This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of a book that might be said to have initiated modern interest in the Irish country house. Of course, there had been other publications on the subject before, not least the fifth volume of the original Georgian Societies records of 1913, and Sadleir and Dickinson’s Georgian Mansions in Ireland, produced two years later (see Glimpses into a Vanished World « The Irish Aesthete and Enriched with Treasures « The Irish Aesthete). And in the interim, other writers like Mark Girouard and the Knight of Glin had visited various houses around the country, the results of these explorations duly appearing in publications such as Country Life. But Irish Houses & Castles was different because it attempted to give an overview of the country’s historic domestic properties, and in doing so allowed the reader to draw conclusions about what made Ireland’s country houses different from those found elsewhere. The book was jointly authored by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan, the former bringing to the work all the experience and knowledge – and indeed social connections – he had gathered since establishing the Irish Georgian Society with his first wife Mariga 13 years earlier. Indeed, one of the purposes of Irish Houses & Castles was to raise funds for the society, which would receive all royalties from sales. Indicative of the appetite for such publications is the fact that the first American edition of 2,000 copies sold out within a month: over the next decade a further 75,000 more copies were published. The funds raised proved invaluable, since at the time the IGS was in the throes of rescuing Castletown, County Kildare. ‘If ever a book saved a house,’ Desmond later remarked, ‘ours saved Castletown, where weekly wages somehow had to be paid, and restoration work continue.’
Irish Houses & Castles featured 39 of the most important remaining historic homes in the country, at least a dozen of which have since either been destroyed or else changed hands with the loss of the original contents. In this way, the book is now an historic record but at the time of publication, it provided valuable information on what was a largely unknown subject, not least thanks to the two authors’ introduction which, after discussing the architectural evolution of Irish houses, moved on to examine the paintings and furniture that had been made for them, and even the gardens, gatehouses and follies that ornamented their surrounding estates. As with the books published earlier in the century, an important although often overlooked feature of Irish Houses & Castles is that it offers an insight into how such properties were decorated at the time, frequently in a style quite unlike that today. For example, there is a photograph of the entrance hall at Abbey Leix, County Laois. Today this has been restored to ensure that the eye is immediately caught by its architectural qualities, but 50 years ago the hall still looked much as it probably did in the late Victorian/Edwardian era: acting as an informal meeting space/sitting room it contained chintz-covered sofas on either side of the chimneypiece, an abundance of side tables and bibelots, and a tall folding screen in front of the front door in order to minimise draughts. The writer is old enough to remember many such house entrance halls decorated in the same fashion, but today they have cleared of clutter and tend to be much more sparsely furnished. And of course, many of the original contents of Abbey Leix, accumulated by successive generations, were dispersed when the house was sold in the mid-1990s; again, one remembers that occasion, typical of the time with the marquee outside the house, the surrounding fields filled with cars and the excitement of eventual prices far exceeding estimates (£700 paid for a selection of old copper pans and jelly moulds expected to go for no more than £120). Now the photographs featured in Irish Houses & Castles have become an invaluable source of information about how the place used to look.
The pictures shown here today, all taken from Irish Houses & Castles, demonstrate how vulnerable these properties remain, and how little protection they still have. The dispersal of Abbey Leix’s original contents in the mid-1990s has already been mentioned. To go through the others, one begins with Belvedere, County Westmeath. Today the house is in the care of the local authority which does an admirable job in maintaining the place. But the contents, which included many items originally from Charleville Castle, County Offaly, were all sold in September 1980. Since it appeared in Irish Houses & Castles, Castletown Cox, County Kilkenny has changed hands on a number of occasions, and the same is also true of Bellamont Forest, County Cavan: in both instances the present owners are American. Meanwhile Malahide Castle: two years after Irish Houses & Castles appeared the 7th Lord Talbot de Malahide died suddenly and the property was inherited by his sister Rose, who offered the castle and its contents to the Irish state in lieu of death duties. The offer was declined and as a result, in 1976 a public auction was held with many important items leaving the country. Ironically, the state – which had bought the castle and surrounding 268 acres – found itself bidding against international dealers and collectors in order to buy some pieces so the building would not be entirely denuded. An expensive and unnecessary act of national folly. Meanwhile elsewhere in County Dublin Rathbeale, which had been restored and furnished by Julian and Carola Peck was subsequently sold, the couple moving to County Derry where they restored another important 18th century house, Prehen; alas, since the deaths of the couple and their surviving son, that house and its contents are likewise at risk (see Hanging On « The Irish Aesthete). Luttrellstown Castle, which had been given by Ernest Guinness to his daughter Aileen on the occasion of her first marriage in 1927 (see Temps Perdu « The Irish Aesthete). She had extensively refurbished the house in the 1950s, the work overseen by decorator Felix Habord. Once more, it was sold in 1983 and the fabulous contents again dispersed thanks to an auction lasting several days. Finally, and most tragically, one turns to Powerscourt, County Wicklow which, having been acquired from the Wingfields by the Slazenger family was thoroughly restored and then, just as this work was completed, the building was gutted by fire in November 1974, an irreparable loss to the country’s architectural heritage. If for the photographs and account of Powerscourt alone, this is what makes Irish Houses & Castles such an important document.