Just over a hundred years ago, there were over 7,000 ‘Big Houses’ in Ireland, varying from the handsome glebe houses and rectories where the clergymen lived to the large mansions and sprawling castles of the gentry and aristocracy. Most were privately commissioned during the 18th and 19th century and they include some of the finest architectural gems in Europe.
Some big houses were, of course, bigger than others but every county had at least a half dozen mansions which would rival the Titanic or a small street in Dublin for size. Big houses strode along the banks of every river, overlooked every valley and mountain, clung to coastlines craggy and smooth, rose defiantly from the otherwise featureless bogs.
The architects who built them often employed resourceful and innovative techniques. The completed structures were then decorated and furnished with extraordinary style. While the stonemasons and carpenters were at work erecting walls and rafters, gardeners were busily transforming the landscape immediately around each house into an oasis of order and tranquility where the gentry and their ladyfolk could stroll on the long summer evenings. By 1900, the ‘big house’ gardens covered 320,000 hectares of Ireland, or about 4 per cent of the landscape.
Many of Ireland’s architects, labourers, craftsmen and gardeners subsequently helped to create the great towns and cities of the USA, Canada, Australia, India and the farthest extremities of the British Empire – using the experience and skills they had learned while building big houses for the landed gentry and aristocracy of Ireland. James Hoban, for instance, architect of the White House in Washington, learned his trade while building Desart Court for the Earl of Desart and Westport House for the Marquess of Sligo.
Innumerable books have been published about the once dominant big houses of Ireland, including ‘The Burning of the Big House’ by Terence Dooley (2022), ‘The Irish Country House’ by the Knight of Glin, James Peil and James Fennell, and ‘Abandoned Ireland’ by Tarquin Blake. It is a subject that will continue to haunt and enthral people for centuries to come.
The big house was much more than a mere residence. It was a powerful statement that the family who built it intended to stay around for generations to come. Primarily Protestant and intrinsically British, these families became known as the Anglo-Irish. They were a closely-related network of perhaps 2,000 families who, from at least the 1690s through until the first years of the 20th century, effectively ruled the island of Ireland.
They were invariably a fascinating collection of people, sometimes benign, sometimes brutal, often eccentric. Their influence came to bear not just upon their immediate locality, but also upon the whole of Ireland and, in many instances, upon the wider world of the British Empire.
The family origins of this curious elite was equally disparate. Some descended from the ancient aristocratic houses of Europe. Others acquired their wealth from one of the Norman knights who invaded Ireland in the 12th century. England’s dominance of Ireland throughout the Middle Ages introduced more families, not least when the armies of Queen Elizabeth and King James I secured control of the lands of Munster and Ulster respectively.
In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell paid the Protestant soldiers who had served under him with land, mostly Irish, confiscated from Catholics who had been blacklisted as traitors. With the collapse of the Catholic, or Jacobite, cause at the battle of the Boyne in 1690, the extraordinary, mesmerising and often bewildering age of the Anglo-Irish – or the Protestant Ascendancy – came into its own.
And even then there was always room for someone of humble origins to rise to the top. William Conolly, for instance, was a publican’s son from Donegal who became the wealthiest man in Ireland. He commissioned the construction of the enormous Castletown House in Celbridge, Co. Kildare.
Many big houses changed hands during the 19th century. This was particularly so after the establishment of the Encumbered Estates Courts which were set up during the Famine year of 1849 to oversee the sale of indebted Irish estates. The Land Acts of the 1880s and 1903 also radically altered land ownership in Ireland as the British government effectively subsidised tenants who wished to purchase land from the big house landlords. Many landlords reinvested this money in stocks and shares, only for their investments to be wiped out during the turmoil of the First World War and the Great Depression which followed it.
With the creation of the Irish Free State in the 1920s, the mansions of the Anglo-Irish quickly fell out of favour. Many of the families who had occupied these buildings for the previous centuries emigrated. Approximately 180 big houses were destroyed during the Irish Civil War, adding to the 120 or so which had gone up in flames during the War of Independence. These included some high profile houses like the Foxrock home of the agricultural reformer Horace Plunkett and the Earl of Kingstown’s massive castle in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork.
