Anyone who comes across Tyrone House outside Kilcolgan in east Galway will not easily forget the sight. A magnificent Palladian granite pile, built in 1779 to impress the gentry and intimidate the tenantry, it now sits gaunt, roofless and windowless, utterly out of scale in a tiny stone-walled field that is the last pitiful scrap of the huge estate that paid for it.
The evidence of the eye alone tells you that these landlords were not well-loved. They were the St. Georges, seventeenth-century arrivals from Cambridgeshire who did very well for themselves. The Tyrone House family are now best known as the models for the Prendevilles in Edith Somerville’s The Big House of Inver (1925):
“Five successive generations of mainly half-bred and wholly profligate Prendevilles lived out their short lives in the Big House, living with country women, fighting, drinking, gambling.” Somerville’s attitude to their Irish acquisitions is neatly summed up in the family motto she invents for them, Je prends, “I take”.
In literary terms, the book is most valuable for its extraordinary portrait of the central character, “Shibby Pindy” (Isabella Prendeville), the illegitimate daughter of the last great landlord, Captain Jas, and her obsessive attempts to re-unite the Big House with its lost demesne. Somerville uses her to dramatise the ongoing decay of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, its slow absorption into the culture that surrounded it and which it despised.
But the first four chapters, giving the historical background to the main story, are a masterpiece of family and local history. Somerville was thoroughly Anglo-Irish, but also an outsider. In these chapters she is utterly in command of her raw material, the intricate genealogies of the landed gentry of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Ireland, and she treats them with superb high irony and masterful storytelling. This is the complexity of Irish history as it occurred, told by a woman who knows her opinions are part of that complexity. And she never hid her opinions. When de Valera came to power in 1933, she wrote “the powers of Darkness have triumphed”.
['Irish Roots archive from 2009 at www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/magazine/column]