It's Downton . . . Irish-style
Joe Kennedy on a forgotten – but once idyllic way of life in the great houses of yesteryear
The entrance hall and kitchen walls of the estate cottage were papered, ceiling to floor, with hundreds of postcards of foreign scenes and soldiery in scarlet tunics, pith helmets and bristling moustaches. "Soldiers of the Queen", flourishing their bayonets in sunny South Africa or in the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan. (Yes, there was a war there, as there is today, a bitter lesson for the British army in the 19th Century).
Old Miss Landy had these mementoes of her brother, plus helmet and gloves, as reminders of what it once was like, as he was never to return. As she said to the mother of the fascinated small boy (me): "The gentry are all gone now".
She was lamenting the departure of a lost world – but it has not quite disappeared, as this new new book about the great houses of Cork and Kerry and the families who lived in them makes clear.
If you have ever glanced from the motorway at a big house in the countryside and wondered what kind of people used to live in such a property, then this is the book for you. It brings a forgotten, idyllic way of life alive once more.
The author has interviewed the surviving members of many of the Anglo-Irish and old Irish families who lived, and in many cases still live, in the great houses. They have talked about their family histories, their links to the communities in which they are based and about the fascinating details of life in their mansions.
Brendan Behan may well have coined the term Horse Protestant to differentiate between an Anglo-Irish person of some substance – even if it was just one horse – and lesser Protestant folk of trade and business.
Some Horse Protestants had reasonable standards of living but quite a few lived out miserable lives in freezing stone "castles" where condensation ran down the walls and a spluttering open fire provided the only heat.
One man of inherited title I knew of lived out his last days in one room in a wrecked mansion, with a fire kept going and some food brought in by a neighbour. He had had a brave war but returned his decorations in a gesture of political objection.
Up to the beginning of the last century most Irish land was owned by a select group of people who lived in big houses and were collectively known as the ascendancy, or the gentry or county families. They had their share of mishaps but usually married among themselves or others from England of the same class and thus preserved their status quo.
When the dust settled after Independence they were still there and in spite of various horrors most maintained a sense of themselves as being Irish with a love of country and their home places.
This extraordinary book of local history represents a monumental task of interviews with members of 22 old-gentry families in Cork and Kerry, along with historical and contemporary photographs.
There are fascinating stories of intertwining family ties, especially of the Springs (the former Tanaiste's roots), the Hilliards, Dennys, Somervilles, Townshends and old Gaelic families such as the O'Connells, MacCarthys and MacGillicuddys (of the Reeks).
There is the fascinating Sir Cosmo Haskard, a member of the Hutchins family, now in his 90s, who lives in Ardnagashel in Bantry Bay.
He recalls his mother making the family summer holiday journey to Garinish on the tip of the Beara Peninsula which took eight hours – horses had to be sent ahead – and ending with a steamer journey to Castletownbere. What a time it was . . .
SOCIAL HISTORY: Voices From the Great Houses: Cork and Kerry Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe Mercier Press, €19.99, pbk Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
Veteran journalist Joe Kennedy was founding editor of the Sunday World