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country life, or, viva la revolution!

Yesterday Patsington and I decided to yet again prove our geriatric boringness and headed out on a country jaunt. On a whim (oh, how spontaneous and wild we are), we decided to go to Powerscourt House to look at the gardens, which are spectacularly pretty. It was all very fancy - it's beautifully landscaped and filled with pseudo-classical statues - and after wandering around in the hazy light for a while, it started really reminding me of E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle. Until, of course, we discovered the pet cemetary, where the family who once owned the house and vast grounds buried their fallen animal comrades. The cemetary - which is surprisingly large - is initially touching, especially if you're an animal-loving pet owner; I understand the love these people had for their pets, and their desire to commemorate their late animal companions. But then, almost against your will, it starts seeming amusingly mawkish (the poems on the gravestones have to be read to be believed). And finally, when you realise that the Powerscourts gave their pets fancier burials than anyone who worked for them ever got, it starts seeming rather distasteful.

In fact, Patsington's and my visits to castles and suchlike seem to produce a strange feeling in our hearts. On one level, we like going to places like Powerscourt because they're lovely and we secretly think that WE should be living in such a house, because it is what we truly deserve and we would really appreciate it. I blame these feelings on a childhood spent reading about the English upper-middle and just-plain-upper classes. I'm afraid that in my subconscious I think that I am much, much posher than I actually am and that somehow I really did grow up in an enormous country house somewhere in Kent rather than a three-bedroomed semi-detached in the north Dublin suburbs. This is perhaps why I like poncing about fancy houses so much. But Patsington's and my pleasure in parading about the ballrooms and terraces of these country retreats is always tempered by a vague discomfort when we remember that we are Catholic muck-savages who would never have been allowed set one foot in the door back when the family were around. Unless we were servants.

Then, of course, our righteous socialist anger is aroused. In fact, if I am prancing about a country estate, all I have to do is think of the way Molly Keane wrote about the Plain People of Ireland, ie anyone who wasn't an upper-middle-class Protestant, ie my grandparents, and I practically want to burn the house down myself*. In the middle of the 19th century, as these terraces were being built, there was a famine going on all around the country and people being chucked into mass pits and meanwhile the Powerscourt family were erecting enormous fancy gravestones for their dead pets. Patsington and I noticed that one of the gravestones in the pet graveyard was covered in sacking, and P suggested that it was one of the servants. "Oh, dear old Seamus, he fell into one of our ten million ornamental ponds. He was almost as dear to us as the cat next to whom he is now buried. Almost, but not quite."

*Joke! JOKE! I really do feel that the wanton destruction of the Big Houses is one of the most shameful elements of the war of independence.

Comments

( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
cosmorific
Mar. 10th, 2005 07:09 pm (UTC)
At almost every historic point of interest I visited while I was in France, the tour guide would point out some part of it that had been destroyed during the Revolution. Like you, I can understand the feelings of the people who stormed the Bastille, but I still think it's a shame so many beautiful historical sites got defaced.
glitzfrau
Mar. 10th, 2005 09:50 pm (UTC)
You expressed everything I feel on the subject (except perhaps the "If I had been Lady Powerscourt, I would have had this AND a fancy house in town full of expensive Irish designer wedding dresses and a grand piano too!")

I'm afraid that in my subconscious I think that I am much, much posher than I actually am and that somehow I really did grow up in an enormous country house somewhere in Kent rather than a three-bedroomed semi-detached in the north Dublin suburbs.

*howls*

I GREW UP IN IT WITH YOU TOO.
stellanova
Mar. 11th, 2005 12:06 pm (UTC)
You expressed everything I feel on the subject (except perhaps the "If I had been Lady Powerscourt, I would have had this AND a fancy house in town full of expensive Irish designer wedding dresses and a grand piano too!")


Bwahahahahaha! And a vegetarian cafe, too!

I GREW UP IN IT WITH YOU TOO.

Hee! Ah, those were the days....except they weren't, unfortunately.

stephencass
Mar. 10th, 2005 10:40 pm (UTC)
On the famine though, one of the things about it is that it wasn't all around the country. In my father's family history -- my father's family farmed around Kilkenny and some of them are still there -- noone in their area knew anything about a famine until people started walking in from the West and telling them, to some initial disbelief, that there were people starving to death back there. So I think there's some wiggle room on whether or not the pet cemetry was quite a "Let them eat cake" situation, but, still... it is useful to remember, when looking back on one gilded age or another, that, until the Enlightenment got the ball rolling to sweep away the old aristocracies into irrelevance (or the bottom of mineshafts, take your pick), that hungry illiterate malnourished peasant in the corner? It's YOU.
stellanova
Mar. 11th, 2005 12:06 am (UTC)
So I think there's some wiggle room on whether or not the pet cemetry was quite a "Let them eat cake" situation, but, still...

Yeah, you're right. But still! Fancier graves than any of their servants would have had, even if they weren't all chucked into a mass grave!

it is useful to remember, when looking back on one gilded age or another, that, until the Enlightenment got the ball rolling to sweep away the old aristocracies into irrelevance (or the bottom of mineshafts, take your pick), that hungry illiterate malnourished peasant in the corner? It's YOU.

