Contributed by Patrick Walsh
The last twenty years have seen a revolution in Irish consumption practices and attitudes. Property and its acquisition became the watchword for success, while Irish culture and heritage became sellable commodities. This has become one reading of the Irish experience during the so-called Celtic Tiger years, and it contains many truths. Similar comments could have been made about Ireland in the mid to late eighteenth-century, when the Georgian cities of Dublin and Limerick began to acquire their modern shape, and Irish country houses began to multiply in the countryside. Often seen as symbols of political power and patronage as well as avarice by contemporaries and later generations, these products of a time that was both a Penal Era and Golden Age have slowly come to be seen as important markers of Irish architectural and cultural heritage. This process owes much to the ‘search and rescue’ activities of the Irish Georgian Society, whose famous battles with the nascent developer class from the late 1950s onwards are well known. By the 1990s relations between developers and the ‘Georgians’ had become more complex as the new rich of the Tiger years sought trophy homes, often those erected in that previous age of prosperity. Similarly that other phenomenon of the last two decades the ‘celebrity’ similarly desired their own ‘pile’. Together with a more favourable government attitude the wealth of the boom years allowed Irish Georgian to become fashionable again, leading to the Lord of the Dance becoming the Lord of the Manor. Here I am referring to Michael Flatley’s purchase of the fine Co. Cork country house, Castle Hyde, which he had lovingly restored. Its history during the turbulent years of the great famine is the subject of a fine article by Terry Dooley in the latest issue of Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies, the journal of the Irish Georgian Society, which is the subject of this review. This journal reflects the IGS’s longstanding commitment to scholarship seen in its original periodical, The Quarterly Bulletin and since 1998 Irish Architectural and Decorative Studies now in its twelfth volume which has become one of the leading journals in the field of Irish art history. A cursory glance through the contents of the latest issue demonstrates that this is more than just an art history journal or indeed a publication aimed for the connoisseur of Irish Georgian, although they will find much to please them. The latest issue of the journal continues the IGS’s fine tradition of scholarship and production values, especially its high quality illustrations, most of which are central to the arguments expounded in the various articles. These articles are drawn from a variety of disciplines and include contributions from established scholars such as Tom Dunne, Judith Hill, Philip McEvansoneya, Michael McCarthy and Dooley, amongst others as well as newer voices such as Livia Hurley, Jessica Cunningham and Lynda Mulvin. The range of topics expands the traditional chronological and spatial interests of the Society, with McCarthy and Hurley taking us to Florence and Portugal in pursuit of Alessandro Galilei and William Burton Conyngham respectively. Meanwhile McEvansoneya and Brendan Rooney extend the temporal parameters into the nineteenth and twentieth century shedding new light on antiquarian George Petrie and artist Michael George Brennan. The storm paintings of Thomas Roberts, an artist who has seen a major scholarly revival in recent times, are the subject of a perceptive study by Tom Dunne, while Judith Hill tells the story of Plassey House in Limerick from its industrial origins in the seventeenth century to its current incarnation as the president’s residence in the University of Limerick. The breadth of these contributions is not just spatial or chronological but also disciplinary, with a number of different approaches and methodologies. Together they illuminate the world of Georgian Ireland. The editor William Laffan is also to be highly commended and it is to be hoped that the current economic climate will not affect the funding of such a wonderful journal, which is available from selected booksellers and from the IGS.