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Sleeping Beauties - The Irish Country House

Report of the lecture given by Tom Duncan
on January 27th 2010

It is an insuperable challenge to report comprehensively on a lecture of such immense scope, delivered in such an entertaining and accessible style, by a lecturer who spoke fluently and without notes and who had such fascinating background knowledge of many of the characters and houses he was describing.

The solution is to record a few of the highlights which made an impression on me personally and hope they resonate with those who read this report.

In a wide-ranging introduction, Tom set out the historical and geographical complexities which have governed the development of Ireland to this day. A history of regular invasion by the Vikings, the Romans, the Normans and, of course, the English; a history of assimilation and absorption including the "plantation" period which followed the accession of Elizabeth 1 whose cousin from the Butler family built the only manor house in Ireland - Kilkenny Castle. Everyone else, it seems, continued to favour defensive structures!

We learned that the infamous Battle of the Boyne was on 1st July and not on 12th July 1690 as some of us learned at school and that following William of Orange's victory there was a major influx of families who now form the core of the Anglo-Irish community. They built in the "Irish Palladian" style although none of their British designers, such as Adam, actually visited the country. One gem designed by the Scottish architect, Chambers, was the Casino (small house in Italian) regrettably now surrounded by a modern housing estate. Deceptively, it contains sixteen rooms in its compact form, having a deep cellar which is invisible from a distance. It was built of expensive Portland stone and took twelve years to complete but was never lived in, being used instead just for entertaining!

Another joy was a Swiss Cottage designed by Nash for a banker in which the "needs of his dairy maids were attended to".

I think a lasting memory will be Tom's satirical comments on the dust and lack of roped-off areas in Irish Country Houses - such a contrast with our National Trust houses which, he felt, so often show evidence of "artistic desecration"!

John Baker

Tom Duncan with two happy members after an excellent talk.