During recent years I have read several books on the theme of The Irish Country House. Titles include We Are Besieged by Barbara Fitzgerald (1946), Troubles by J. G. Farrell (1970), Two Days in Aragon by Mollie Keane (1941), The Dower House by Annabel Davis-Goff (1998). Although written at different times the general themes involve Anglo-Irish families during the first half of the twentieth century, their homes and their vulnerability during the times of trouble. Often the family itself is divided in its loyalties.
I was looking forward to visiting a couple of fine examples of Irish country houses on my Just Go! holiday last week.
Located on the shores of Strangford Lough Mount Stewart stands in beautiful grounds enjoying a microclimate of its own which supports a lush and green garden of trees and exotic plants. The house was built in the eighteenth century and has been the home of the Marquesses of Londonderry (the Vane-Tempest-Stewart family) over many generations. Robert, Viscount Castlereagh, the 2nd Marquess of Londonderry made a name in politics in the early nineteenth century and was leader of the House of Commons. Edith, Lady Londonderry (1878-1959) wife of the seventh marquess was the major force behind the garden design that we see today. She gave the gardens to the National Trust in 1957 but the house itself was not bequeathed until 1977.
We had a fascinating tour of the house which is currently undergoing renovations but is open to the public in spite of this. I loved the library with its shelves and shelves of books – many looking not so very old at all – some members of the family still use the house and many of its rooms. But on closer inspection what looked like shelves right up to the windows are actually trompe l’oeil painted shutters.
It’s hardly surprising to find evidence here of a love of the ‘sport of kings’. Horse racing has for a long time been popular in Ireland and with the aristocracy but to see the huge painting of Hambletonian by George Stubbs hanging above the staircase comes as quite a surprise.
There’s another racing picture in the house, also reproduced in the above link to Thoroughbred Heritage. It’s a painting of the Hambletonian/Diamond Match run at Newmarket in 1799. We were told the story of the race by our guide. The version we heard differed somewhat from that of the Thoroughbred Heritage story.
Later in the week our journey took us well into central Ireland and to a less grand but equally interesting house – The Argory. Argory means Hill of the Garden and to my mind it was more the kind of Irish country house that I have in mind when reading those novels I mentioned above. Again we were given a warm welcome to the house and a small group tour by one of the local volunteers.
The Argory Door Knocker
The Welcoming Argory Porch
Taken on by the National Trust in 1979 not much has changed in the house since 1900. To quote my guidebook ” the eclectic interior still evokes the family’s tastes and interests”. These include a large selection of Waterford crystal and a fantastically ornate organ on the first floor. Click here to view the Argory Organ Gallery and other virtual views of the house.
Despite it’s inland location there’s a nautical connection here. Captain Shelton, the 2nd owner of The Argory, was aboard the H.M.S Birkenhead when it sank off the coast of Africa in February 1852. One of the most documented maritime disasters before the Titanic, it was also the first ever liner to exercise the phrase ‘Women and Children First!’ We were told how the Captain survived swimming the two miles to land in his mackintosh which protected him from sharks and the cold.
These actions later to be known as The Birkenhead Drill were immortalised later by Rudyard Kipling in his poem ” Soldier an’ sailor too” (1896)
To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you’ve cover to ‘and, an’ leave an’ likin’ to shout;
But to stand an’ be still to the Birken’ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An’ they done it, the Jollies — ‘Er Majesty’s Jollies — soldier an’ sailor too!
Their work was done when it ‘adn’t begun; they was younger nor me an’ you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin’ in ‘eaps an’ bein’ mopped by the screw,
So they stood an’ was still to the Birken’ead drill, soldier an’ sailor too
One excellent feature of National Trust properties these days is that they almost all now have secondhand bookshops. My eyes lit up in Blackwater Books at the Argory. They had a section just labelled ‘Old Books’. Here’s the selection that I came away with :