Despite the establishment of the Irish Heritage Trust, maintaining a big house is a big challenge. Brian O'Connellvists four landmark houses.
One of the knock-on effects of our recent prosperity has been a new acceptance of our colonial heritage, for so long a source of discomfort and national awkwardness. The remaining big houses that are dotted around our landscape are now regarded as intrinsic parts of our history, in need of preservation, and, to this end, the establishment of the Irish Heritage Trust last year, to identify properties in urgent need of assistance, was a step in the right direction.
Yet it may not be enough. It is difficult to estimate how many historic houses and estates in Ireland remain in the ownership of the original families; experts suggest there may be as few as 75. When you think that, in the 19th century, there were 6,500 big houses in the 26 counties, the landed class in Ireland is an increasingly endangered species.
At the department of history at NUI Maynooth, researchers led by Dr Terence Dooley are drawing up a database of 18th- and 19th-century houses and estates, but it will be some time before the results are made available.
Until recently, there was no major effort at Government level to ensure the survival of these country houses. Although they came within the remit of An Taisce, the agency's brief was quite broad, unlike trust organisations in Britain and most other countries in the EU.
Dr Dooley was commissioned by the Irish Georgian Society and the Department of the Environment in 2003 to examine the future of Irish historic houses, and his findings led to the establishment of the Irish Heritage Trust. How successful it will be in ensuring their survival is questionable, as funding remains a major issue.
Dooley paints a bleak assessment of the present situation: "Many of the homes that have passed from family ownership have been turned into hotels and golf courses, while quite a majority of the ones still in ownership have been opened as country houses, B&Bs and hotels. Some of them barely survive on farmland. It takes a considerable amount of land to support any farmer and his family these days, let alone try to run a monstrosity of a house on the back of a farm income. So, yes, these properties are in danger of passing out of ownership of original families, unless some form of support mechanism is devised."
From Bantry to Lismore, these houses survive as important monuments to our social and political history, as well as conserving the craftsmanship of generations of Irish men and women. Here are but four stories.
SOPHIE SHELSWELL-WHITE, ELDEST DAUGHTER OF THE OWNERS OF BANTRY HOUSE, BANTRY, CO CORK
"As far as our family history goes, much of what makes Bantry House what it is today is down to the efforts of the Second Earl of Bantry. When he came on the scene, the house was quite small compared to its size today. The property was extended and the earl then began a grand tour of Europe, where he collected much of what compromises the Bantry House Collection, such as tapestries from Italy and France. He made the house what it is today and also laid out all the gardens, based on a palace in Florence. The property has been in the family for 300 years.
We grew up in the house, and have only ever lived here, so I think all of us feel a strong connection. When we were younger, we shied away from it, mainly because of intrusion from the public. People were walking around every day and we lived here in one side of the main house, so in that respect it wasn't a particularly easy childhood.
Everyone says it must have been great living here, because you could play hide and seek all day long. And to be honest, we did play it a bit.
The dining room, right in the corner, was the best hiding location. We also used to run around looking for secret tunnels and passageways, mainly behind fireplaces. I kept thinking that one day I'd push something and it would open a secret room. But it never happened.
When I was very small and I couldn't sleep, my dad would bring me downstairs in the middle of the night and walk me around the house and tell me stories.
The big historical time for the house was the time of the French Armada. My ancestors got word they were on the way and told the British. So for our loyalty to the queen, we got an earldom. As it happened, the fleet drowned, so it never happened anyway. I've also been told that this area was not particularly rebellious - if the fleet had kept sailing to Galway, they may have had more success.
In order to keep the place going, my mum and dad started holding concert evenings many years ago. Dad has a great love of music, and plays the trombone quite well, while my mum has a great interest in classical music. They started holding small concerts in the evening, and at the start there would be just three or four of them sitting there. Francis Humphries, who runs the West Cork Music Festival, became involved, and they started having a festival 10 years ago.
Since then it has got bigger and bigger and now we have a concert every month, a 10-day festival in June and July and a traditional music festival in August.
These events have become a big part of Bantry House and are important to its continued survival.
We tried to go into weddings, and it could be great, but as it happens because we are open to the public, it doesn't work very well.
