Design: Houses made for parties

Life in an Irish Georgian home was cold and uncomfortable but great when you had friends round.
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The Independent Culture
No one described the Irish Georgian country house better than the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen: "Each house seems to live under its own spell, and that is the spell that falls on the visitor from the moment he passes in the gates. The ring of woods inside the demesne walls conceals, at first, the whole demesne from the eye: this looks, from the road, like a bois dormant, with a great glade inside. Inside the gates, the avenue often describes loops, to make of itself more extravagant length

The ghostly remnants of Ireland's brief period of architectural glory today consist largely of handsome gateways in remote parts of the country, with long overgrown avenues leading to nothing. The remaining houses, in town and country, lovingly preserved and restored by impoverished owners or conservationists, are currently being snapped up at huge prices by millionaires and pop singers from overseas. Perhaps this is not as unsuitable as it sounds for the great houses of Ireland were, as the late Molly Keane put it, "houses built for parties".

The Irish Georgian house differed from the English one in precisely that respect. Both the English residents of the Dublin Georgian townhouses and the Anglo-Irish owners of the country houses viewed Ireland as a glorious playground. The occupants lived for parties, hunting, shooting, fishing.

Stella Tilyard in her book Aristocrats describes the big Irish house as "a voracious maw, consuming huge numbers of animals, hundreds of tons of fuel and dozens of grocery consignments". Most of those groceries were, incidentally, imported from London, including Limerick bacon, which had to describe a boomerang manoeuvre before arriving under its silver dome on the Irish breakfast table. A favourite dinner party speciality was peacock pie actually made with pheasant but the pie's exquisite namesake was slaughtered so that its head and feathers could adorn the dish. Great houses, such as Castletown and Carton employed more people than a linen factory and became the biggest single employers in Ireland next to the army and the navy. With a regular staff of up to 100 (some houses employed a man with rake full-time to comb foot prints from the gravel) for offices, wash-houses, stores, hot-houses, ice-houses, coal-houses, bake-houses, potting sheds, stables, breweries, granary, tannery and kitchen garden, not to mention the house itself, this figure could rise to double that when the house was full of guests for seasonal activities which included picnics, tennis and cricket in summer and shooting, hunting and balls in winter.

It is almost certain that the Irish country house concerned itself more with show and less with comfort than its English counterpart. "Beauty, taste, squalor and discomfort," is how Annabel Goff-Davis characterised Ballinacourty, her grandparents' Georgian house in County Waterford in her memoir, Walled Gardens. In a letter to a friend, Dorothea Herbert wrote of her activities in her Irish mansion in the snowy winter of 1783: "...sat wrapt up in great coats for 47 days in two parlours." A century later one Henry Herbert almost lost his brand new English bride when she discovered that the only sanitation at his Irish seat, Cahirnane, consisted of a row of outdoor privies approached by a path through wet laurels. A man with an umbrella had to be employed to escort her to and from her toilette.

Even the most magnificent classical houses with their high, stuccoed ceilings, Adams fireplaces and flying staircases, print rooms and parklands were constructed more for show than comfort. Castletown House had 90 hearths, which consumed annually three hundred tons of coal, as well as a small forest of trees, but the plumbing was a beast and the rooms rarely more than tepid. Combinations were kept on beneath ballgowns and overcoats worn in the hall. At Elizabeth Bowen's country estate, Bowen's Court, the servants played handball in the corridors to keep warm.

In spite of these modest economies, most of the landed gentry were living beyond their means, mainly because of the absurd standard of competition for the most elaborate gardens and ceilings (the more baroque of these being executed by the Italian La Francine brothers, whose stucco was de rigueur and whose occupation earned then the nickname of the Flying Francinis). Many landowners were already in debt when the great famine dealt a crippling blow, followed by rent strikes organised by the Land League. Land Acts imposed by a newly-formed Irish Free State government involved compulsory purchase of most of their acres. By the 1920s, the land had gone and many of the young men been killed in the Great War, the beloved houses continued to be run with the help of a single kitchen maid by impoverished but valiant daughters. The Georgian townhouses, too, fell into decline. Henrietta Street, on the north side of Dublin, once the most sought-after address for bishops, earls and viscounts, lost many of its most illustrious residents after the 1801 Act of Union dissolved the Irish parliament and deprived them of their excuse for living in Dublin. By the time Michael Casey, a Georgian enthusiast, fell in love with a crumbling four-storey gem in 1974, he found that there were 36 families living in dismal conditions under the one roof.

