Not just glorified villas

ARCHITECHTURE: The Irish Country House: Its Past, Present and Future Edited by Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgeway Four …

ARCHITECHTURE: The Irish Country House: Its Past, Present and FutureEdited by Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgeway Four Courts Press, 267pp. €55

IT IS A DECADE since Terence Dooley published The Decline of the Big House in Ireland, a work that will surely be seen as seminal in changing attitudes towards this topic. Since then the number of art and architecture students addressing aspects of the Irish country house and its history has grown considerably, not least thanks to the establishment of a centre for the study of historic Irish houses and estates under the auspices of NUI Maynooth's history department. Since 2004, the centre has organised an annual conference in Maynooth, and now some of the papers given at them have been brought together under the editorship of Dooley and Christopher Ridgeway, curator of Castle Howard, in Yorkshire.

Areas covered range from a discussion of Castletown, in Co Kildare, and its originator, William Conolly, by Patrick Walsh (whose book on the same subject appeared last winter), to Allen Warren’s consideration of the so-called ascendancy’s twilight and the big house in the present century. In their variety, these essays indicate how very new is serious analysis of the Irish country house and how many avenues remain to be explored. Yet at the heart of the book, metaphorically if not literally, lies Patrick Cosgrove’s study of Irish landlords and the 1903 Wyndham Act. Devised by the British government’s then chief secretary for Ireland, George Wyndham, this defining piece of legislation allowed tenants to purchase their holdings from landlords thanks to loans from central government; the same source likewise paid landlords for the disposal of their property. Under the terms of the act, 9,410 estates, representing more than three and a half million hectares of land, would change hands.

It is true, as Cosgrove notes, that many owners, impoverished and dispirited, rushed to take advantage of the scheme, but just as many viewed it with mistrust and even resentment. “Is it reasonable to tell me,” exclaimed the fourth earl of Dunraven, “that the Irish landowners are the only Irishmen who attach no importance and have no love for the soil?” Likewise, Lord Oranmore and Browne protested against the widely held view that the Wyndham Act was a boon to Irish landlords, commenting, “We have no wish to part with our property . . . We do not wish to become a sort of glorified villa residents enclosed in our own park wall, and separated in sympathy from the outer world.”


Here, in essence, is the reason why Wyndham's legislation unintentionally proved so damaging to the future of the Irish country house: separated from the surrounding land that had sustained it, transformed into a "glorified villa", the big house lost both a critical source of revenue and, more importantly, a raison d'etre. As a result, the way they were perceived by owners and observers alike fundamentally changed during the 20th century. This is one of the themes considered by Ridgeway in his contribution to the book, as he investigates how the country house is regarded, not just in this country but also in England and Scotland. He notes that after a long period of public indifference about the fate of such properties, events such as the Victoria and Albert Museum's 1974 exhibition The Destruction of the Country Houseled to a shift in attitude exemplified in the middle of the following decade by another exhibition, The Treasure Houses of Britain, staged at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The effect of these and other shows, not to mention television series such as 1981's Brideshead Revisited(and last year's Downton Abbey), was to transform perception of the country house so that its aesthetic qualities became of paramount concern. Of late, there has been a further shift so that, as Ridgeway remarks, these buildings "are no longer primarily 'treasure houses', they are now 'story houses', with visitors displaying a boundless appetite for information regarding the lives and activities of the occupants of these houses and estates". This change in approach is explored in an essay on education and the historic house by Danielle O'Donovan and Jennifer McCrea who, no doubt inadvertently, censure the Irish education system for being overly preoccupied with "relevance" to the school curriculum.

Indeed, relevance might be considered the leitmotif of Ridgeway’s contribution, particularly as he makes a plausible case for the ability of country houses in this country to adapt and evolve to changing circumstances. His argument is flawed, however, as, like so many other commentators, he seems to perceive houses as separate units – as glorified villas – rather than as being integral parts of a much larger whole. He emphasises the importance of country-house archives, yet this very source invariably demonstrates that the house traditionally lay at the centre of a large working estate, possession of which allowed, indeed obliged, generations of owners to engage in public affairs. The country house was just one element, albeit the most visible, of a larger organism.

This is why contentions that an Irish country house has somehow been “saved” when converted into a hotel or golf club are so specious: one might just as easily propose a tree has survived even though all its branches are lopped off.

Perhaps this is an area for discussion at a future conference, and so too might another subject unfairly overlooked in the present book: the present generation of researchers’ forebears. More attention, and honour, should to be paid to those writers who tackled the subject of the Irish country house before it caught the attention of academia. As went the Fianna Fáil 2002 general election slogan: a lot done, more to do.

Robert O’Byrne’s most recent book is a biography of Desmond Leslie, published by the Lilliput Press