Just as a privileged few laid claim to Ireland’s magnificent Big Houses in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so the powerful remain those privileged enough to grace the remaining few of these houses. Castle Leslie, Co. Monaghan featured in a recent episode of the ‘X Factor’ and was also home to the wedding of ‘Beatle’ Paul McCartney in 2002. Earlier this year, Ireland’s outside centre Brian O’Driscoll tied the knot in Lough Rynn, Co. Leitrim. Back in 2001, Ashford Castle, Co. Mayo was the site of the lavish wedding of actor Pierce Brosnan.
The current photographic exhibition on display in the National Photographic Archive, Temple Bar, Dublin, entitled Power and Privilege: Photographs of the Big House in Ireland 1858-1922, offers insights into a world long gone through images depicting the family, employees, entertainment, landscape and gardens, transport, the arts and sciences, and, of course, weddings of various Big Houses across the country.
The exhibition was compiled primarily from four of the National Library’s glass plate collections and from selected photographic albums: the ‘William Mervyn Lawrence Collection’ (1865-1914), the ‘Stereo Pairs Collection’ (1860-1883), the ‘A.H. Poole Collection’ (1884-1954), and the ‘Clonbrock Collection’ (1860-1930). Many of the photographs have never previously been on view to the public. The majority of the houses in the exhibition hail from Leinster (eighteen), eleven from Munster, seven from Ulster and six from Connacht.
Today’s Big Houses tend to function either as hotels, golf course locales, and heritage sites open to the public. Some continue to remain in private possession. One house – Bessborough, Co. Kilkenny – has even evolved into an agricultural college (Kildalton Agricultural College). Out of the forty-two houses in the exhibition, only two were burnt during the 1922-23 period. Many others, unfortunately, were simply left to ruin. The photographs on display span a period from 1858 to 1922. Images of note include that of a ladies’ bicycle race, possibly from Moydrum Castle, Athlone where the slowest bicyclist home won. Notably, several of the bicycles were chainless and tireless. A photograph of a telescope nicknamed the ‘leviathan of Parsonstown’ located on the grounds of Birr Castle, Birr, Co. Offaly, highlights the fascination with technological advances and scientific exploration during the period in question. This telescope proved the largest in the world until 1917.
Visually, the image of Dromin Bridge, Boyle, Co. Roscommon with Rockingham in the distance and the photograph of a frozen Powerscourt waterfall, the highest waterfall in Ireland and Britain, prove spectacular. The only splash of colour to be found in the exhibition can be found under a glass case which houses the French Park Album, Co. Roscommon and includes feathers – a memento of a pheasant hunt.
Due to technological progress the world of the powerful and privileged behind estate walls was captured for posterity through the modest camera. Although this period proved one of immense social, political, and cultural upheaval, this collection captures a somewhat more stable, self-assured picture of a class that was losing its lofty position in Irish society. Like the servants peeping out the spectacle of grandeur in the courtyard above, these glimpses of the past affords the modern viewer privileged access into an otherwise closed society.
To many beyond the demesne walls, those who served in the Big House were also considered part of this privileged set. Those fortunate enough to have access to the new photographic equipment emerging during this period were also deemed to be in privileged positions. Therefore this exhibition provides a snapshot of the multifaceted concept of privilege in Ireland in the late 1800s.
A lecture series in conjunction with the ‘Power and Privilege’ exhibition is also open to members of the public along with two online exhibitions, ‘The 1916 Rising: personalities and perspectives’ , and ‘The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats’.
Illustrious nuptials aside, hopefully these photographs will whet the appetite and encourage a greater appreciation of such monuments of a certain time, place, and class in Ireland’s history.
‘Power and Privilege: Photographs of the Big House in Ireland 1858-1922’ runs at the National Photographic Archive until spring 2011.
Joanne Mc Entee is completing doctoral research on the nineteenth century Irish landed estate, as part of the Texts, Contexts, Cultures programme in the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. This project is funded by PRTLI 4.