Two weeks ago, the fifth and final volume of records published in 1913 by Ireland’s original Georgian Society was discussed here. That might have been the end of such documentation of this country’s 18th century architectural heritage in the years prior to the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. But in 1915 two men decided that more research into Irish country houses was required, and so produced a volume called Georgian Mansions in Ireland. The individuals involved, Page Lawrence Dickinson and Thomas Ulick Sadleir, are of some interest. Born in 1881 and 1882 respectively, both were sons of clergymen, Sadleir’s father being a chaplain to the army stationed at the Curragh Camp, County Kildare. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, Sadleir junior was called to the Irish bar in 1906 and practised on the Leinster circuit for the next ten years. But his real passion was genealogy and even while a student he was working on an unpaid basis in the Office of the Ulster King of Arms at Dublin Castle. In 1915, the year in which Georgian Mansions in Ireland appeared, he was appointed registrar of the Order of St. Patrick at the Office of Arms, becoming Deputy Ulster in 1921, although due to the extensive absences of his superior he was in effect in charge and remained so until 1943 when the Office of Arms was finally transferred to the control of the Irish State. He subsequently became librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, remaining there until his death in 1957. As for Dickinson, he was a son of the Dean of the Chapel Royal in Dublin Castle. In his late teens, he was apprenticed to architect Richard Caulfield Orpen (a brother of the painter William Orpen) with whom he then went into partnership. But he seems to have been as much a writer as an architect, being a frequent contributor to the Irish Builder (of such pieces as ‘Working class homes. Is the present standard reasonable?’ in January 1923, and ‘Competitions. Should they be abolished?’ in November 1924). He was clearly out of sympathy with post-Independence Ireland and for many years lived in England, his nostalgia for the ancien régime apparent in a memoir published in 1929, The Dublin of Yesterday, which as can be imagined was not well received in this country. Nevertheless he did return here, dying at his daughter’s house in County Wicklow in 1958.
In their Preface to Georgian Mansions in Ireland, Sadleir and Dickinson rightly acknowledge the work undertaken by the earlier Georgian Society, but note that the fifth volume only examined a few 18th century houses found throughout the country, thereby necessitating their own enterprise. In addition, they observed that while many of Dublin’s great houses had fallen into disrepair, ‘the country houses present a delightful contrast. Some, no doubt, have gone through a “Castle Rack-rent” stage; but – as anyone who cares to consult the long list in the fifth Georgian volume must admit – the vast majority are still family seats, often enriched with treasures of former generations of wealthy art-lovers and travelled collectors.’
Interestingly, Sadleir and Dickinson remark that Irish country houses seldom held valuable china, but ‘good pictures, plate and eighteenth-century furniture are not uncommon.’ Waxing poetic, they then write, ‘How delightful it would be to preserve the individual history of these treasures! The silver bowl on which a spinster aunt lent money to some spendthrift owner, and then returned when a more prudent heir inherited; the family pictures, by Reynolds, Romney, Battoni or that fashionable Irish artist, Hugh Hamilton, preserved by that grandmother who removed to London, and lived to be ninety; the Chippendale chairs which had lain forgotten in an attic. Even the estates themselves have often only been preserved by the saving effects of a long minority, the law of entrail, or marriage with an English heiress.’
Desart Court, County Kilkenny: burnt down by the IRA, February 1923
The main body of text in Georgian Mansions in Ireland is devoted to study of 17 houses (some given more attention than others). Of these, 11 still stand, three remaining in the hands of the original owners’ descendants and another three in private hands, albeit not those of the original family. Two (in Northern Ireland) are National Trust properties, one is an hotel, one belongs to a public company and one has become part of a national institution. Of the losses, two – Bessborough and Desart Court, both in County Kilkenny – occurred just a few years after the book was published, victims of the campaign waged against such buildings and their owners during the troubles of the early 1920s, one – Heywood, County Laois – was lost owing to an accidental fire in 1950 and two – Platten Hall, County Meath and Turvey, County Dublin – were left to suffer years of neglect before being pulled down.
Despite their optimistic tone about the state of such houses, the authors of Georgian Mansions in Ireland seem to have had an instinctive awareness of impending threat to the buildings’ future, since they made a point of recording not just architectural but also decorative details, describing – and photographing – plasterwork and paintings, chimneypieces and contents of entire rooms, thereby leaving us a detailed record of how such places looked just over a century ago. Occasionally, as with Curraghmore, County Waterford, little has changed during the intervening period, but more often, even if the house still stands, its entire furnishings have been lost or else horribly culled. Again, we owe Sadleir and Dickinson a debt of gratitude for providing us with this invaluable legacy, an opportunity to examine how Irish country houses were once decorated and occupied.