We were the first house in Ireland opened to the public in 1946; 60 years ago this year. My grandmother opened it because there is so much to see in the house, including tapestries from Versailles and some amazing Irish furniture. My favourite piece is a travelling Russian shrine from the 15th century, which is really special.
I think our place in modern Ireland is complicated. My ancestors stopped a rebellion, and there are certain attitudes towards us. But I think that's changing."
For further information, call 027-50047, or see www.bantryhouse.com
DESMOND FITZGERALD, GLIN CASTLE, GLIN, CO LIMERICK
"The most important artefact in this house is the longevity of the proprietorship of this tiny corner of land, which was at one time a huge lordship of FitzGerald and Desmond. Now practically all the landlords of this county are gone.
I was always interested in heritage, so I was quite happy to have the burden of history placed on my shoulders. I guess you could say that I have been obsessive about the subject ever since I was a child.
My mother encouraged it, but I also received a very important education in Limerick from a local chemist called Stan Stewart, who was an antiquarian. When my mother went shopping, I would disappear into the back of his shop and he would educate me. So I've always been interested in historic houses.
Financially, though, it can be a burden. We were fortunate in that my mother married a rich Canadian in the 1950s and restructured the house - if it wasn't for that, we wouldn't be here. Then, when my present wife and I came back here, her enthusiasm kept the place going for another generation. We first came back 34 years ago. The place was perfectly alright - maybe a little bit seedy. I had worked in the Victoria and Albert Museum for many years and thankfully my stepfather was sympathetic to my collecting and I was able to buy a lot of interesting material down through the years, which we brought with us. The house now has an important collection of 200 drawings and oils of Irish houses, parks and gardens, and an important collection of mostly Irish furniture. We quickly realised, though, that we couldn't sit around in a big house - it had to pay its way so we turned it into a modest bed and breakfast, the difference being that the set-up is rather like going into a private house. Thankfully we've never had a thing taken from the house - actually, maybe once in 35 years - which is a good record. I think people who stay here respect the history. We've been very lucky to have a dedicated and enthusiastic manager, Bob Duff, who has amazing people skills, so people who stay here are really looked after.
It's quite nice not being that big, but of course everyone will tell you you're mad and that you must have another 20 bedrooms, then a bigger dining room, and of course a golf course, and then a spa. This may be the way Ireland is going, but I'm happy going against the current. Perhaps in the future a trust will take over this place, but I'm quite optimistic as the children are all passionate about the property.
I feel that there should be a proportionate number of historic houses in the hands of the original owners.
The truth is, historic houses never pay their way, because there are not enough people to see them. There are a lot of benevolent, rich people in this country and I think we have to raise money from them, just like in the US or the National Trust in the UK. Otherwise, I don't think many of these places will survive another generation and the spectre of the white tent on the lawns of these kind of houses will become all too common."
SIR CHARLES COLTHURST, BLARNEY CASTLE, BLARNEY, CO CORK
"I think I became aware of my background while I was in second year at Cambridge. My father's half-sister died and he inherited the house. I became very conscious of it then, and also my degree was geared towards estate management.
I came back to Ireland in 1977, although I'd always been here on holidays and that type of thing. The main problem was how to inherit a place like this and keep it going and more importantly, keep it intact. At that time, capital tax was quite severe, and places such as this struggled to survive. After the Land Acts, the main raison d'être for us here would have been renting the land.
Our situation is unique, given the tourist remit. The castle started out as a tourist site in the late 1960s and is now attracting tourists in serious numbers, which keeps the place going. I do feel like a steward who has an opportunity to pass this estate to the next generation intact, and to the Irish people - that may sound a bit rich, but in fact it is for the Irish people. I hope that my son, who is 18, will be in a position to take it over some day, but there's only so much one can plan for.
As regards the landed class in Ireland in 2007, there's a seminar run for us in Maynooth every year, and the numbers of us attending get fewer and fewer. A lot of these lands have been sold off because there is no one to take them on, or they have been bought by a new breed of wealthy people and turned into hotels or golf courses. These places must exist in their landscapes and to isolate the house from the landscape makes no sense.
