Power and Privilege: The ‘Big House’ in Ireland

From the time of the Elizabethan conquest, the Big House was the residence of planters, manifested first in fortified castles, subsequently in Palladian mansions, modest rectories or fantasies of the Gothic Revival, the focus of what was long perceived as an alien Landlord class. Fuelled by rents from its tenantry, the life-style of the inhabitants of the Big House widely condemned by, among others, Frederick Engels, varied between splendid civilised living, extravagance, debt, irresponsibility, and eccentricity, reaching its zenith in the middle of the eighteenth century.
In the late nineteenth century the huge disposable income of estates was diminished by the Land Acts, triggered by the Land War. Widespread destruction of houses during the Troubles of 1919-23 was followed by their steady disappearance. However, recent new wealth has given rise to an appreciation for surviving Big Houses.
A difference in attitude accepts that the Big House is an important aspect of Irish culture. ‘Big House’ novel – fictions of the lives of the Landlord class, having come into possession of their estates through confiscation, and their interaction with the tenantry – was one of the great issues in Ireland from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and has been a central theme in Irish fiction. The Land War of the 1880s marked the beginning of the end of the control of great estates by the Anglo-Irish ascendancy.
After the Land War, the First World War, in which many Anglo-Irish soldiers died, and the ‘Troubles’ of the early 1920s, the power of the landed class was gone, and the Big House novels castigate and mourn a departing way of life. The Big House novel continued to be used to interesting effect by the twentieth century by writers of non-landed backgrounds.
The ‘Big House’ in Ireland
An exhibition at the National Photographic Archive (NPA), Power and Privilege, photographs of the Big House in Ireland 1858-1922, provides unique insights into the life in Ireland’s ‘Big Houses’ during the mid 1800s and 1900s, featuring a selection of photographs taken between 1858 and 1922. These are divided into six main themes: gardens and landscape; employees; transport; entertainment and recreation; the arts and sciences; family life. They are drawn from from the NPA’s collection of 630,000 images, the world’s largest collection of Irish photographs dating from 1840s to the present, and many are on public display for the first time.
Opened by the Minister of Tourism, Ms Mary Hanafin on 26 August 2010, she said … This marvellous photographic exhibition is a window on the past and gives us an insight into family life in what are now some of the most iconic houses throughout the country. The photographs will be of interest to a wide audience, particularly those with a curiosity about their local history and those who are interested in the early craft of photography. Landscape scenes from many counties in Ireland are included, and the life and times of the families who lived in these big houses is also documented. While the pictures may all be black and white, their story is part of the colourful history of life in Ireland at that time.
Some of the images are of homes that remain famous landmarks: Ashford Castle in Co. Mayo, Carton House in Co Kildare, and Curraghmore, Co Waterford. Others, such as Castleboro, Co Wexford and Moydrum Castle, Co Westmeath have long since vanished, while Tollymore Forest Park, Co Down is now owned by the Department of Agriculture, Northern Ireland, and Woodstock gardens Co Kilkenny is run by Kilkenny County Council.
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to Encyclopaedia of Ireland and other sources used in this text including National Library of Ireland, Number 41: Winter 2010. It follows a visit in January 2011 to exhibition Power and Privilege, Photographs of the Big House in Ireland 1858-1922, National Photographic Archive (NPA), Temple Bar, Dublin (August 2010 – March 2011).