James Yorke

The feast before the famine

Servants acted as human bed-warmers and in amateur theatricals — but were otherwise ‘just for show’, according to Patricia McCarthy’s history of those eccentric pre-famine days

If you had the resources, Georgian Ireland must have been a very agreeable place in which to live. It was certainly more prosperous and peaceful than it would be after the 1848 famine. This idyllic world is captured in Patricia McCarthy’s scholarly and highly entertaining work, which stretches from the start of the building of Castletown House, Co. Kildare, in 1722, to the 1848 famine.

The chapters are arranged as though one were visiting an Irish country house: you approach the house in its landscaped setting; you are led through the hall; you are ushered into the dining room; you are shown the other public rooms, such as the saloon, drawing room and library; you are taken up to the family bedrooms and dressing rooms, and out to the stables; and finally, as you scrabble for your parting tip or ‘vail’, you make contact with the servants.

The 18th-century artist Mary Delany, who spent much of her life in Dublin, described the hall as a place where ‘music, dancing, shuttlecock, draughts, and prayers take their turn’. It led to grand staircases, which in turn went up to a bedroom lobby, a grand open space around which the main bedrooms centred — a peculiarly Irish feature, according to the late John Cornforth.

On an axis with the hall were the saloon and the drawing room. The saloon was an important reception room, with lavish architectural decorations, but by the early 1800s it was replaced by the drawing room, where visitors assembled before entering the dining room, making sticky conversation without introductions or a pre-prandial drink. It was to there the ladies retired after dinner, to drink tea, compare dresses and swap scandals, leaving the men to carouse in the dining room.

This room was usually serviced by a backstairs from the kitchen.

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