I think that the new trust set up to take over properties in trouble is not ideal in that it will only take on these places if they have an endowment in place. The main reason people need these places taken over is if they have no money, so if you're going to have a trust, it must be given plenty of money to take on properties that are in serious trouble. Otherwise, we don't mean it when we say we care about our heritage in this country.
Here in Blarney I'm currently doing a lot of research on the historical heritage of the house. A lot of the estate records going back weren't kept up, so it's a difficult task. We have little idea, for instance, about who might have stayed here. I do know that my grandfather on my mother's side was friendly with both Shaw and Yeats. I can only presume that the circle visited each other, so I can probably say they stayed here - although that could be a bit of Blarney.
There isn't one piece in the house that I would count as my favourite. I think the house in its entirety is dear to me. But I like the cellar, for instance. There would have been servants here up to the mid-1950s, and in the mid-1980s, we shifted the kitchen from downstairs to upstairs and moved the billiard room downstairs.
The reality is that a lot of artefacts were sold to pay the bills - only a fraction of what was here before remains. Much of what was in Irish country houses went to the US, and many buyers got the stuff cheap in 1950s. I think in the past the government took on board a lot of the hard work that was done by historic house owners to try preserve their properties. The new trust clearly has not enough teeth. It needs be funded properly, otherwise a lot more of these properties are going to fall by the wayside. I'm not sure if the political will is there to prevent that from happening."
SILVIA BRICKENDEN, CRATLOE WOODS HOUSE, CRATLOE, CO CLARE
"My husband Gordon is a direct descendent of the original owners and the only member of the family left with a link to Cratloe Woods House. We lived in Wicklow until 1983, when the agent who lived here died and we moved here to look after the place.
As far as I know, the house is the oldest Irish "long house" still inhabited. The idea of a "long house" is that there is no passage through each room. It is over 60 metres long in total. We really don't know why it was built. There is speculation that Máire Rua O'Brien gave the house to her grandson Lucius, who first resided here. The ghost of Máire is said to guard the driveway. But for her resourcefulness, the O'Briens might have forfeited their lands to English settlers. To keep the estates, the widowed Máire agreed to marry an English army officer. Their grandson, Lucius O'Brien, and his wife Catherine Keightly were the first occupants, shortly after their marriage in 1702. It would have been thatched originally.
We are fortunate in that we have many family portraits in the house still. The oldest furniture dates from the Georgian period, and most of the contents that are here have been here for generations. The second resident here, Lucius Stafford, married Susanna Stafford, who lived at Blatherwycke House in Northamptonshire, England. They had no boys, so that's why the house became known as Stafford O'Briens. We were very fortunate that the Staffords had money, property and land.
When we came back here in the early 1980s, the house was a little bit neglected. The gate lodge was uninhabitable, and we set about restoring the servant quarters. The old kitchen is now the tea room of the house.
If I were to pick one artefact in the house that I admire, it would have to be the paper flowers that were made by Elilzabeth Brickenden. I think they are really special.
We have been open to the public since 1987, and really the decision was made when tax relief on upkeep was introduced for public homes. There are so many ways the Government could still help, though. For instance, a re-roofing grant would be a big help. We put a slate roof on the house some years back, and are lucky in that our two sons live and work on the premises. They have converted the stables and are very much involved in restoration work. One of them helped build the Cragganowen project in Quin. We encouraged all our children to take an interest in the family heritage.
On the tourism side of things, we are not big enough to become a Bunratty, for example. I think that commercialising is one thing, but for us it is important to keep this place as a special site. We had been doing very well with American tours, but then 9/11 happened. We are only 10 miles from Shannon Airport and we were becoming quite busy, with tours calling in on their way to Shannon. Two days after 9/11, everything changed. I remember 23 coach tours were cancelled and really, it has never built up since then.
Anyone can go to a heritage centre, and there are loads of them everywhere, yet few places are providing a special organic experience, which we have here. We have had no issues with the local community; we are just locals like the rest of them.
I am optimistic about the future. I think things will pick up. We have many visits nowadays from historical, archaeological and gardening societies, who come here for their outings.
We don't employ anyone here as we try run the house ourselves - it is quite expensive, but we are determined to keep it going."
For further information, call 061-327028