, your elephant in small bites. That’s sort of what UCC archivist Emer Twomey did when she made a selection from the rich smorgasbord of images that toured the country from the National Library of Ireland back in 2011, in an exhibition entitled Power and Privilege, Photographs of The Big House in Ireland 1858-1922. She was able to mix it with side orders of original prints, images and facsimiles from UCC’s own burgeoning archives, from the Bantry Estate Collection, and from the Grehan Estate Papers from Clonmeen House, near Banteer for a bespoke take on the days of the big houses.

Almost 100 years since the founding of the State, and the decline of the landlord class, this country has got a less ambivalent attitude to the Big House and how it divided an already deeply stratified society. Put it down to the passage of time, or the Celtic Tiger conversion of so many great estates to luxury hotels, spas and golf courses now affordably open to the masses, thanks to NAMA ownership. There’s also an embarrassment of riches of coffee table books of faded, abandoned and even rehabilitated Georgian and Victorian architectural glories which we lap up.

As a nation, we might still ignore some extraordinary big house constructions as ivy entwines them, but at least we’ve stopped burning them down.

The UCC archivist’s take on this milieu is a small feast, rather than the big elephantine beast in the room, but it does whet the appetite for more.

“When I go through the images and archives, it’s the people behind them I’m interested in,” explains Twomey, with a practicality that explains why Downton Abbey is a quality soap with a focus on life upstairs and down, rather than a sort of Grand Designs Revisits 100-200 years on. Thus, many of the images in the UCC exhibition concentrate on the people in the big house and in their gardens and estates, rather than being a sterile ‘cut and paste’ of coffee table-book images of the architecture of dreams and oppression.

In the exhibition, which is shortly to transfer to the Cork City and County Archives in Blackpool until October, we see privilege, and underprivilege, as we’d see in any society, and we see day-to-day life in this curated exhibition that can relate to those whose roots were upstairs, or downstairs, or outside in a tent.

You could look all day at the faces, clothes and demeanour at the c 1900 ‘Coming of Age’ party for tenants at Snowhill, the Kilkenny/Waterford Power family’s estate, where staff are in serried ranks at trestle tables under canvas, to mark an important birthday of a Power family member, complete with straw hats and bunting — a sort of marquee wedding of the day.

For all the mutton-chop facial hair on the men, there’s another sheepish image in this UCC selection that’s visually compelling: five workmen in caps and shirt-sleeves, shearing sheep, in various stages of being shorn, while being watched over by three be-hatted gentlemen in jackets.

That’s from the Clonbrock Collection recorded by Luke Gerald Dillon (fourth Lord Clonbrock) and his wife Augusta, from 1860 to 1930, a trove of nearly 4,000 images from this Ahascragh, Co Galway estate which is one of the part of the National Library’s extensive collection.

Another captivating image is of a dozen or so family and friends (plus dog) in their finery outside the family’s studio, the so-called Photographic House, a picture-perfect frame from the 1870s, set in glass negative, and scanned now for posterity.

Other images range from the gardens of Bantry House (plus an image of the house with First World War naval Dreadnoughts anchored in shoals in the bay) to the formal Shamrock gardens at Woodstock, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny, where perfumed hedges were set at a height of 6” so that a scent would be released by a lady’s skirt brushing over them, surely an early, two-dimensional form of scratch and sniff photography.

Twomey’s selection includes facsimiles of pages from visitors’ books of the likes of the cottage ornée at Glengarriff (it contains an attempt at Irishism, ‘Tha Shea go Bra’) and even estate records at Banteer’s still-immaculate Clonmeen Manor, detailing how much was paid for the right to hunt rabbits on the estate, and stipulations of how many rabbits were to go up to the Big House, and how many back to the dogs that caught them.

*The exhibition continues at the Boole Library UCC Monday-Friday 8.30am–4.45pm and Saturday 10am–12:45pm until Jun 26, and then the photographic prints transfer to Cork City and County Archive, Blackpool, until October. See also:

www.nli.ie; www.booleweb.ucc.ie;www.corkarchives.ie

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