A glimpse of life inside the Big House

Patrick Cooney spent a decade “dropping in and out” of the lives of four members of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy for his documentary, The Raj in the Rain, which will be screened on Sunday during the Kinsale Arts Festival.

A glimpse of life inside the Big House

There are many charming moments in it, among them Olivia Durdin-Robertson’s description of the eclipse of her class. Apparently, there are less than 30 families in Ireland who occupy their original estates.

“They were living in this dream world,” she says. “It was all described by Elizabeth Bowen, a marvellous lady, but it was terribly dismal because they were all has-beens. I remember getting to this house — a Georgian palace, with all the old cabins around it — and they’d be playing these records, rather cracked, of Noel Coward, but why not? When you’re dead you can create a sort of bubble for yourself of some world in which there are French windows and ‘who’s for tennis?’.”

Durdin-Robertson, a descendant of Walter Raleigh, is a fascinating character with an interest in mysticism. She never married. “They were far prettier than we were — the Irish girls; that was generally decided. They had smaller teeth but bigger hands and feet,” she says. She’s effortlessly articulate like the other three characters profiled — the historian Mark Bence-Jones of Glenville Park, Co Cork; Josslyn Gore Booth, who sold Lissadell House (one of the houses where WB Yeats used to cavort) in Co Sligo in 2003; and John Leslie, a second cousin of Winston Churchill, who’s become famous for his nightclubbing escapades. There’s footage of him in the documentary dancing in a club to rave music. Vivacity is one of their abiding traits.

“Both Olivia and John are the same age — they’re both 97 this year,” says Cooney “Yes, they’ve had lives of privilege, but they’re still alive, with a lot to say, and there’s nothing remotely snobby about them. The difference with their English counterparts is they realised they had to assimilate.”

Leslie paints a beguiling picture of life for the Ascendency when he was a boy. His family had 10 servants, about six gardeners, and other ancillary staff such as gamekeepers. His family were “always changing clothes,” he says, based on their itinerary, which included swimming and rowing on their lake, tennis, horse-riding and pheasant-shooting. In the evenings, he had to change into a dinner jacket and bow-tie for dinner. Afterwards, they’d pass the time in the drawing room playing records, bridge, cards or charades. It’s all changed now, though, due to unsustainable maintenance costs on their houses.

“The house owns you; you don’t own it,” says Cooney. “And you don’t live in it — you live in a small part of it, normally. You essentially become a museum curator, a caretaker or in the case of the younger generation who are going to make a go of the houses, an entertainments manager. That enables you to keep a roof over your head, but would you fancy that?

“You have an incredible amount of responsibility to previous generations to keep it going even when you want to break the link. Josslyn Gore Booth had to make that decision after 400 years. He said he didn’t want to put this weight around the necks of his children.”

* The Raj in the Rain will be screened as part of the Kinsale Arts Festival at Acton’s Hotel, 2pm, Sunday, July 14. kinsaleartsfestival.com

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