Ireland’s history of war and oppression, and war against the oppressors, is nowhere more evident than in the crumbling estate houses that were once the glory of Ireland. Or at least, the glory of the English landlords.
And therein lies the rub. While visitors to Ireland look with dismay at the beautiful stately mansions that are decaying and falling away into piles of rubble, many Irish see it differently. Without delving too deeply into Irish history, basically the estate houses were built using the rent that tenant farmers paid to the (mostly) English landlords for their meager plots of land. The to-the-manor-born landlords lived in splendor, while their workers lived in squalor.
There are two main reasons for the demise of the estate houses, of which there were more than 6,000 across Ireland in the late 1700s. The first was the Land Wars of the 1870s to 1890s which led to much of the land being taken from the English and divided up amongst the tenants. Without one massive income, the estates were unsustainable. Some were purchased by Irish owners, but most of the English owners simply packed up and moved back to England, leaving the mansions to crumble.
To the tenants who couldn’t afford to purchase or live in them, they were symbols of dark times. Many were dismantled, with the stones carted off to build other houses, or stone fences. Others mysteriously burned to the ground.
The “big houses” which held on into the 20th century faced a new threat—Irish independence. Again the houses were targeted as symbols of English dominance and many were burned to force out the English owners.
While some estate houses where purchased during the boom years of the late 2000s and returned to their former glory, now they face a new threat—repossession. The banks have no desire to restore these white elephants, so they continue to decay and crumble, often to the point of no repair.
There are some groups in Ireland calling for the government to step in and preserve these national treasures, but the government doesn’t have the cash to be in the home repair business. Case in point is Tyrone House in Co. Galway, which belongs to the Irish Georgian Society. The government said it would provide the funds to restore, or at least preserve, this once magnificent house, but now it can’t. They can’t even provide the funds to repair Thoor Ballylee, the castle home of William Butler Yeats, which was damaged several years ago when the adjacent stream flooded. Once a visitor center, it’s been closed for several years.
A more recent example is Loughglynn House, once a glorious mansion whose landlords were generous and well-liked in the small village. It became a convent and school in the late 1800s and supported a thriving cottage dairy industry, but closed in the 1970s. It was purchased by a developer in 2002 for €2 million with plans to turn it into a luxury hotel. Then the developer went broke, and the bank seized the property. Now, with vandalism and lack of maintenance, it too is in danger of becoming derelict beyond repair, in just a few short years.
The loss of Ireland’s estate houses means a loss of Ireland’s tangible history. I hope more can be preserved before it’s too late.