The term ‘The Big House’ – universally understood in Ireland and the subject of this exciting new study by Terence Dooley, Professor of History at Maynooth University and author of The Decline of the Big House in Ireland (2001) – would never be used for a simple large house.
The large houses were the homes of the Anglo-Irish landlord class. Some survive, but hundreds were destroyed by fire in 1920-22 during Ireland’s struggle for independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and the civil war that followed the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 (which established the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, the latter remaining in the United Kingdom). From relatively modest Georgian country houses to some of the grandest ever built in Ireland, their broken gables silhouetted against rainy skies were ubiquitous in my childhood. One remained empty but reasonably intact to be offered as accommodation when my grandmother became director of a small village: a practical woman, she chose a small cottage instead.
The traditional explanation for their loss was an orgy of patriotic arson, which viewed their very architecture as colonial oppression. However, in this important reassessment, drawing on contemporary accounts, earlier regional studies, and a wealth of recently released archival material, Dooley argues for a much deeper examination of the social and economic history of the past 70 years. Greedy tenants of unviable small farm land, despite earlier sales and the dismantling of many estates, were a more powerful engine, suggests Dooley; in some cases, the arsonists directly benefited from the distribution of state land.
The first part of the book has the dry feel of an expanded dissertation, heavy with footnotes, light in color. Anyone not reasonably acquainted with late 19th and early 20th century English and Irish history may get lost among the names of politicians and public figures, but once the fires started, the story heats up. By this time many houses had skeleton staff and huge backlogs of repairs, their debt-ridden owners had already decamped to England. Looting inevitably followed the fires, with tales of locals showing up with carts and prams to choose from the contents piled on the lawns. Furniture from the grander rooms was often discarded in favor of more useful beds from the servants’ quarters. Dooley points out that so few homes had complete or up-to-date inventories, there were claims of flamboyant Rembrandt and Van Dyck, and a small-town lawyer whose walls were suddenly covered in beautiful paintings.
Some were really big houses: the book, poorly served by grimy reproductions of grainy black-and-white photographs, badly needs decent plates to show off their quality. Summerhill, a Palladian mansion in Meath, was considered the greatest loss in architectural terms, but Mitchelstown Castle in Cork, the scene of a famous late-era 1914 garden party described in Elizabeth Bowen’s memoir , was a monster. Ireland’s largest neo-Gothic castle, built in 1823-25 for a reputed £100,000, it had 100ft towers, three libraries and a dining hall that could seat 100 people. The blaze, fueled by looted gasoline and furniture stacked in the bedrooms, was seen for miles. The claim for compensation, like many, rumbled for decades, but it could never have been rebuilt: instead, truckloads of hewn limestone were sold as salvage and used to build a Cistercian monastery in Mount Melleray, in County Waterford, an irony that could wink at a novelist.
•Terence Dooley, Burning down the big house: the story of the Irish country house in times of war and revolutionYale, 368pp, 63 b/w illustrations, £25/$35 (hb), published in UK March 8 and US April 19
• Maev Kennedy is a freelance journalist specializing in the arts and archeology and a regular contributor to The arts journal