‘Despite the devastating financial losses suffered by so many gentry families after the famine, most of the big houses were still standing at the end of the 19th century’, says Terence Reeves-Smyth, Senior Inspector for Historic Buildings with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. ‘The losses during the ‘Troubles’ of 1919 to 1922 were actually relatively small, although they did include some very fine houses. Most of the losses took place in later decades, from the 1920s through into the 1970s.’
During those decades, hundreds of big houses met their doom, either abandoned to crumble back into the earth or hastily felled by dynamite sticks and balls on chains.
The Land Commission, entrusted with reassigning the land of Ireland to the people of Ireland, took a particularly dim view of these colonial relics. The Forestry Commission, delegated to expand the Irish landscape with commercial woodland, also knocked down a considerable number of big houses. Hundreds more became religious institutions, boarding schools, reformatory prisons and government offices.
By 1986, less than 300 of the big houses were still in the hands of the families who had built or occupied them during the days when Ireland was a British colony. That same year, the heads of some of these families joined forces with some of those who had purchased, restored or converted such buildings during the decades since independence. They came together under a shared belief that the time had come to open their front doors, and the doors of the bedrooms upstairs, to welcome in paying guests. Not as hotels, of course, but as private homes where people could stay.
And so the Hidden Ireland (www.hiddenireland.com) was born.
‘Over the years many of these houses had passed from one generation to the next’, explains Mark Hewlett, Chairman of the Hidden Ireland group in 2011.
‘A number of them had turned into businesses, offering guests the opportunity to stay in ancestral homes that were still owned and run by members of the original families. The concept was, and is, predominantly driven by the need to finance the costs of running these houses. The Hidden Ireland Group brought these houses under the umbrella of a single organization. And in the twenty five years since its formation, the Hidden Ireland has steadily evolved so that it is now represented by many completely unique and exceptional historic houses all across Ireland’.
Hidden Ireland owners have much in common, not least the knowledge of just how hard it is to keep a big house going, and their determination to do so. To paraphrase the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, the big house presents its owners with something midway between a raison d’être and a predicament. Every day reveals a new hazard – dry rot in the rafters, jackdaws in the chimney, slates sliding off a roof, the sudden emergence of a major fault-line in a bedroom wall. As such, a big house owner will find a large portion of his or her life sporadically dedicated to righting these wrongs.
Another thing that the Hidden Ireland owners have in common is that their houses are hard to find, often notoriously so. This possible negative was ingeniously reincarnated as a glowing positive with the creation of the ‘Hidden Ireland’ brand, at once allowing those who visited such places to feel blissfully privileged to have found such a secret sanctuary. For overseas visitors seeking the definitive retreat, such houses offered an ideal opportunity to escape, to lock oneself away in the mini-kingdom of an ancient and sometimes rather eccentric Irish estate, to pull on some welly boots and wander out into a private wonderland of mossy woodlands, trout-filled rivers, sweet-smelling pleasure grounds and flourishing walled gardens. Following a mid-19th century renaissance in gardening and tree-planting, many of these demesnes are now in peak condition with 160-year-old oak, beech, lime and chestnut trees towering over avenues and paddocks.
‘We don’t offer piped TV or coffee-makers in the bedrooms’, says Peter Mantle, owner of the acclaimed Delphi Lodge in Connemara. ‘Instead we focus on huge log fires, the finest linen, vintage port from the cellar and an overall taste of bygone days.’
‘The Hidden Ireland is a very personal type of hospitality’, he continues.
‘For one thing communal dining around a great table is a common, if not universal, feature. Sometimes a guest might find themselves being sent off to pick asparagus in the kitchen garden, or to take the house labrador on their walk. Or maybe they end up borrowing the owner’s fly rod to land a trout from the lake. In any case, the sympathetic following we initially anticipated has grown to an unimagined scale. There are now legions of Hidden Ireland devotees from all around the world who return time and again to their old favourites, or to check out the newly recruited houses as the network expands’.
