Country Houses and the Arts

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Country Houses and the Arts

By the late twentieth century, Irish country houses built by members of the Protestant Ascendancy class began to be viewed as a significant part of the nation's cultural heritage. Growing support for preservation of these buildings marked a striking change in attitude; in the decades before and after independence in 1921, these estates were perceived as alien presences in the landscape by most Irish nationalists. Burnt-out shells of such houses are stark reminders of the destruction of Ascendancy homes during the Anglo-Irish and Irish Civil Wars. Unlike England's great houses, which were incorporated into the concept of national heritage early in the nineteenth century, the Ascendancy "big house" (an ambivalently derisive term for the country house that is unique to Ireland) signaled not community but division. In a colonial and postcolonial country, such division marked not just differences of class and wealth between landlords and tenants but also divisions of political allegiance, religion, and language.

Architectural History

Ireland's remarkable architectural flowering occurred during the eighteenth century when members of an Anglo-Irish Protestant oligarchy eager to display their growing wealth and status began a sustained program of building unfortified country houses. A young Irishman, Edward Lovett Pearce, carried out and supplemented the plans of the Italian architect Alessandro Galilei, who designed the central block of Ireland's major Palladian home, Castletown, Co. Kildare (since 1967 the headquarters of the Irish Georgian Society). Although a few examples of Classical and Palladian building existed before Pearce, his work revolutionized the architectural taste of a newly ascendant aristocracy. After Pearce's early death his influence was carried on by the German-born Richard Castle, who built some of Ireland's grandest houses. Pearce and Castle's architecture introduced wide-spreading Palladian elements already popular in England, particularly the center block joined to subordinate wings by straight or curved lines, a plan that was rapidly adapted to local needs in Ireland. Generally, the two architects modified and toned down the English Palladian style. In Ireland, for example, the wings were typically occupied by offices and farm buildings, instead of by additional reception rooms as in England.

Another characteristic form of eighteenth-century Irish architecture was the familiar vertical rather than horizontal Georgian block house. Three stories tall, with five to seven bays, these houses appear to be as high as they are wide. Such comparatively small eighteenth-century houses were often built in remoter parts of the countryside. Literary associations with several of them—Bowen's Court in County Cork (Elizabeth Bowen), Tyrone House in County Galway (Somerville and Ross), and Moore Hall in County Mayo (George Moore)—have brought this vertical Georgian architectural style to the attention of readers of big-house fiction.

Although Palladian architecture remained popular until the 1760s (later in the provinces), the influence of English neoclassical and Greek Revival architecture began to be felt by the second half of the century. In the 1760s, for example, the English architect James Chambers designed the exquisite neoclassical pleasure house, Marino Casino, beside the earl of Charlemont's villa at Clontarf, on the outskirts of Dublin. Later in the century and after union, architects such as James Wyatt and Francis Johnston introduced major neoclassical country houses.

Gothic Revival building arrived in Ireland as early as 1762, when under the sway of Horace Walpole's Strawberry Hill in England, the married owners of what was to be Castle Ward, in County Down, unable to agree on a single architectural style, imposed a Gothic side on a house with a Classical entrance front. In subsequent years, influenced by the Romantic movement and growing nostalgia for an antique past, many houses were pulled down and rebuilt in the newly revived Gothic style; others, retaining their classical shells, had battlements, arrow slits, and elaborate Gothic gateways added, with mock portcullises and coats of arms. The Gothic style played on the prominence of ruins in Ireland, where country estates often incorporated the remains of an old Norman tower or an abbey.

Generally, Irish country houses were smaller than their English counterparts (termed "great houses"), and changes in design and construction techniques came to Ireland twenty or thirty years after England. Architectural critics celebrate not just the grandest Irish buildings, but the high quality of countless well-proportioned and elegant small houses, whose creators were, according to Maurice Craig, "imbued with the language of classicism" (Craig 1976, p. 23). Although some of these buildings were designed by distinguished architects, others were put up by local builders working with pattern books.


High ceilings, well-proportioned rooms, and magnificent stairways are typical of large and small houses, but elaborate plaster-work decoration was a spectacular feature of the grander eighteenth-century buildings. Although the Italian stuccodores, the Francini brothers, Paul and Philip, and Bartholomew Cramillion are the most famous names, native artisans had worked with plaster even before the Palladian period, and the majority of neoclassical interiors were by Irish craftsmen. The Francinis introduced human figures into plaster decoration; their 1739 saloon ceiling at Carton, Co. Kildare, is a masterpiece that inspired a growing fashion. The leading Irish stuccodore, Robert West, learned and adopted the Italian designs and techniques, preferring the bird in flight to the human figure. His rococo plaster work was in turn followed by Michael Stapleton's neoclassical decoration, on occasion including painted roundels in the style of Robert Adam.

