History on a plate

With growing interest in historic homes, Regina Sexton says Fota House has one of the best preserved kitchens in the country

IN this week of celebrating our heritage, the diversity of events and the increase in their number over recent years is commendable. Yet it sets you to wonder about how we assign value to the past — to wonder about what we value and how we value it? Celebrating the past and coming to terms with our personal histories is one thing — as we cannot choose our family record — but coming to terms with the histories of others, or our general history as a nation, often proves more problematic.

The example of the big house in Ireland is a case in point. For a time we stood confused and ambivalent, reluctant to admit the house and the estate and all it stood for into our perception and manufacture of Ireland’s past. At a popular level, we questioned if this was our history at all. At official level, a distinct lack of interest served to deny a minority culture.

In 2003 a report (A Future for Irish Historic Houses? A Study of Fifty Houses) commissioned by the Irish Georgian Society in partnership with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, questioned the viability of the Irish historic house and the consequence of a legacy of poor state care.

The author, Dr Terence Dooley, NUI Maynooth, points out that “from independence to the early 1980s, successive governments showed a distinct lack of interest in these houses. Government policy on a number of issues from land acquisition and division, to taxation to conservation, impacted negatively upon historic houses with the result that the 20th century witnessed the demolition, abandonment or sale of scores of these houses and the dispersal of their contents worldwide.”

At best then, the big house was an oddity of the landscape, at worst it was the symbol of an exploitive imposed culture. And as that culture crumbled and headed to extinction, we have become curiously inquisitive — taking an almost illicit pleasure in imagining how this world must have been.

In the instance of the big house, the passage of time and the fading of memory seem to work in reframing our attitudes. The prevailing mood is more reconciliatory. As a nation, we are taking a more mature and diversified approach to how we look at and what we see.

Since 1958, the Irish Georgian Society has worked stoically and solidly in maintaining, conserving and restoring many of Ireland’s historic houses. As have bodies such as An Taisce, The Heritage Council and, since the 1980s, there has been government support for the preservation of the country’s built architectural heritage.

Terence Dooley points out that: “traditionally there was a marked dichotomy in Irish society between the minority who viewed historic houses as the creations of master architects and craftsmen, cultural artefacts worth preserving for future generations, and the majority who would quite gladly have seen them razed to the ground because they perceived them to be symbols of hundreds of years of colonial oppression at the hands of usurping landlords who shared none of the cultural, religious or political beliefs of the native population. It is probably safe to conclude that the majority have now become the minority, and arguably the worst times for these houses are over from the point of view of public awareness and political enmity.”

And once again, television has glossed our perception of the big, historic, country house. The runaway success of ITV’s period drama Downton Abbey has stoked up an appetite to see lives of luxury, leisure and privilege. Equally, we are captivated by the world of servitude and servants and by the goings on behind the green baize door — the dividing line between the calm front of house from the regimented world of work.

Closer to home we have something of our own Downton Abbey in the demesne of Fota in Cobh. I have reason to visit Fota House regularly because it has one of the best preserved 19th century county house kitchens in Ireland.

While similar in many ways to the kitchens in Strokestown House, in Roscommon and Muckross House, in Kerry, the kitchen in Fota stands alone in the complexity of its arrangement and its state of preservation. It really is something of a national treasure in that is provides a clear insight into the food and cookery styles of grand houses in the 19th century.

Of course, it also forces us to re-think our perception of food culture in Ireland. The kitchen complex at Fota is not simply a single cooking space but rather a chain of inter-related and linked production and storage areas. Most wonderfully, the central kitchen has a spectacular roasting range, ovens and boilers. Facing the roasting range, is a large charcoal stove by Perrott’s of Cork, where smaller cuts of meat and fish could be cooked more delicately, barbecue-style on gridirons over iron baskets containing charcoal. A walled-oven suggests the baking of bread, biscuits, pastry and pies. And the central wooden table was the station of the cook and her charges, where the diversity of ingredients and the array of kitchen utensils, moulds; pots; pans and shapes went to the recreation of dishes for fine dining.

Linked to the kitchen is the scullery, where food, especially fruits and vegetables, were washed and prepared. Linked again is the game and wet larder, an octagonal room of some rarity with a central carousel for hanging fur and feather game — after all, Fota began life as a hunting lodge of the Barry family. Further along is the dry store for keeping cooked and dry goods. And across the hall, is the stillroom, originally used for distilling, alcohol, cordials and medicines. Later it served as the housekeeper’s private kitchen and linked directly to her private dining room, where she and the upper servants took their meals.

As an artefact in its own right, the Fota kitchen complex tells not only the story of food as it is passed through the fashions of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian cookery, but it also connected with the concerns of food production on the estate. It was the bridge from farm and garden to the dining room.

The food on the plate and the style in which it was cooked spoke of the capability of the gardener, the capacity of the garden, the training of the cook, the industry of the gamekeeper, the stamina of the herdsman, the managerial eye of the housekeeper and the exchange of recipes between the landed elite.

