1858 - 1922

Power & Privilege: the Big House in Ireland 

National Library of Ireland

Images of a Vanished World

Ireland's “Big Houses” were the large country homes of local landlords. Most of them were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, and were usually surrounded by large estates. Tenants on the estate rented the land from their landlords. 

These photographs, collected by the National Library of Ireland, capture scenes from life in the Big Houses before this way of life disappeared. The period they capture looks peaceful and prosperous, but by the 1920s the landlord system in Ireland had been dismantled. Without their large estates, combined with the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, few families could afford the upkeep of these homes, and the era of the “Big House” ended. 

Houses & Gardens

The National Library's collections include images of houses from all over Ireland.

 “Big” Houses ranged considerably in size, and many had extensive and beautifully landscaped gardens.

Parkanaur House and gardens, Castlecaulfield, Co. Tyrone (LROY 3945)
Walled garden, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, ca. 1900 (CLON 103)
Formal gardens, Woodstock, Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny (LROY 4457). The gardens were devised on a grand scale by Colonel William Tighe and his wife Lady Louisa Lennox between 1840 and 1900
Fishing for salmon and trout near Waterville House, Co. Kerry (L ROY 2785). The house was built between 1775 and 1790 by Theobald Butler.
Gate lodge at Bellamont Forest House, Cootehill, Co. Cavan, 1870 (ALB 29). Gate lodges, a central component of the architectural landscape of country estates, were often designed by the leading architects of the period. 
The snowy garden at Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway , December 1870 (CLON 2034). 

Family & Social Life

Many of the landed families were keen amateur photographers, so the collections show various aspects of family life, from tranquil domestic scenes to house parties.  

Significant family events, such as christenings and “coming of age” parties were also photographed.

The Dillon family relaxing at home, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, 1900. (CLON 383).
House party at Oak Park, Carlow, home of the Breun family, October 1901. (ALB 75). 
The formal Curraghmore gardens, overlooking a man-made lake, made a perfect setting for a  garden party. (Poole IMP 402).
The christening of the Smyth babies, at Sion Lodge, Waterford. (POOLE IMP 691). 
A "coming of age" (21st birthday) celebration at Curraghmore, Portlaw, Co. Waterford, January 1922. (PWP 2973)
Tenants at a coming of age party, Snowhill, via Waterford, Co. Kilkenny, ca. 1900-10. (POOLE IMP 765).

Interests & Pastimes

Life for the owners of big houses gave ample opportunity for leisure. 

Pursuits such as sports and hunting were common, with many of the landed families particularly interested by the new art of photography. 

Playing croquet on the lawn, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, ca. 1865. (CLON 435).
Billiard room, Bellamont Forest House, Cootehill, Co. Cavan, 1870.
Amateur photographers, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, 1899. (CLON 1936).
This telescope, at Birr Castle, Co. Offaly, was installed in 1845 by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse. He and his wife Mary were internationally acclaimed amateur astronomers and photographers. (ALB 75)
The Misses Anderson before a hunt meet at Grace Dieu, Clogheen, Co. Waterford, September 1907.  (PWP 1685).

Fox-hunting was one of the few country sports in which genteel women could play an active role, some rising to the prestigious title of Master of Foxhounds.  For most Irish gentry in 1907, fox-hunting was seen as a harmless and ancient tradition. 

Women participating in otter hunt, Curraghmore, Portlaw, Co. Waterford, May 1901. (PWP 334).
Robert and Georgiana Dillon playing archery, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, ca. 1883.  (CLON 434).


The families of the “Big Houses” used both traditional and the most up-to-date forms of transport. 

They could afford to keep large stables and the staff required to tend horses, and later invested in motor cars and chauffeurs. 

An early motor car, Ross House, Ross, Co. Galway, 1898-99. (ALB 186).
Women with bicycles at Galgorm Castle, Ballymena, Co. Antrim. (L ROY 5717).

Bicycling was hugely popular with the upper classes in the late 19th century.  Women took it up enthusiastically as it gave them significant freedom, despite the restrictions of long and heavy dresses. 

Ladies bicycle race, possibly Moydrum Castle, Athlone, Co. Westmeath, 1898. (ALB 44).
Invalid carriage drawn by donkey, Curraghmore, Portlaw, ca. 1900-1910.  (POOLE IMP 409)
Landaus (a luxury society city carriage), outside Adare Manor, Co. Limerick. (POOLE IMP 527).
Driving off, Castletown, Celbridge, Co. Kildare, around 1900-1910. (ALB 75).


Servants were central to the functioning of Big Houses, allowing landed families to enjoy a life of leisure and comfort. 

While landed estates provided employment for local people and offered servants board, lodging and a degree of job security, wages were relatively low, hours very long, and the work was often drudgery.

Uniformed servants, Bessborough House, Piltown, Co. Kilkenny. (POOLE IMP 1438A).
Lady of the house directing the gardeners at Monivea Castle, Athenry, Co. Galway, ca. 1900. (ALB 50).
Shearing sheep, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, 1899. (CLON 615)
Boat harbour, Rockingham, Boyle, Co. Roscommon, Tunnels were built so that the staff would move between the boat harbour and the house unseen.  (L CAB 7584).
Group of stewards at Curraghmore, Portlaw, Co. Waterford. (PWP 878). Stewards were in charge of the maintenance of the gardens and the home farm.
Uniformed servants, Curraghmore, Portlaw, Co. Waterford. (PWP 143)
Staff washing horse-drawn omnibus and Panhard motor car, Rockingham, Boyle, Co. Roscommon. (L ROY 7331).
Credits: Story

Joint curator of original exhibition at the National Library's National Photographic Archive — Elizabeth Kirwan, Assistant Keeper, National Library of Ireland
Joint curator of original exhibition at the National Library of Ireland — Frances Clarke, Assistant Keeper, National Library of Ireland

Credits: All media
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