By the mid-19th century, thousands of Irish country houses had been built. A century later, the landscape had developed, thanks to changing economies, the rise of Home Rule, the demise of the aristocracy and also the passage of time. Though only a small proportion of these country houses remain today, their architectural grandeur, antique furnishings & interiors, cultivated gardens and sprawling acres play a key part in Ireland’s cultural history.
Like many of Ireland’s historic houses, the 18th Century Mount Stewart in Newtownards is not just an architectural gem, its mild climate was the perfect setting for some spectacular experiments in garden design, from Italian villa landscapes to lily-strewn manmade lakes. Russborough House, dating from the 1740’s is a Palladian pile, owned by Lord & Lady Beit and Fred Astaire, Coco Chanel and Mick Jagger were amongst the guests entertained by this glamorous couple. The 18th Century Florence Court is the classical former home of the Earl of Enniskillen and sits peacefully against a mountain backdrop.
In the west of Ireland is an elegant Georgian manor house lived in by descendants of the original family that settled the lands of Enniscoe House in the 1600s. Enniscoe House boasts a Victorian walled garden, a museum on the estate, fishing on Lough Conn and masses of outdoor activities. Some of these houses, mostly those that were built in the 19th century, were called a ‘castle’ and looked a bit like a castle with medieval features such as battlements and turrets but none of those features were functional, they were purely for decor. An example of this is Ashford Castle in County Mayo, a Victorian castle in a neo-gothic style and a 19th century build.
In Ireland, nearly all the wealth was held by a new ruling class which had come to power after the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland. It was this class who built the big houses. Also called Stately Homes, Irish country mansions, Irish great houses, Irish country houses or Irish country lodges, these homes mostly date from the first half of the eighteenth century with the Palladian style being the most popular. Examples include Castletown House, Emo Court and Strokestown Park House. These homes were dotted throughout Ireland and have been featured in many books and movies, conjuring an image of genteel existence amongst the hills of Ireland.
Ireland used to have 6,000 such mansions but now sadly only 10% are standing. After the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland, the Lord Protector had paid his soldiers with pockets of land which he confiscated from Irish Catholic landowners. Many soldiers sold their land to superiors and returned to England but around 7,000 officers remained and accumulated very large estates. This new Protestant ascendancy made up a tiny percentage of the overall population of Ireland but they had all the wealth. An example is Castletown House which was built between 1722 and 1729 and belonged to William Connolly, speaker of the Irish House of Commons. It has to be said that while the Irish situation was extreme because of colonialism, the basics of landownership were the same over much of Europe. However in largely agricultural Ireland, the estate as well as the main house, were an important part of the local economy. It provided much needed employment for agricultural labourers as well as servants. Gradually, the introduction of successive land acts enabled Irish Catholics to purchase land from the predominately Protestant landowners.
In the end many estates sold all the land keeping only the house and its immediate surroundings. Many of these homes now fell to ruin and were abandoned as there was no land to support them. During the War of Independence, 200 of them were destroyed. They were seen as a symbol of Irelands’ colonial past and as a cause of the famine. Happily, now people are beginning to appreciate the place of estates and stately homes in Irish history.
At LTR we have some delightful Irish country houses and mansions available for exclusive use rental which are wonderfully comfortable and blessed with all the modern comforts of the 21st Century. They allow their guests to appreciate a slice of the past and life lived in a grand house in the wonderful land of Ireland. Please do get in touch with us and we would love to help you find the perfect Irish country house to stay in. We also have beautiful English country houses and wonderful Scottish country houses to stay in.