Book of the week: Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland

A new study offers a fascinating insight into the planning, furnishing and life of country houses in Georgian Ireland, John Goodall explains.

Life in the Country House in Georgian Ireland
Patricia McCarthy (Yale, £45)

I see as much taste and as much neatness without or within to the full as in England, accompanied with more beauty of exterior… and hardly ever ill-situated.’ Thus did the judge, antiquarian and MP George Hardinge (d.1816) describe the country seats he saw during his travels in Ireland.

The qualities he appreciated are readily apparent in this beautifully produced book, which describes the life and changing face of the country house in Ireland from 1720 (coinciding with the introduction of Palladian neo-Classicism to Ireland at Castletown, Co Kildare) to the Great Famine of 1845–9.

The subject is not an easy one to address, particularly as Irish documentation is notoriously exiguous. Nevertheless, through careful scholarship, an impressive spectrum of 18th- and 19th-century sources has been assembled, which flesh out a remarkably broad and vivid picture.

These sources include annotated plans of houses, inventories— a subject meticulously analysed by the author—diaries and newspaper reports, as well as written accounts of life in these buildings, both real and fictional. Where appropriate, the discussion is usefully informed by material from England.

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In effect, the book walks the reader to—and then through—the Irish Georgian country house. It’s straightforwardly structured, with six chapters entitled ‘Approaching and arriving’, ‘Crossing the threshold’, ‘Dining’, ‘Public rooms’, ‘Family spaces’ and, finally, ‘Servants and privacy’. These divisions do sometimes create minor duplications of material, but they establish a clear foundation for the argument of the book.

‘Public rooms’, for example, begins with a discussion of the origins, evolution and use of the antechamber, saloon and drawing room. It then turns to related and contextual subjects: their wall coverings, furnishings, pictures, entertaining, dining, social customs— such as the withdrawal of ladies from the table and card-playing—and, finally, amateur theatricals.

The subjects of planning and architectural design are coherently and clearly discussed, but it’s in the treatment of contextual detail that the book really shines. In the case of theatres, for example, we hear about repertoire as well as reports and descriptions of performances, and also of one particularly enthusiastic acting family, the Gardiners, who built their own private theatre at Ranger’s House in Pheonix Park in 1778.

In the opening double bill, Mrs Gardiner played Lady Macbeth and wore four dresses with diamonds reputedly valued at £100,000. It’s a delightful additional touch that the book reproduces a contemporary engraving of her in one of these costumes from Walker’s Hibernian Magazine.

This engraving is one of nearly 200 images—most of them architectural—that illustrate the text. It’s a small disappointment that the captions are so terse. some of the historic illustrations, in particular, cry out for detailed elucidation. In as far as it is provided, the reader is forced to look for this in the text. I would also have been interested to hear more about the peculiar pressures exerted by the 1798 Rebellion and the 1800 Act of Union on country life in Ireland, as well as a discussion of domestic chapels and formal religious observance.

The study of Irish country houses has, in some respects, lagged behind that of their English counterparts. This is one of several recent works that not only materially close that gap, but clarify the particular character of society and architecture in Ireland as distinct—but inextricably related —to that of England. Perhaps even more significantly, it’s a book that clearly articulates the enormous interest and cultural importance of these buildings.

In the Republic particularly, where so many country houses are in difficulty, it is to be hoped that, through this quality alone, the book may help win these marvellous buildings a brighter future.

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