"Big houses that were begun in glory were soon maintained only by struggle and sacrifice," wrote Elizabeth Bowen, who added; "It is, I think, to the credit of big house people ... that, with grass almost up to their doors and hardly a sixpence to turn over, they continued to be resented by the rest of Ireland as being the heartless rich."

It is ironic, too that the Irish persisted in viewing the houses as symbols of colonial oppression when they were in fact, Irish built treasure-houses of Irish crafts. Their appetite for beautiful native artefacts nurtured a renaissance in Irish arts and crafts, including glass making, linen weaving, silver engraving, wallpaper staining and mezzotint engraving, and the technique used for toile de Jouy fabric was in use in Dublin before it was officially invented in France. The gradual vanishing of Georgian Ireland has generally been attributed to Irish rebels who burnt out the big houses during their struggle for independence. In fact, only 200 of the 2,000 big houses standing in Ireland at the turn of the century were fired, yet only about 150 houses of importance remain standing today. The real culprits were an indifferent administration who acquired and neglected many of the houses, refusing to acknowledge these true Irish treasures as a part of the national heritage. The Irish electricity board destroyed the longest Georgian terrace in the British Isles on Fitzwilliam Street to build their new offices, having cannily called in an English architectural expert who pronounced them "just one damn house after another". The particular tragedy of this is that Dublin was one of the few European cities to have escaped bombing during the war, so that until eroded by slum dwelling and careless planning, all of the city's Georgian terraces had been perfectly intact.

Preserving the remaining houses has been left to tireless conservationists like the Honourable Desmond Guinness, who, with his wife Mariga, founded the Irish Georgian Society and, with a handful of helpers, revived dying beauties such as Castletown and Carton. Mariga, a German princess by birth, became celebrated for her talent for creating style with almost no money. Backed up by Desmond, who declared with authority that "a certain amount of shabbiness is an appropriate characteristic of an old house in the country, particularly Ireland", she might have invented the term "shabby chic".

Some descendants of the ascendancy continue to struggle for survival in their big houses, many by opening their homes to paying guests. The latter are now being plagued by local authorities demanding a quantity of fire escapes and exits ruinous to architectural integrity. Another threat comes from organised gangs of thieves and kidnappers. In 1974 the late Earl and Countess of Donoughmore were kidnapped from their seat at Knocklofty in County Tipperary by an IRA gang, to be ransomed in exchange for prisoners. Driven blindfold into the night, they later declared that they had had "a very exciting drive." The octogenarian Kitty Clements, asleep in her big house at Killadoon in Cointy Kildare, was surprised by thieves who stole 22 paintings from the drawing room where, it was later remarked that they had hung undisturbed since the room was redecorated by the 2nd Earl of Leitrim at the beginning of the 19th century. Today this kind of raid has become so regular and so well organised that Irish country house owners have formed themselves into an organisation to tip each other off about suspicious callers and to lobby for changes in the law. In the meantime, if a burglar trips over the Aubusson while making off with the Ormuolu, it is the house owner who will be sued for damages, so some householders sleep downstairs on the sofa with a rifle clutched for comfort. Others sell up to the highest bidder.

No doubt when the millionaires take over the squalor and discomfort will be a thing of the past and the plumbing will be non pareil. But what of the beauty and the taste? It remains to be seen.

Clare Boylan is a novelist and short-story writer. Her most recent novel, `Room for a Single Lady', is published by Abacus.

MARBLE RESIN FACE OF HERA pounds 611 from Belinda Canosa, 38 St Mary's Grove, London W4 (0181 747 0436)

BLENHEIM MARBLE FIREPLACE from pounds 6000, Chesney's Antique Fireplace Warehouse, 194 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 (0171 627 1410)

ANTIQUE STONE BALL pounds 800 from Clifton Little Venice, 3 Warwick Place, London W9 (0171 289 7894)

MIRROR-BACK WALL LIGHT pounds 317 from Vaughan, 23 Carnwath Road Industrial Estate, London SW6 (0171 610 6544)

SILHOUETTE PICTURE pounds 110 (framed), from Artefact, 36 Windmill Street, London W1 (0171 580 4878)

Artefacts to recreate the Georgian look, chosen by Ros Byam Shaw