The Big Houses of Ireland

Treasure Hunt by Molly Keane

published 1952

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They were the clothes of 1907 without exaggeration. The skirt of her orchid-coloured coat and skirt was long, but not to the ground. The coat was gently sloping down the shoulders and faintly egg-boilered at the waist. Naturally there was a certain amount of soft lace at her throat, but not a shred at her wrists. She wore little doeskin gloves with a wrist button—her pink palm bulged like a peardrop through the gap. She leaned on a thin duck’s headed umbrella with bright eyes. On her head she wore a particularly soft and becoming hat with a bird in it, a cross between a dove and a seagull, curiously complete throughout graceful wing-spread and soft breast, it was a bird not just feathers in a hat.

Treasure Hunt

commentary: An Irish entry for Bloomsday, though James Joyce was not the man for the big house.

But this entry does link up with a couple of different themes. I recently read a biography of Molly Keane, a great writer of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, and one whose book Good Behaviour is a great blog favourite. I’ve read most of her novels, but then this one popped up – it was originally a play (and a very successful one) by Keane, and then she turned it into a novel, and to be honest it isn’t her finest moment.

I found myself on the side of the serious young people worrying about money – and very much with the character who ‘was at the end of his patience with these spoilt, doting old aristos’ – they had no charm for me. They are shown as dishonest, cheats, and thieves as well as being infantile. The plot (such as it is) starts after the funeral of the head of the family: he has left generous bequests all round, but in fact was close to bankruptcy. The only hope of keeping the family home, and keeping the family in food and whiskey, is to take paying guests. The older generation are horrified, and plot to get rid of the guests by being as obnoxious as possible (not a stretch). There is another plot strand which you can guess from the title of play and novel.

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There are some nice moments – discussing funeral wreaths:
The young girl said with a quaver: “Mine was just a bit of white heather, made up into a horseshoe—just for luck.”
“Quite unnecessary, my dear.” The mother’s rebuke was light but sure, “your Uncle Roddy will have the best in every sphere—I’m sure of it.”
And the clothes are described beautifully – presumably some of it for the benefit of the stage designer. Aunt Anna Rose, who is described above, spends most of her time in a sedan chair in the middle of the drawing-room (you can just see it on stage and I like the ‘egg-boilered’ waist as a variation on an egg-timer), and is living in the past…

The book did make me think about the importance of the big old house in novels about Ireland. Molly Keane (under that name and as MJ Farrell) is the Queen of the dilapidated Anglo-Irish. In March we had JG Farrell’s Troubles, a true masterpiece, although that is set in a hotel. Henry Green’s haunting Loving, 1945, takes place wholly within an old Irish house, looking at the servants’ intricate lives.

Treasure Hunt 2

WG Sebald has a marvellous old Irish house and family in his Rings of Saturn (which might be a novel or might not). Elizabeth Bowen came from the background herself, and dealt with it in The Last September, while Kate O’Brien wrote about the Catholic gentry in books such as The Last of Summer. John Banville’s The Newton Letter takes a sideways look at a house – from the lodge. And – bang up to date – the young people in Tana French’s marvellous and hypnotic The Likeness are living communally in an old family house.

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There’s Lissadell House, which features in a beautiful poem by WB Yeats, and was visited on a Clothes in Books holiday recently – blog entries here and here. (‘Nothing says fun holiday day out like a trip to a dead poet’s grave.’)

I’m sure there are many more, and look to my readers to suggest which literary Irish houses I have missed out…

And of course the whole post is almost an excuse to show some photos from the wonderful collection at the National Library of Ireland, a resource that I haunt.


  1. There is definitely something about those old houses, isn't there, Moira? I'm glad you've mentioned a few of them. I also like that idea of looking at a family and its dynamics at a certain time. Sounds as though this is a decent historical look as much as anything else?

    1. Yes, though not full of realism, everyone is a bit whimsical! But as you know, I always like the odd details of daily life, and I am always particularly fascinated by this element of Irish 20 C life.

  2. Hardly need to say it, but an one to avoid. My dad read her though, so nice to be reminded of him.

    1. I guess he passed on a love of reading, if not always shared tastes. Did he like thrillers too?

    2. No, too low-brow for him I'm afraid.

    3. There's always a generation gap...

  3. Moira, I don't know much about literary Irish houses but that's certainly an intriguing plot. I was reading about Molly Keane online and I discovered that she wrote many novels as M.J. Farrell, as you mentioned.

    1. Yes she was prolific when you count up books as Keane, books as Farrell, and plays too!
      And Irish houses are a good start to any plot.

  4. Lovely photos, Moira. My husband has always been interested in architecture and country houses in England. Has lots of big books about them.

    1. Thanks - I love the photos you can find of the big old house, even though my ancestors were the starving peasants down the road in a shack...

  5. Mine, too. I'm sure my ancestors were the starving farmers or farm workers living in a shabby cottage. It's not for nothing that my relatives came to the U.S. from Ireland.

    So, I can't relate to a big Irish house with servants. No one on either side of my family had any money or servants.
    Actually, my Eastern European Jewish grandmother had one nephew who became rich in New York state.

    And she would go to his mansion once a year for the required family dinner and she would go into the kitchen, kick off her shoe and talk to the people doing the work. She wasn't one for hobnobbing with the rich.

    But spending a holiday at a dead poet's grave -- that is quite an idea of a holiday! Did it inspire you to take out a book of Yeats' poetry and reread it?

    1. Yes it most certainly did! My daughter studied Yeats at university, and we all knew something about him, so we had some great discussions about him. And yes, those wonderful poems.
      One of my grandmothers came to England to be in service as a maid. She would be very proud that her descendents have interesting jobs, but have in no way forgotten their roots: I'm sure yours are the same.


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