In the spring of 2026, all going to plan, Hidden Ireland will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Contrary to expectation, it has kept abreast of the changes with a handsome website, a well-maintained Facebook page and increasing numbers flocking to avail of Hidden Ireland gift vouchers for those seeking to get away from it all.
The group now numbers over thirty privately-owned, historic homes, encompassing lakeside Georgian mansions, coastal fishing lodges, converted linen mills, Victorian rectories and elegant city centre hideaways. They all offer exceptionally comfortable, and usually rather big, bedrooms, in which the beds are often four poster and sometimes canopied. Breakfast and dinner tend to be traditional, wholesome and frequently delicious, served up with ingredients gathered from the surrounding area. And thence it is over to the guests to head out and explore the surrounding parklands and gardens, or absorb the rich history of these homes.
Some of the Hidden Ireland houses, or the estates at any rate, have been with the same family for an extraordinary length of time. Pyers O’Conor Nash who lives on the heavily wooded 700 acre Clonalis House estate in County Roscommon descends from an unbroken line that stretches back over a thousand years to Ireland’s last High King and the traditional Kings of Connacht. Kate Nicholson’s family has been ensconced at Lismacue House, County Tipperary, for over 300 years. The Percevals have been at Temple House, County Sligo, since 1665; the Maddens have been at Hilton Park, County Monaghan, since the 1730s. The O’Hara’s of Mornington, County Westmeath, and the Laws of Rossnaree, County Meath, have both been in situ since the Victorian Age.
Other houses have been acquired and restored in more recent times. The Gossips completed an accomplished restoration of the perfectly proportioned Ballinderry Park in County Galway. Mark and Emma Hewlett performed a similar feat with a Georgian rectory at Kilmokea Gardens on the banks of the River Barrow in County Wexford. On the other side of the island, in the Kingdom of Kerry, both Coolclogher House on the Ring of Kerry and the Knight of Kerry’s linen mill at Glenleam on Valentia Island have been reincarnated as idyllic retreats. Polo players enthusiasts might enjoy the Italianate mansion of Tyrella in County Down, while equestrian types bound for Fethard, County Tipperary, would be well advised to consider Mobarnane House which began as a tower house in the 17th century but was converted and enlarged over the next 200 years.
The foot of history is everywhere deeply impressed upon Ireland. But for an insight into how life might have been for the upper classes in centuries past, or indeed for the pure romance and enjoyment of old style hospitality in sumptuous, old world locations, the Hidden Ireland certainly offers a thought-provoking alternative.
With thanks to Terence Reeves-Smyth, Mark Hewlett, Peter Mantle, Nick Tinne, Tony Clayton-Lea and Ally Bunbury.
The above is based on a feature article published in the February & March 2011 issue of Cara, the much lamented in-flight magazine of Aer Lingus.
Killanne, Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford
Tel: +353 53 925 5114
Giles & Alexandra FitzHerbert are cultural icons in the sunny south-east, not least because of their entertainment skills. Their warm and inviting Georgian home lies in the shadow of the Blackstairs Mountains and incorporates an earlier house which was damaged during the 1798 Rebellion. A dramatic ‘flying’ staircase connects the bedrooms to the kitchen and dining room where exquisite home cooked dinners keeps visitors firmly at the table. And on the subject of flowing spirits, the estate is also home to Ireland’s first natural graveyard, a seven-acre site where every grave is marked with the planting of a native Irish tree instead of a headstone.
Ballyconneely, Connemara, Co. Galway
Tel: +353 95 23529
Amongst the portraits that gaze at visitors to this appealing late 19th century Victorian country house is that of Alexandrine Tinne, a Dutch heiress whose attempt to become the first European woman to cross the Sahara ended when she was murdered in Libya in 1869. Half a century later, John Tinne, a great-nephew of Alexandrine chose a somewhat calmer life when he purchased this house that stands between the Atlantic Ocean and the rugged wilds of Connemara. A perfect refuge for anyone seeking to fish for brown trout or salmon, the house continues to be the home to John’s grandson Nick , known to many as the owner and occasional chef of Snaffles, one of Dublin’s leading restaurants in the 1970’s.