by jdurney on February 2, 2012

Castletown display highlights Ireland’s ruined mansions

An exciting exhibition which will run through April in Castletown House, Celbridge, will feature spectacular images of the ruined country houses which sit in the Irish landscape, reminders of the time when Ireland was the playground of aristocrats and landlords. The photographic exhibition is the work of Tarquin Blake who has been described as the ‘Indiana Jones’ of heritage exploration finding his way up lonely laneways and forest tracks to find the remains of abandoned mansions. 

County Kildare is fortunate in that most of its great houses are still in good order, albeit finding new leases of life as luxury hotels or golf courses (Killashee House, Straffan House and Carton being examples). 

However the county does have a number of ruined houses whose crumbling walls are reminders of past glories.  Some were abandoned shortly after construction, Jigginstown House outside Naas was occupied for a few years after its near-completion in 1640. By contrast houses like Donadea House had a long pedigree and survived as a residence well into the twentieth century. This span of generations is well reflected in Tarquin Blake’s evocative photographs which are displayed in one of the truly great houses in western Europe, Castletown House, which is owned by the Irish state through the Office of Public Works.

The heyday of the Irish country house began around the year 1720. At this time, the land was owned by a relatively small number of large landowners. Through plantation and conquest, the majority of landowners were Anglo-Irish Protestants. By the end of the eighteenth century it was estimated that 95 percent of all the farmland in Ireland was owned by 5,000 Protestant landowners. The land was worked by tenant farmers, whose rent payments provided the staple income of the landowner. To gain a rough financial picture of an estate, 3,000 acres of good farmland could bring in an annual income of around £4,500, — nearly one thousand times the annual wage of a cook or house servant. With this huge income, the landowners could afford to build houses of extravagant proportions.
The beginning of the end for the big house came in 1844 when the potato blight arrived in Ireland. It destroyed the daily diet of three million people. When starving, penniless tenants could not afford to pay rent, the landlords, with their income collapsing,  were soon bankrupted. Through the 1870s periods of severe tensions between landowners and tenants became known as the Land Wars. Finally the Land Acts introduced by the Government saw land removed from the landlords and transferred directly into the hands of the farmers. With their rental income removed, the status of the landed aristocracy and of their lavish mansions began to unravel.
Through the War of Independence (1919-21) and the Irish Civil War (1922-23), the country house became a target for the IRA and many were deliberately burnt. For the surviving houses the ever increasing expense of maintenance made them unviable. The completion of the land purchase schemes for farmers meant that many of the big houses became like forgotten islands surrounded by neat Land Commission farms created by the breaking up of the expansive estates which had sustained the life style of the big house families. As the aristocratic families died out or decamped to more sympathetic environments in England, many of the houses were abandoned.  Some were demolished, while others were forgotten, lost at the back of a farm holding or hidden in the depths of forest.
However through the work of historians and photographers the heritage of Ireland’s country houses has been given a new lease of life. A pioneer in this field is photographer Tarquin Blake who found his first abandoned mansion in 2008 and has been on a mission to document Ireland’s lost heritage ever since. He explains the sometimes adventurous quest for the remains of the big houses in the following terms:

‘The first ruins I found with the help of tourist guides, then as my obsession grew I took to scouring old maps in my attempts to find these places. Exploring and photographing these ruins is really interesting: when I’m out with my walking boots on, map and GPS in hand, and a rucksack of camera gear on my back it feels like a cross between Indiana Jones and Alice in Wonderland.’

Tarquin Blake’s stunning photographs of Ireland’s ruined country houses can be found in his large format book ‘Abandoned Mansions of Ireland’ published by the Collins Press and on his website  However to see his photographs in context a visit to the greatest of Ireland’s big houses, Castletown House, will bring many rewards. The exhibition runs to 2 May 2011 and admission is free. Series no: 223.

* The passing of Hermann  Geissel, of Newbridge and Clane, has deprived the local history community in Kildare of an innovative and talented historian. Hermann was a founder member of the  Clane Local History Group. His forte was in surveying the landscape for earthworks and archaeological features. He had a talent for telling the story of the north Kildare landscape by identifying features overlooked  by less observant eyes. His publication (with Seamus Cullen) of a book on the Eiscir Riada, the old royal roadway that follows the glacial ridge through North Kildare, demonstrated his talents for illustration and map making at their very best. It is perhaps not surprising that a native of Germany should set high standards in local history interpretation by his meticulous observation and attention to detail. He will be fondly remembered in the Kildare local history network as a personable and committed historian with a distinctive style and exceptional talents. 

Liam Kenny in his Looking Back article from the Leinster Leader of 5 April 2011 on Kildare’s abandoned mansions exhibition in Castletown House

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