Still Indispensable

In Ireland, when anyone asks ‘Have you looked at Bence-Jones?’ or begins a sentence with the words, ‘Well, Bence-Jones says…’, the reference is to a specific book: Burke’s Guide to Country Houses Volume 1. Ireland. Published in 1978 and featuring almost 2,000 properties, this was intended to be the first in a series of works covering all such properties in Britain and Ireland. As the publisher announced at the time, successive volumes would include ‘the standing and the demolished, the important and the “illustrious obscure” with the result being a series  that would be ‘uniquely comprehensive’ and break new ground in the stressing family connections with individual houses. In fact, only a handful of further volumes appeared before the project ran out of steam, but that covering Ireland was so successful – it ran to six editions – that a decade later the book was republished, this time with a supplement that described an additional 130 houses, as well as additional information on some of those which had already been included in the original work. It also, very helpfully, included an index of family names and which houses were associated with them. Today, more than three decades later and despite all the published research that has appeared over the intervening period, ‘Bence-Jones’ as the author’s gazetteer has come to be known, remains just as important as ever

Mark Bence-Jones was born in England in 1930, his father the younger son of a family which had formerly owned Lisselane, an estate in County Cork (it was sold the year of Mark B-J’s birth). At the age of four he moved to India, his father Colonel Philip Bence-Jones having been appointed head of the engineering school in Lahore. The colonel’s wife May Thomas was a Roman Catholic and at the time of their marriage he had converted to her faith: their son was also an ardent Catholic. In 1945 the family returned to Ireland and four years later bought a property in north County Cork, Glenville which was Mark Bence-Jones’s home thereafter (for more on Glenville, please see: Glenville Park « The Irish Aesthete). After schooling at Ampleforth, he read history at Cambridge and then attended the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester, before coming back to live at Glenville and over the next eight years wrote three novels. However, fiction was not to be his natural metier. In 1966 he published The Remarkable Irish, an amusing if somewhat skewed examination of the country at the time (‘Dior and dog’s dinners go hand in hand’ was a typical sentence, along with ‘Old ladies are the chief occupants of roofless country houses’). He produced three books about India, including one on its Viceroys, and another on English Recusant families, but Ireland and specifically her country houses and their owners, was the subject with which he was most comfortable and assured. First published in 1987 Twilight of the Ascendency was especially and rightly popular. An account of the declining years of pre-Independence Ireland’s ruling class, the book includes an abundance of anecdotes which Bence-Jones had gathered on his travels around the country; he was always a keen house guest. What emerges from Twilight is the impression of a fundamentally decent but doomed cadre, out of its depth in a changing world and, with only a few exceptions, unable or unwilling to move with the times. Bence-Jones’s entertaining and sympathetic prose ensured that the book became a best-seller and, like his guide to country houses, established something of a precedent; thereafter what might be summarised as Anglo-Irish social history became a popular subject. 

The greater part of ‘Bence-Jones’ is given over to an alphabetical listing of houses both standing and lost, but the book opens with a substantial bibliography (which now, more than 40 years later, would have to be much longer) and then an architectural glossary. These are followed by an introduction that gives a brief history of the evolution of Irish country houses across the centuries before turning into a passionate advocacy for their preservation: as the author noted, even during the decade before the book’s appearance a number of the important properties had been lost. Bence-Jones believed all such houses were worthy of consideration, even those ‘of no particular architectural merit’ because ‘they have their own charm and character and the patina of age; while their contents, even if not of much interest to the connoisseur of art, is almost always fascinating to the social historian. One can also truthfully say that they have no counterpart anywhere else in Europe.’ This argument retains its validity but, regrettably, seems still not to have been learnt by the relevant authorities in this country who could still help to ensure a viable future for this part of our national heritage.
Then the reader moves onto the main body of the book which rewards repeated exploration, as there always seems to be another house to discover (even if only on the page since the building in question has long since disappeared). Sometimes the focus is on the architecture of a house, on other occasions the author paid more attention to the history of the owners or to stories associated with the building. So the book, as so often with Bence-Jones, is as much social history as anything else. The text is accompanied by an abundance of photographs, many of them drawn from historic sources, others contemporary with the publication. But in so many cases even since then circumstances have changed. Adare Manor, County Limerick for example was still occupied by the Wyndham-Quins when the first edition appeared; just a few years later, the family had to sell the property, and many of its contents were dispersed at auction. Today Adare Manor is an hotel. Similarly, look at the images of a few pages above. One of them shows Marlfield, County Tipperary which, again, was sold by the Bagwell family a few years later (it is currently back on the market). On a more positive note, Bence-Jones also included the early 17th century Portumna Castle, County Galway which was then in a state of near-total ruin. Now the place has been reroofed and extensively restored, thanks to the Office of Public Works. So this is not entirely a story of loss.
With the passage of time, in addition to its many intrinsic merits, ‘Bence-Jones’ has become an important historic document because, as mentioned, so much has since happened within the world of the Irish country house, both good and bad. It could be argued that the book’s contents have been superseded by more recent, and in some instances more scholarly work. In the interim, for instance, a number of volumes in the Pevsner Buildings of Ireland series have been published, but after 40 years there are only six of these (at most one-third of the country). In addition, they cover all built structures, not just country houses and usually mention only in passing places that have since been lost. A number of online resources have also emerged in recent years and deserve to be mentioned, such as Buildings of Ireland: National Inventory of Architectural Heritage and Landed Estates, NUI Galway both of which contain much useful information. Nevertheless, ‘Bence-Jones’ occupies a special place in the canon and continues to be indispensable. It will remain so until someone tackles the task of producing a new edition for the 21st century. 

All pictures today taken from Burke’s Guide to Country Houses Volume 1. Ireland by Mark Bence-Jones 

4 comments on “Still Indispensable

  1. Hello, thank you for yet another wonderful articicle. I admit to reading them all but not commenting and thanking you. I was thrilled to see this book and just found one on ebay to add to my growing collection of books on our lost heritage. I will certainly look into more books by the author. Best wishes Stephanie Murray

  2. I was lucky enough to spend a week at Glenville Park last year. I contacted the publishers of Mark Bence-Jones’s tome with the idea of a new edition but to my disappointment, they were not interested.

  3. Emma Richey says:

    I love this book, it is the ‘Bible’ of Irish country houses.

  4. James Canning says:

    Great piece. Mark Bence-Jones is on my list of great cultural heroes. I well remember the excitement attending publication of Country Houses of Ireland in 1978.

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