Last weekend I paid a visit to the magnificent Russborough House, just outside Blessington. We hear so much talk about inequality these days that during my visit to the Great House, I couldn’t help imagining the great divide between rich and poor in the 18th century.
But first the house. It stands on a hill overlooking the Poll a’ Phúca reservoir on the border between Wicklow and Kildare, and is surrounded by grounds of some 200 acres, much of it covered by mature broadleaf woodland.
The house was built in 1741 for Joseph Leeson, the first Earl of Miltown. Or rather, it was begun in 1741, for it took a full 10 years to build. It is built from Wicklow granite and is in the Palladian style – a rather austere central block joined by colonnades to wings on either side.
It is well worth a visit for the grounds and exterior alone, but it is the interior which really makes it worthwhile. The interior is perfectly preserved as is much of the enormous collection of contents which various owners acquired down the years.
The tour, therefore, is well worth the 6 euros. Our guide gave us a summary of the ownership of the house down the years and provided an authorative, but not long winded, description of the lavish furnishings and objets d’art that adorn the interior.
I will list a few items here will give some idea of how sumptuous this residence was: the five doors which lead from the main hallway to the reception rooms are finished with exquisitely carved architraves of West Indian mahogany; the salon has a sprung mahogany floor and a curved rococo ceiling that has been attributed to the Francini brothers of Italy; the salon also has a pair of Japanese lacquer cabinets and a chimney piece in English Marble; the staircase hall is adorned with marble walls which continue up to the landing. And so on.
Russborough is rich and a tad grandiose, descriptions which could equally apply to our friend, the Earl of Milltown. We can imagine the circles where the good Earl spent his time: the great and good of Ascendency politics (he had a peerage and later became Viscount Russborough); the tiny elite who monopolized Irish law (some things never change!), the movers and shakers of
Outside his gates lay a different world. One of dispossession and humiliation. Roman Catholics, still by far in a majority, had seen their ownership of land decline from say 40% the previous century to near the single digits now. Most would live and die knowing no greater luxury than a mud hut. Their lives were hungry, miserable, and short.
Not all had been dispossessed – and much recent work has shown that 17th century
But a few swallows in
“I do solemnly and truly affirm, that I am a freeholder... of the clear yearly value of 10 pounds, or of 40 shillings ... and that I am not a papist, or married to a papist, and that I do not educate or suffer to be educated, any of my children under the age of 14 years in the popish religion. So help me God“.
The Gaelic bards, it is true, served those who cared as little about the peasant in the mud hut as did the conquerer. Nevertheless, by now the utter annihilation of the old order, and the upheavel which attended it, must have brought unspeakable suffering to the middle and lower ranks as well. To turn today’s familiar byword on its head, an ebbing Roman Catholic tide must have stranded the small vessels with the large. And if the Gaelic poets who were contemporaries of the Earl didn’t speak for the poor, at least they articulated the decline and tumult that has roaring away outside the gates of Russborough. For that, it is hard to improve upon the words of Aogán Ó Rathaille (1675-1729):
“Do shearg mo chroí im chlíteach, do bhuair mo leann,
Na seabhaic nár fríth cinnte, agár dhual an eang,
Ó Chaiseal go Toinn Chlíona ‘s go Tuamhain Thall,
A mbailte ‘s a dtír díthchreachta ag sluaghaibh Gall”
“My heart has dried in my ribs, my humours soured,
That those never-niggardly lords, whose holdings ranged,
From Caiseal to Clíona’s wave and out to Thomond,
Are savaged by alien hordes, in land and townland.”(**)
* "Modern Ireland 1600-1972" by RF Foster
** "An Duanaire: 1600-1900 - Poems of the Dispossessed" Ed Ó'Tuama and Kinsella