I’m bringing history back…
Fancy a day out, where you enter a different world and leave your cares behind? You get to embrace the beautiful outdoors and come away with more knowledge about history, art, design and horticulture yet don’t have to read or write a thing. Best of all it’s shop free (bar the gift shop) and technology free (if you choose). So, want to feel refreshed, energised and inspired? Then head to the nearest old stately home and find your lime tree-lined bliss.
I got late into the game of visiting old estates, but once discovered I now have quite a penchant for them. They are an acquired taste and being limited in number country wide, a rarity, so I can afford to take my time with this relatively new passion.
Take museums. People choose to visit museums and art galleries for various reasons; the peace and quiet, the space, the obvious visual experience of art, the history, and the cafes are usually worth a visit too. Old estates however, provide a much richer experience and if you are a kinaesthetic person like me you will find them even more fulfilling. Not only is it a walk through experience of times gone by, it provides an excellent platform for learning about history, art and horticulture, effortlessly, as if by osmosis (a good example of interdisciplinary education). A sensory experience that satisfies the artistic sensibility and leaves you with an inspired and lingering impression. This impression, for me, created a whole new and insatiable curiosity not only about how our predecessors lived but of 18th and 19th century art, fashion and sensibility.
I remember my first, as a 12 year old on our annual summer holiday. The grandiosity, the numerous steps out the front entrance, flanked by majestic lion statues, the extensive gardens and the magical lily pond filled with giant sized gold-fish. I remember learning of the children that once lived there from the faded brown and white photos inside the house, and imagined them playing in the gardens . That sense of enchantment and mystery never left me since my first trip to Westport House in Co. Mayo . Since then my most memorable visits have been to Lissadell Estate in Co. Sligo, Strokestown in Co. Roscommon, Glenveagh Castle Co. Donegal and the most recent and most exquisite Mount Stewart in Co. Down and Hillsborough Castle gardens.
History? Oh No! ZZZ
It is due, to a large extent , to these stately home visits that an interest in history has been ignited. A late bloomer in the subject, history was a word full of negative connotations since school, simply due to a stringent teacher with no gift of inspiring their subject or of making it relevant to a then teen (not the only guilty teacher). History was a word I had become indifferent to. Treaties, dates, parliaments, politics and men. Yawn. Endless and meaningless streams of all of the above and a demanding teacher who did nothing to present them in an appealing light. The not uncommon case of the frustrated teacher who had little tolerance for our demure, head down unwillingness to participate in the passion politics seemed to undoubtedly bring him, or his interpretation of it anyway. He would storm into class and demand to know the names of these treaties, dates and the men who signed them. He would then pontificate on the answers no one offered, demand that we read chapters x-y for next class and storm out again. I dreaded this tri-weekly drama. No amount of reading the history book or sitting under his constant reign of terror inspired me to take this subject any further. I was relieved to see the back of the subject and him.
It wasn’t until I walked through the Famine museum in the old stables of Strokestown house that I became starkly aware of the hardship of that time. Here were lists of names of the townfolk and local tenants who were to board a ship to Canada after walking to Dublin from Roscommon. Their fate was bleak, most of them didn’t make it. More than a third died, some on the ship on route and a large number when they reached their destination in quarantine in Quebec, all in horrific conditions with very little food and water. Modern first world problems eh?
The story of the assassination of the house owner Denis Mahon by hungry and enraged tenants who were to be evicted and/or put on these ships was not a surprising one (turns out he was one of 7 throughout the country) . The museum, which opened in 1994 includes many haunting pleas from starving tenants on the estate and the response they received. It uses the unique documents that were discovered in the estate office, dealing with the administration of the estate during the tenure of the Mahon family. I didn’t remember much or any of our Famine history from history class. We had a famine? These letters, lists of names and the conditions of emigration provided a sobering memorial to our ancestors who suffered during the plight of the famine. Half a million people were evicted from their cottages and of the 60,000 Irish that travelled in these ‘coffin ships’20,365 perished that are accounted for. No doubt more died on their further journeys from the illnesses they contacted on the ships.
The old set of skis that hang in the hallway was one of the images I took away from the house. How cumbersome and archaic they looked, yet a symbol of privilege set against the world of the peasant farmers who worked tirelessly and mercilessly outside on the land. The beautiful walled pleasure gardens take the edge off the harsh realities learned about the famine ships, with the customary giant lily pond and the 18th century décor which has echoes in all the great houses.
Let’s talk about the décor.
Telephones and electricity! I feel I am in a HG Wells novel for heavens sake. All this change is unnerving . The young are much more adaptable to it.