Supportive yet set apart, the household staff also operated to its own principles and codes of hierarchy and rank.

Essentially then, the world of the big house was many worlds within the confines of the high walls. In part self-contained, in part exclusionary, and in part outward looking strengthening identity through contact with Britain, the house was a well-structured mix of insiders and outsiders.

As one representative example, Fota holds together many facets of the cultural heritage of the Irish country house. The structure of the house tells a detailed social history of flamboyance and segregation, of toil and leisure. Its architectural enhancement and redesign over time has left us a legacy of the work of architects Richard and William Morrison and John Benson. The pleasure and food gardens are of significant horticultural importance, while the arboretum is of international renown. Perhaps we are ready now to recognise that its preservation, and that of Ireland’s historic houses need not be seen, as Terence Dooley says “a celebration of the landlord system that facilitated their construction but rather a celebration of the great artistic achievements of the architects who designed them and the everyday works of craftsmanship of those who embellished them”.

However, recognition of their merits, validated in a willingness to preserve and restore them is but one way of how we assign value. Navigating the road to recovery can be a tricky and intractable business. Of the surviving houses, ownership is various — by the original families, by institutions and organisations, private individuals and by the State. For each of these categories of ownership there is a corresponding set of conservation/restoration problems.

Conservation, restoration, and maintenance demand money and lots of it.

The problems seem insurmountable but they are hardly new or surprising. Dooley’s report in 2003 highlighted the precarious future for the historic house and foremost amongst its recommendations was the call for establishment of a national trust-type body that might ‘overcome the conflict of interests inherent in government ownership of heritage and its responsibility for economic development.’

A further independent study and steering group report saw the subsequent creation in 2006 of the Heritage Trust — a limited company with charitable status, governed by an independent board and with State support in the initial years.

Fota was the first property it took to its care and over the past five years it has come a long way.

Today, there is a palpable sense of vibrancy in the house and gardens.

Kevin Baird, CEO of the Trust, explains that they uphold “a new model of operation, one that is at a distance from the public sector pattern, one which is financially sustainable and encourages people to participate in ways that they deem to be of value for themselves.”

The long-term objective is to make the house self-sustaining, and to date that has been achieved as the house’s income covers running costs. However, what is most refreshing is that the application of ‘care’ takes a three-pronged approach-conservation/restoration; community involvement and future plans for engagement through educational initiatives.

Care involves upholding and restoring the historical fabric and integrity of the house and gardens. The house’s collection of paintings has been re-instated. The dining room walls have been re-gilded by specialist gilder Susan Mulholland. The house has seen some of its wallpaper restored by David Skinner in partnership with conservation architect, John O’Connell. And most recently, carpet to original house design has been laid in a testament to the traditional looming skills of Ulster Carpets.

Community participation is encouraged through a volunteer programme and a calendar of entertainment and educational events hosted throughout the year. Learning and access officer with the Trust, Jennifer McCrea, for example, in association with secondary school teachers, is involved in the ongoing design and implementation of the Fota Learning Zone, an online education resource designed for transition and leaving certificate students.

The three aspects of care come together most spectacularly in the on-going restoration work in the frame yard — a walled garden of glasshouses, glass pit houses for hot beds, and a vinery. The frame yard lies at the heart of the fruit and vegetable production areas linking to the 3-acre orchard and the 1-acre kitchen garden. Restoration work has been directed by John O’Connell and historic garden consultant Finola Reid. The work is being carried out by specialists Cornerstone Construction and suppliers are local. Volunteers have an active involvement and the frame yard will accommodate a learning resource unit in the future.

The idea of what we value and how we value it is expressed variously at Fota — it is a microcosm of social, architectural, horticultural and botanical heritage; it is also simply a place of beauty; it validates the legacy of community service and involvement with the house and gardens and it’s also circulating money in the locality.

As a food and culinary historian with a special interest in the food economy of the country house, I continue to occasionally loll around the kitchen, dreaming of the day when it might be operational, and consider what might be best to serve in compliment to the gilded walls of the dining room.

A raised game pie decorated to excessive proportions? Or a twenty egg Savoy cake; ice pudding frozen in a pineapple mould…


* Clare & Cork — Open Day At Loop Head & Galley Head Lightkeepers’ Houses (Free), August 28,10am–4pm.

* Dublin — Garden Squares Day: St Stephens Green (Free). August 27, 10am–5pm.

* Kerry — Tracing Your Family venue: Kerry Library, Moyderwell, Tralee, August 25, 10am to 5pm.

* Kilkenny — Demonstration on Making Stained Glass (Free), August 27, 10:30am–12pm.

*Limerick — Irish Palatine Experience: The Story of German Settlers in Ireland.

venue: Old Railway Buildings Rathkeale, August 28, 2.30pm-5.30pm

* Tipperary — Historic Buildings and Gardens

venue: Ormand Castle, Carrick on Suir. Until August 28, 10am-5pm.

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