Irish Big Houses
And Their Role In The Local Economy
Why did Irish big houses need servants?
Good question actually. We tend to take this for granted, but let's see what was really going on there!
Essentially, employing servants was a lifestyle choice of the upper classes. Everything was provided for them by servants so that they could live a lifestyle of leisure.
Careful, I can read your thoughts: 'Wouldn't that be nice?!'
For the owner family it would be.
Everyone else was working hard in order to provide this lifestyle for them. Find out below wht the running of a large household involved, and what life was like for the staff.
Irish country mansions had servants' tunnels like this one at Strokestown Park House, through which the servants entered and left the main building so that they would not be seen in the demesne.
The running of the household included many aspects.
Country houses needed a large staff of servants in order for the household in all its' complexities to run smoothly.
Great houses needed a lot of maintanance work. They grew their own food in the surrounding fields belonging to the estate, as well as in the garden and orchard. They also kept life stock and they might have a dairy and bakery which all had to be staffed.
An average size Irish country house had in the region of twenty servants.
Strokestown House on the next photo had 50 servants at its’ peak, catering for a family of seven.
In the house itself, a lot of the life centred around mealtimes. In Victorian times there was a big focus on scheduled meals. More often than not, these meals had several courses and were laborious to prepare.
Tables had to be set following strict rituals, and the meals had to be served in the same manner. Furthermore, ovens had to be fired, fires had to be lit and kept going, laundry had to be washed, floors scrubbed, windows washed and so on.
Employment At The Irish Country House
Most of the positions in these great houses were for women and girls. Girls would often enter service at the big house as young as eight or nine years of age.
They would start at the bottom of the hierarchy as scullery maids doing the most menial tasks, but over the years could work their way up. In 1881 half of all employed females in Ireland were working as domestic servants.
Male servants tended to hold positions that involved less hard physical work. The head of the servant household was the butler who was the most trusted servant often in charge of the safe as well the serving of the meals.
Employment As A Servant As An Opportunity
During the time of the Penal Laws, Catholics were forbidden to acquire lands. Most of the Irish population were very poor subsistence tenant farmers leasing land from large landowners.This was true until the land acts of the late 19th century came into force which financed tenants to buy from their landlord.
For people from such a poor background with little or no education, gaining employment in the big house was seen as a good option for making a living. This was despite the nature of the work which was often physically very hard, especially for women servants. Being a servant at a big house meant hard life but for generations it continued to be a life line for many.
Big houses in Ireland continued to be a major employer up into the 1960ies.
Bunratty House which is open to visitors as part of the Bunratty Castle and Folk Park experience, was an average size country mansion built in the Georgian Style with servants' quarters in the basement.
Here is why the job at the big house was a good thing despite the hardships servants suffered:
- A job as a servant offered security
- Protection was afforded to the servant by the household they were working for.
- Servants had a higher standard of accommodation and hygiene compared to the simple mud cabins most people back then called home.
- Servants had plenty of food with up to four meals a day.
- During the Irish potato famine, servants were protected from the hardships of the starving.
- Servants had exposure to a wider world, for example when tradesmen and crafts people were working on the estate.
- Servants had opportunities to socialize at the odd servant’s ball.
- Some servants received bonuses such as sugar and tea which were luxuries for most.
- Sometimes guests at the house would tip the staff which meant extra income.
- Lady’s maids and valets would receive their lordships old clothes.
- Butlers would receive empty bottles and burnt down candles.
- It was not unheard of for servants to be thought of in wills with lump sums or annuities.
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- Kitchen maids might receive left-over food.
- The cook might be able to sell on dripping, used tea leaves and left over food that would otherwise go to waste.
- A core staff of servants would be chosen to accompany the lord and lady on travels, perhaps to their stately homes in England, a luxury most could not afford otherwise.
- Although there were no official arrangements for retirement of servants, there were some situations where servants were housed and provided for in old age.
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