Power & Privilege: the Big House in Ireland - Google Cultural Institute
Images of a Vanished World
By National Library of Ireland
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Contributor: Joint curator of original exhibition at the National Library's National Photographic Archive—Elizabeth Kirwan, Assistant Keeper, National Library of Ireland
Contributor: Joint curator of original exhibition at the National Library of Ireland—Frances Clarke, Assistant Keeper, National Library of Ireland