Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland by Patricia McCarthy review
Over-indulgence in alcohol and noisy use of the chamberpot characterised social life among the not-so-genteel Georgian upper class in ‘the long 18th century’
High living: a steward walks off in disgust at the antics of a drunk nobleman and his wife in The Tete A Tete (1743), from Marriage á-la-mode by William Hogarth. Photograph: Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images
Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland
Yale University Press
It is 45 years since Desmond Guinness and William Ryan produced Irish Houses and Castles. Although it would now likely be dismissed as best suited for a coffee table, the work was formative in engaging a wider audience with the subject than had hitherto existed. A terrifying record of loss of our country’s built heritage during the previous decades testifies to scant knowledge or interest here, but that situation soon began to change and the study of the Irish country house is today almost a mini-industry. Maynooth University even has a Centre for the Study of Historic Houses and Estates, run by Prof Terence Dooley.
While initial interest was primarily architectural, evolution has again occurred and, thanks to the efforts of pioneers such as Dr Toby Barnard, we have become much more familiar with what is called the material culture of the Irish country house, the manner in which they were furnished and occupied.
Patricia McCarthy’s handsome new book can be judged a celebration and a synthesis of all that has gone before, culminating last year in a revelatory exhibition on the Irish decorative arts staged at Chicago’s Art Institute. Like that show, McCarthy takes in the panoramic sweep of the Georgian period, what has become known as “the long 18th century”, an era running from the aftermath of the Battle of the Boyne to the onset of the Great Famine.
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The approach offers obvious advantages, but it can also be a source of vexation since over the course of some 150 years much changed, both in the appearance of domestic architecture and in the purposes to which it was put. McCarthy herself appears confounded on occasion by the abilities of a room to alter its name and function.
What, for example, can be the definition of a parlour when its character was so fluid? McCarthy proposes that the parlour “was a convenient informal room used by the family as a livingroom, where items used on a daily basis were stored”. Indeed this was often the case, but in the first half of the 1770s the Scottish architect Robert Adam designed a vast saloon at Headfort, Co Meath, which he called the “eating parlor”.
The coupling of the words eating and parlour is unusual, as is the use of such a very grand room for taking meals. This may reflect the social aspirations of the Taylours, who commissioned the work at Headfort, keen to compete with what was being done elsewhere. Writing to her sister in October 1778, the first countess of Portarlington described life at Carton, Co Kildare, home of the duke and duchess of Leinster: “Everything seems to go on in great state here. The Duchess appears in a sack and hoop and diamonds in an afternoon, French horns playing at every meal, and such quantities of plate, etc, that one would imagine oneself in a palace.”
Musical accompaniment, especially from brass instruments, can hardly have been conducive to good digestion, but perhaps the Leinsters felt obliged to live up to the character of their diningroom, its coved ceiling covered in Lafranchini plasterwork depicting the courtship of the gods.
More often performers, particularly fiddlers, appeared at the end of a meal to add to diners’ merriment. In the 18th century Irish houseowners were renowned for enjoying the pleasures of the table, where – as Sir Jonah Barrington’s entertaining memoirs recount – they often lingered longer than was advisable. Once women retired from the table, consumption of alcohol began in earnest and the need to relieve oneself, coupled with a desire not to relieve the company of one’s presence, meant chamber pots were widely used.
Travelling in this country in 1828, the German Prince von Pückler-Muskau was aghast on one occasion when an elderly admiral “made much use of this facility for a good ten minutes, during which period we felt as if we were listening to the last drops from a roof gutter after a long past thunderstorm”.
As McCarthy notes, pots for this purpose were often kept in a cupboard in the diningroom, but in some houses there is a small recess behind window shutters intended as storage space.
Pückler-Muskau may not have cared for that aspect of Irish country life, but he certainly relished the generosity of his hosts, not least that of Daniel O’Connell, whom he made a point of visiting at Derrynane, Co Kerry. The journey, undertaken in appalling conditions, almost cost the prince his life, and when he finally arrived a large party of almost 20 was finishing dinner. “A tall, handsome man of kindly appearance came towards me, excused himself that he had not expected me at so late an hour, regretted my journey in such terrible weather, presented me for the time being to his family, who constituted more than half the company, and then led me to my bedroom. This was the great O’Connell.”
At Derrynane, as elsewhere, there was a superabundance of servants. “We keep many of them in our houses,” the Rev Samuel Madden declared in 1738, “as we do our plate on our sideboards, more for show than use. . .” Wages here were lower than elsewhere on these islands and larger numbers could be employed, so that, as Lady Portarlington wrote of Carton, “there are servants without end”. At least for the first half of the 18th century their accommodation was frequently as primitive as the lavatory arrangements, with straw mattresses thrown down on whatever floor space could be found. Circumstances in these and other areas improved with the passage of time.
The development of the Irish domestic dwelling bears witness to the emergence of ever-greater fastidiousness: in our own age, for example, an ensuite bathroom has become de rigueur and the thought of sharing such facilities, especially with strangers, viewed with a horror that would be judged ludicrous by preceding generations. Whether it was having to dine to the sound of French horns or searching the sideboard for a spare chamberpot, country house living was more robust and less genteel than can now appear to be the case. Patricia McCarthy is to be applauded for bringing the realities of this world to our attention.
Robert O’Byrne is a former vice-president of the Irish Georgian Society; he blogs about Ireland’s architectural heritage at theirishaesthete.com