Big Houses In Ireland
Provided a Lifestyle Of Leisure For The Upper Classes
What Is A Big Or Great House?
The term ‘Big Houses’ describes the Irish equivalent to English stately homes, also called Irish country houses, country lodges or country mansions some 6,000 of which were built by the landowning, typically Anglo-Irish upper class that came to power after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.Like it or not, these have been part of Irish culture for some three hundred years.
A great example is Strokestown Park House on the photo above. This Palladian mansion was built in the 1740ies.
Most of these posh residences were built between 1690 and 1750, but some were built as late as just before the Irish famine.
On this page I will introduce you to the lifestyle of the gentry family at these big houses-find the lifestyle of the servants here.
The Lifestyle Of The Owners
The family had their every need catered for by personal attendants. This included combing their hair, and emptying their chamber pots. The lady had a maid, and the gentleman had a gentleman’s valet.
- Servants at these great houses would be called by ringing the servant’s bell.
- All meals were served to the family in the dining room at a table which was set according to strict rules.
- Sometimes they would order breakfast in bed which would be served to them on trays which had to be set following strict rules.
Our son Cillian heading straight for the servants' bell at Strokestown Park House.
- Sir, Madam and their children would have many expensive luxury foods such as chocolate and spices.
- Children were educated in-house by a governess. Boys were sent off to boarding school to England about age seven while girls remained at home. From the late 19th century on, girls also started to attend boarding schools.
- Big houses threw lavish parties and had frequent dinner guests with dinner parties serving five courses that consisted of a number of dishes each.
Fu dogs, a feng shui ornament, above the fireplace in the drawing room at Strokestown Park House. Ornaments like these spoke of the family's status, of how far they had travelled, or how much money they had spent to obtain them.
- The social pressure on the upper classes was immense: how many servants sir and madam had, how many parties they threw, how much art they collected and displayed, how much luxury foods they consumed and offered to their guests; these were all questions of status.
- If you wanted to be seen to be of high status, you had to spend, spend, spend, and invite the right people in order to be invited to the right parties yourself. Presence in the right circles might secure a good marriage proposal for the daughter of the house, one that would be advantageous for the estate. Or it might secure a political position with additional income. Failure to succumb to this social pressure would have meant isolation.
The dining room at Strokestown House.
- Many landowning families had more than one house. They might own land in different parts of the country which necessitated having accommodation in all these areas. In addition, for example if Sir was a politician as was often the case, they might have another house in England, so they could mix in the right circles over there as well while he was at Parliament. The core of their servants would travel with them as they were moving around.
- Shooting and hunting were popular pastimes for the gent. Big houses would often rotate doing hunts and shoots during the season, so that you would have visitors on your estate for a few days, and then later would go visiting other houses for hunts. Another popular pastime was horse racing.
Watercolour painting displayed at Strokestown House.
- The lady might take to watercolour painting or write a diary or even poetry, and she would have her own female social circle.
- The lady and gent moved in circles of their own class all the time. They did not mix beyond that and did not have much contact with their tenants.
- Gentry families often owned more than one estate and might move around during the year taken their core staff with them. They might also travel and see Europe which was regarded great education for their children.
- The eldest son of the owners of these big houses inherited the estate. His siblings would be married off to wealthy partners of the same social class in Ireland or Britain.
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