Violet Crawley, Downtown Abbey
A walk through an 18th/19th century home for me is a feast of décor porn.The customary deep crimson red damask wallpaper has never lost its appeal, often found in the living room. Very Victorian and popular in the French Renaissance it originated in Europe in the 14th century and has not lost its popularity today. It is again as a direct result of my estate visits that I have a damask feature wall in my living room, a deep red and gold. Turquoise painted hallways look garish to the modern eye but were in vogue back then too and I have wondered in which room would I get away with it today? The grandfather clock, stopped in time, the stags head, crystal chandeliers and candelabras, huge oriental vases and lamp shades with super long fringes, the dainty colorful delf displayed in large cabinets along the walls in colours and designs re introduced to the market as ‘designer old’. Too old for retro title. Antique chic. The more mismatching the better using a feast of garish colours; reds, pinks, browns, yellows, turquoise blues and mint greens. And of course, the again, customary enormous portrait paintings of the family members in ornate gold frames. Looking into these paintings and the grandeur they displayed in their dress I think of them posing, perhaps for hours, for this painting and wonder what they would make of todays ‘selfies’ taken dozens of times a day as opposed to posing perhaps once a year, if even. A time before electricity, before telephone, before adequate bathrooms. The beds are so small, no not because they were smaller in stature but because they slept sitting up afraid of getting an infection in their lungs. For once that dreaded cough started there was little that could be done to reverse the ravages of TB. We can sleep soundly lying down and enjoy long lives and beds now thanks to modern medicine and vaccination.
The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.
The building that once housed a pair of revolutionary sisters and had one of our national great poets for all of two visits fills a visit to Lissadell with political, cultural and literary intrigue. The young militant and the suffragette both capture Yeats’ imagination and are immortalized in the above lines as he sat looking out at them from the house. A popular question as we move through the house. Where did Yeats sit exactly as he wrote those immortal lines? Imagining this time and these fiercely determined and politically active young ladies, one a countess who fought, literally, gun in hand, for the Irish free state and the other who fought for women’s rights, one can imagine there was not a dull moment in this house. As you walk through the house it is easy to be transported back in time, as it is as it was. Conjuring up the kind of conversations that unfolded between these historical figures, progressives in their own time, one wonders what they would make of ours? Would Yeats be on twitter? Would Constance Markieviez be a role model for female army chic? GI Connie!
Lissadell with its echoes of the 1916 Rebellion and Yeats’ poetry is not the only estate that housed celebrities. Mount Stewart has table place names for Winston Churchill and his wife among Counts, Countesses, Marquis, Ladies, Dukes and Duchesses. One particular Marquis who lived there entertained a group of SS men representing an unnameable leader of disrepute. Can you imagine the discussions, the table talk and post dinner shenanigans at that house? Apparently the socialite Lady Edith hosted many a glittering party for up to 2500 guests at a time! But as amusing as this is, it’s not so amusing when we learn that as the house went through a £150k refurbishment £30 was given to famine support relief. To enjoy the house one must forget or distance oneself from the unsavoury politics it once housed.
Mount Stewart Fountain Pool garden, the Shamrock Gardens (with red hand of Ulster) and one of the topiaries on top of the perfectly trimmed hedges.
Circe the Sorceress
The gardens, which make this estate a jaw-dropper, are understandably on the proposed UNESCO heritage list and rate in the top ten gardens in the world. Lady Londonderry’s passion for bold planting schemes coupled with the mild climate of Strangford Lough allows rare and tender plants from across the globe to thrive in this celebrated garden. This lady expressed her energy and power not just in being an influential society hostess but in creating an amazing tapestry in her garden woven out of varying species of Rhododendrons (apparently biggest in the world found here), Azaleas, Magnolias, Primulas, Irises, Gunneras and umpteen exotic plants she sourced from elite botanists abroad such as the likes of the very rare blue poppy. She called herself Circe the Sorceress infusing the place with feminine mythological energy and making it a garden for goddesses which includes the Ladies Walk, the Shamrock garden, the Sunken Garden, The Dodo Terrace, Menagerie, the Fountain Pool, Tir n’na Og, the Italian garden, the Spanish Garden, the Mairi Garden and the Rose garden. She was extremely particular in her chosen flowers and designs including 24 topiary pieces telling a children’s story. The roses had to have a scent that appealed to her and the rhododendrons and lilies were her favourites due to their smell. Mount Stewart reflects a rich tapestry of design and planting artistry bearing the hallmark of its creator.
In all the grand estate gardens you can be sure of finding a Ladies walk (usually a mile), a Rose Garden, a Camomile lawn, a Lime tree walk and/or a Yew tree walk. In the Hillsborough castle gardens you can view the Rose Gardens in which the current Queen and her sister Margaret played as young girls when visiting their Aunt. She likes to walk there today, when on a visit, to revisit fond memories. Further down around the lake you will find two birches planted by herself and her husband back in 1994. Either way the experience of walking through a carefully designed landscape with peaceful woodlands, meandering waterways, serene lakes and trimmed lawns gives one a sense that they too are of royal breeding and to the manor born.
Lime tree-lined bliss. Hillsborough Castle Gardens
I call it a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon, away from the madding crowds. I’m off to The Argory house and gardens today! I wonder is it neo-Classical, Victorian, Georgian or Gothic? Hmm Hope the cake in the café is decent too!
Special thanks goes out to the National Trust, without whom none of these Sunday fun days would happen.
In the Shamrock Garden and getting my Marquis head on. Mount Stewart