The furnishings of the grander Irish houses were generally purchased on the continent, but native Irish furniture existed and has become increasingly popular on the antiques market. In the pieces created between 1725 to 1775, before artisans adopted English Sheridan styles, exuberant carvings on dark wood often featured grimacing human, satyr, or animal faces reminiscent of the figures decorating pages of the Celtic medieval Book of Kells. Plain oval dining tables made with folding sides, so they could be carried outdoors, were called wake tables, as they were also used to display a coffin, surrounded by food and drink.


The walled demesnes, or private park lands, of Ireland's country houses formerly occupied nearly 6 percent of the country and always retained their function as farms for the landlords. The late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century geometrically planned grounds were dominated by tree-lined avenues and symmetrical gardens filled with statues and topiary surrounding the new unfortified country houses. But by the mid-seventeenth century Irish landscapers reacted against symmetrical formal gardens and adopted the revolutionary new English landscape park designs that were well suited to the Irish terrain. Houses now overlooked carefully constructed "natural" parklands of expansive lawns, clumps of trees, and even newly dug lakes; sunken fences, or ha-has, obscured the demarcation between the lawns and the further demesne lands; vegetables, fruits, and flowers were banished to walled gardens isolated from the house. Elaborate gateways and ornamental lodges at the demesne entrances offered a preview of the owner's taste and wealth, and eccentric follies and mausoleums attested to the Irish gentry's love of show.

With shortages of money and labor after the Great Famine of the late 1840s, few new parklands were created. A new enthusiasm for the collecting of exotic plants and trees led to the reintroduction of formal beds around houses. After the 1880s, however, the philosophy of the great Irish horticulturist William Robinson encouraged natural woodland gardens, bog gardens, and an ecological landscaping that became increasingly popular throughout the twentieth century.

Decline of the Country House

Many houses were built in the decades following union, as some members of the nobility and gentry retreated from Dublin into the countryside. However, after the Great Famine only the richest families built or remodeled, often in the Tudor Revival or Victorian Baronial style. The process of land redistribution that began with the Land Act of 1870 encouraged tenants to buy their own land from their landlords, and as great estates lost rental income and property, landlords increasingly became unable to maintain their homes and demesnes. Ironically, the neglect that led to the ruin of some houses also protected others from Victorian "improvements"; thus relatively more surviving Irish than English country houses retain their original features. The burning of approximately two hundred houses between 1920 and 1923 during the Anglo-Irish and subsequent civil war, particularly if the owner was thought to be pro-British, underscored the political hostility elicited by these monuments of Ascendancy culture and politics. Private stewardship of Irish country houses continued to decline long after independence. Many owners, now without the resources to support their former lifestyles, sold their homes for conversion into schools, convents, and hotels, or abandoned them to slow deterioration and eventual ruin or demolition.

The Irish Georgian Society was formed in 1958 to work for preservation in the Republic. Since the 1970s the decay and disappearance of country houses have received increasing attention, as public sentiment began to support tax concessions to owners of heritage properties viewed as major tourist attractions. In Northern Ireland important estates are owned by the National Trust, and in the Republic changes in the tax structure have aided owners struggling to maintain their houses. The Office of Public Works has taken several important buildings under its wing, and some houses are maintained through partnerships between owners and local authorities. The 1988 publication of Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, however, dramatically called attention to the "decay, loss and destruction" of almost 500 country houses in the Republic alone (Knight of Glin 1988, p. 6).

Big-House Literature

Literature written about declining Irish country houses reflects the preoccupations of a landlord class facing extinction. Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800) initiated a series of conventions that reappear in many subsequent novels: the improvident landlord, the decaying house and declining gentry family, and the rise of a predatory middle-class antagonist who seeks to acquire the landlord's property and position. Gothic novelists working in the tradition depict corrupt and guilt-ridden proprietors. The big-house motif appears in literature throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, predominantly in Irish novels by Edgeworth, Charles Lever, William Carleton, Charles Maturin, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, George Moore, Somerville and Ross, Elizabeth Bowen, Jennifer Johnston, Molly Keane, William Trevor, Aidan Higgins, and John Banville. In contrast to the generally ironic indictment of an improvident gentry class emerging from most big-house fiction, the early-twentieth-century poetry of William Butler Yeats celebrates the Anglo-Irish country estate as the symbol of a beleaguered spiritual aristocracy.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Estates and Demesnes; Georgian Dublin, Art and Architecture of


Aalen, F. H. A., Kevin Whelan, and Matthew Stout. Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape. 1997.

Bence-Jones, Mark. Ireland. Vol. 1 of Burke's Guide to Country Houses. 1978.

Bence-Jones, Mark. Twilight of the Ascendancy. 1987.

Craig, Maurice. Classic Irish Houses of the Middle Size. 1976.

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Hyams, Edward, and William Mac Quitty. Irish Gardens. 1967.

Knight of Glin, David J. Griffin, and Nicholas K. Robinson. Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland. 1988.

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Rauchbauer, Otto, ed. Ancestral Voice: The Big House in Anglo-Irish Literature. 1992.

Vera Kreilkamp

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