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, 1880/1914, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Parkanaur House and gardens, Castlecaulfield, Co. Tyrone (LROY 3945)
Walled garden, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co Galway, around 1900, 1900/1900, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Walled garden, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, ca. 1900 (CLON 103)
Formal gardens, Woodstock, Inistioge, Co Kilkenny, 1880/1914, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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 near Waterville House, Waterville, Co Kerry, 1880/1914, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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, Bellamont Forest House, Cootehill, Co Cavan, 1870, 1870/1870, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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 garden under snow, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co Galway , December 1870, 1870-12/1870-12, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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.

At home, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co Galway, 1900, 1900/1900, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
The Dillon family relaxing at home, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, 1900. (CLON 383).
House party at Oak Park, Carlow, in October 1901, 1901-10/1901-10, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
House party at Oak Park, Carlow, home of the Breun family, October 1901. (ALB 75). 
Garden party, Curraghmore, Portlaw, Co Waterford, between 1900 and 1910, 1900/1910, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
The formal Curraghmore gardens, overlooking a man-made lake, made a perfect setting for a  garden party. (Poole IMP 402).
Mrs Smyth and the christening, Sion Lodge, Waterford, 1900/1910, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
The christening of the Smyth babies, at Sion Lodge, Waterford. (POOLE IMP 691). 
Coming of age, Curraghmore, Portlaw, Co Waterford, January 1922, 1922-01/1922-01, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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, around 1900-10, 1900/1910, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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, around 1865, 1865/1865, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Playing croquet on the lawn, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, ca. 1865. (CLON 435).
Billiard room, Bellamont Forest House, Cootehill, Co Cavan, 1870, 1870/1870, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Billiard room, Bellamont Forest House, Cootehill, Co. Cavan, 1870.
Photographers, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co Galway, 1899, 1899/1899, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Amateur photographers, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, 1899. (CLON 1936).
Telescope, Birr Castle, Birr, Co Offaly, 1900, 1900/1900, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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, Grace Dieu, Clogheen, Co Waterford, September 1907, 1907-09/1907-09, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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, 1901-05/1901-05, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Women participating in otter hunt, Curraghmore, Portlaw, Co. Waterford, May 1901. (PWP 334).
Robert and Georgiana Dillon playing archery, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co Galway, around 1883, 1883/1883, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Robert and Georgiana Dillon playing archery, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, ca. 1883.  (CLON 434).

Transport

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 at Ross House, Ross, Co Galway, 1898-99, 1870/1870, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
An early motor car, Ross House, Ross, Co. Galway, 1898-99. (ALB 186).
Women and bicycles, Galgorm Castle, Ballymena, Co Antrim, 1880/1914, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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, 1898/1898, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Ladies bicycle race, possibly Moydrum Castle, Athlone, Co. Westmeath, 1898. (ALB 44).
Invalid carriage, Curraghmore, Portlaw, around 1900-1910, 1900/1910, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Invalid carriage drawn by donkey, Curraghmore, Portlaw, ca. 1900-1910.  (POOLE IMP 409)
Departure of important visitors, Adare Manor, Co Limerick, 1900/1910, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Landaus (a luxury society city carriage), outside Adare Manor, Co. Limerick. (POOLE IMP 527).
Driving off from Castletown, Celbridge, Co Kildare, around 1900, 1900/1900, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Driving off, Castletown, Celbridge, Co. Kildare, around 1900-1910. (ALB 75).

Staff

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, 1900/1910, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Uniformed servants, Bessborough House, Piltown, Co. Kilkenny. (POOLE IMP 1438A).
Gardeners, Monivea Castle, Athenry, Co Galway, around 1900, 1900/1900, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Lady of the house directing the gardeners at Monivea Castle, Athenry, Co. Galway, ca. 1900. (ALB 50).
Shearing sheep, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co Galway, 1899, 1899/1899, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Shearing sheep, Clonbrock, Ahascragh, Co. Galway, 1899. (CLON 615)
Boat harbour, Rockingham, Boyle, Co Roscommon, 1880/1914, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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, Curraghmore, Portlaw, Co Waterford, 1900/1910, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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, 1900/1910, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
Uniformed servants, Curraghmore, Portlaw, Co. Waterford. (PWP 143)
Stable yard at Rockingham, Boyle, Co Roscommon, 1880/1914, From the collection of: National Library of Ireland
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
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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