Exactly. I think we tend to think that if we were "back in time", we'd be living like lords instead of the peasants which most of our ancestors were.
clanwilliam
Mar. 11th, 2005 10:40 am (UTC)
On the other hand, there is a famine graveyard in Carlow, which was even less badly hit than Kilkenny, Carlow being a very prosperous smug little county indeed.
stellanova
Mar. 11th, 2005 10:50 am (UTC)
My maternal grandmother's family was from Westmeath (Moynalty, where everyone is called Sheridan, a lack of variety in surnames which doesn't bode well for my genes), and apparently there was a very decent local landlord there who basically fed people out of his own pocket - he was still spoken of fondly in the area when my grandmother was a child in the '20s.
leedy
Mar. 11th, 2005 12:17 pm (UTC)
which doesn't bode well for my genes

Heh. Less a family tree, more a sort of stick. Or maybe a basket.

debodacious
Mar. 11th, 2005 12:09 am (UTC)
I have the same inability to resolve my inner leftiness with liking historic hice. Similarly, I like churches and even church services without ever being entirely comfortable with religion. I like them as places, and find them beautiful and awe inspiring, but being of good solid peasant stock I always feel a spot of anti establishment activity would be less hypocritical than weedily joining the National Trust. And so my children have all grown up visiting stately homes to the accompaniment of a skewed parental commentary. eg. Child: Mummy, what is a duke? Me: They're the enemy.
I was reading recently about crofters on Harris who marched on the local Big House with revolutionary intent during the clearances but ended up being invited in for afternoon tea, and accepting. I think we differ from the French in this respect.
nwhyte
Mar. 11th, 2005 02:29 am (UTC)
I really do feel that the wanton destruction of the Big Houses is one of the most shameful elements of the war of independence.

In fairness, the wanton destruction mainly happened during the Civil War. One of the most striking things in contemporary accounts of the War of Independence (eg Lady Fingal's memoirs) is how the British lost, and Sinn Fein to a certain extent gained, the loyalty of the Big House folk.
clanwilliam
Mar. 11th, 2005 10:42 am (UTC)
There is a great story about a butler frostily saying "And who shall I say called?" as a mob stormed the local Big House...

Noticeably, though, decent landlords were far less likely to be touched. The Leslies were unharmed (which may also have had something to do with Shane Leslie's dual conversion to Catholicism and the cause in the 1910s).
leedy
Mar. 11th, 2005 12:14 pm (UTC)
decent landlords were far less likely to be touched

B's grandfather had a great story about a well-liked landlord who was informed several days in advance that "the lads from Cork" (they always seemed to be from Cork, I didn't realize that they had such pyromaniac tendencies) would be up to burn them out, thus giving them plentiful time to remove their every possession from the house. Including the windows.

The stupidest of the burnings-out that I've heard of was the army barracks in the village where B is from in Offaly. Apparently the British army marched formally out of the barracks come Independence, leaving perfectly functional army/office buildings with furniture and crockery and bedlinen and everything behind them for use by the new State. Three days later, "the lads from Cork" came and burned the entire thing down. Genius.
anglaisepaon
Mar. 11th, 2005 03:30 am (UTC)
I know shamingly little about this, despite the bachelors in history. Who is this Molly Keane person, and where would be a good place to start investigating this time?
stellanova
Mar. 11th, 2005 11:57 am (UTC)
Molly Keane is a writer who produced several novels about the Anglo-Irish ascendency in the 20s and 30s before taking a 50 year break and returning with more novels about the Anglo-Irish ascendency in the 80s. To over-simplify a bit, the Anglo-Irish were (and still are, as they are still with us - Lord Mountcharles's son was in my class in college - although they no longer run things) the aristocracy and the non-titled-but-still-rich-and-posh Protestants like Keane herself (there were a lot of poor, non-ascendency Protestants, but they don't count. Although to the likes of Keane they were just a step up from poor Catholics). There were, of course, many Anglo-Irish nationalists, but among the non-nationalists there was a strain of deplorable bigotry against the Catholics who formed the vast majority of the country (and whose labour was basically funding the Anglo-Irish bubble). This is apparent in the writings of Keane, who seems to see the possession of a noticably Irish accent - however middle class - as something inherently amusing. As Polly Devlin said,

"[Irish Catholics] seem only to enter this world as a sub-species, good for opening gates and giving amusing, barely subservient lip-service, the words and rhythms of which were recounted as hilarious anecdotes with broguish emphasis on the Oirishness of it all. Perhaps in no other country has simply and artlessly belonging to that country been made such an inherently ridiculous thing, an object for mirth.....The Anglo-Irish have said over and over again 'we are Irish' and the Irish have said 'you are not.' That the class that had endowed them with a sense of social inferiority and, as they believed, taken their land, should claim the same national identity while despising it in its 'purest' form was anathema to the mass."

This attitude is all over the books of Molly Keane, which is possibly why I find her so hard to stomach, so for a more nuanced look at Anglo-Irishness I'd recommend the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, who was more subtle and less unamusingly snobbish.

During the wars of the early '20s, for various reasons both tactical and otherwise, nationalist mobs burned down a lot of the Big Houses in which the Anglo-Irish lived, destroying some of the most beautiful houses in the country. Sadly, Elizabeth Bowen's family house in Cork survived all that and then was detroyed by a land developer who bought it in, I think, the '60s.
tenderhooligan
Mar. 11th, 2005 11:56 am (UTC)
I'm a lazy 29 year old Irish journalist, living in Dublin with my boyfriend and a rather stupid cat called Princess Arjumand.


I am a lazy 30 year old former Enniskillen-er doctoral student, now living in Oxford, with housemates. And we need a cat. Can I add you?
stellanova
Mar. 11th, 2005 12:07 pm (UTC)
But of course!
tenderhooligan
Mar. 11th, 2005 12:09 pm (UTC)
Super and done! :)
aliceinfinland
Mar. 22nd, 2005 10:26 am (UTC)
I'm adding you too. I want to read more!

(This post expresses how I feel about industrialists' mansions back home in New England/New York. Yes, the Frick Museum is beautiful, but I've never been able to bring myself to visit it unless dragged, because the Frick fortune came from exploiting steelworkers and miners, so I want to throw Molotov cocktails, you know?)
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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