Review of Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgeway (eds.), Sport and Leisure in the Irish and British Country House by Emma Lyons

Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgeway (eds), Sport and Leisure in the Irish and British Country House (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2019) 320pp, €29.99
ISBN 978-1-84682-806-5

An interwoven relationship has always existed between sport and the country house, undoubtedly contributed to by the many essays and monographs penned by enthusiastic aristocrats who sought to record their sporting achievements. This liaison is explored in Sport and Leisure in the Irish and British Country House, edited by Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgeway, a collection of essays which stemmed from the sixteenth annual Historic Irish Houses conference held at Maynooth University in 2018. The eighteen case studies allow the reader to view the important role sport and leisure played in the country house, as well as providing a greater understanding of how the political atmospheres permeated leisure activities in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, while also highlighting the economic and social pressures faced by estate owners.

The essays are extremely broad in their focus, both in the date range and the activities studied. Covering a period from the mid-eighteenth to twentieth centuries, family members’ involvement in sports commonly associated with the country house, such as hunting and horse racing, are detailed, as are a variety of other often over-looked sports and leisure activities. These include golf, sailing, cricket, hurling and football, as well as astronomy, taxidermy, gardening and the keeping of exotic pets. Studies which remind the reader of the positive interactions with and support for their tenantry and local clubs and groups also feature.

While disparate in subject, the collection is held together by several common themes; political, social and, to a lesser extent, economic, with frequent reference to the importance of developing social and political connections. This may be observed in Tom McCarthy’s study on George Wyndham, where we not only learn that hunting was deemed a perfect outlet for the development of relationships between men and women, but also the importance of hunting rather than economic status in defining social class culture. Social differentiation may also be observed in Eugene Dunne’s interesting examination of American Harry Worcester Smith’s attempt to enter a new social circle while pursuing a hunting experiment with American hounds in Ireland, while Feargal Browne’s essay on the South Union Hunt and the south Cork gentry further demonstrates the importance of hunting in social circles and marriage. He recounts how the dowry of competent horsewoman and master of her own pack of hounds, Letitia Digby, included a pack of hounds when she married Rev. George Daunt of Carrigaline, Co. Cork, whose ancestors founded the South Union Hunt. In contrast, Laura Servilan Brown’s study of author Edith Somerville illustrates how, despite social expectations, women often adopted a leading role in both the family and sporting club life when male family members were on active military service. Somerville’s role as lady master of the West Carbery Hunt, and her interaction with the local community, provides an unusual insight into the relationship between gender and political identity in communities. Despite  these responsibilities, Somerville continued her writing and painting, as well as partaking in boat races, a fact outlined in Ian d’Alton’s study on sailing; yet Servila Brown’s essay is one of only two essays which overtly mention a woman in the title, and therefore does much to portray an alternative to the traditionally viewed role of women, not just in hunting, but in sport.

However, while women may be absent from essay titles, many articles provide snapshots into their involvement in various aspects of sporting events, such as organising and hosting activities, and interaction with those of differing political persuasions. This may be seen in Tom Hunt’s study on the intersection between cricket, Gaelic football and the big house, using Avondale, Co. Wicklow for his case study, a study which also highlights the intersection between sport, politics and the country house. He informs the reader of cricket enthusiast Charles Stewart Parnell’s acceptance of an invitation to be patron of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in 1884, and how he made grounds at the Avondale estate available for GAA tournaments and matches. With Parnell unable to attend these events, he was instead represented by his sister and mother, Delia, who not only gave interviews mostly focusing on the smart ‘costumes’ and athleticism of the players to Sport reporters, but also entertained some GAA officials in the house after the matches. While women’s role in supporting these nationalist sports may not feature in Ciaran Reilly’s article, he also highlights the opening up of the country houses to somewhat ‘opposing’ sports, again drawing attention to a recurring theme throughout the book. Allen Warren’s essay continues with the theme of estates being opened to and used by local communities, this time to the Boy Scouts. Warren’s case study, while highlighting the support given by both men and women to these groups, also demonstrates the differing political and religious views across the British Isles. Despite the Boy Scouts’ success in Britain, the movement did not enjoy the same popularity in Ireland, yet again demonstrating the impact political and religious feelings had on the country house estates during the period.

The change in social constructs referenced in McCarthy’s study can be seen in Terence Dooley’s essay on golf in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Ireland. Dooley notes that these changes resulted in golf becoming a new and, as Lady Elizabeth Fingall noted, more affordable means of making social and political connections, not only for the a rising middle class, but also for those families facing financial difficulties. As both Dooley and Antonia Laurence-Allen point out, the political and social transformations taking place resulted in some landowners converting their estate into golf courses, both for financial and social gain. With golf emerging as a ‘family’ past-time, and women’s magazines publishing ‘how to’ guides on dressing for golf and images of a woman playing golf being used in advertising campaigns, Laurence-Allen’s study on the Hill of Tarvit highlights the transformation process followed by the estate’s new owner in order to establish both a new golf course and social status. The change in the use of land is also highlighted in Eintion Wynn Thomas’ essay about the Rhiwlas estate in Wales. While addressing the impact of this change in land use, Thomas also offers insight into the complex relationships between estate owner and locals, and shows this extended to interaction between locals and employed gamekeepers, highlighting the tensions which existed between tenants and the country house following the change in use of land and employment of ‘non-locals’.

The change in use of estate land is also noted in Annie Tindley’s study on taxidermy.  Reinforcing the ‘big house’ interest in hunting and shooting, the advancement of taxidermy and its importance as a decorative trophy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The necessity to reorganise the house to display the trophies illustrates again the importance placed on social and economic status. However, Philip Kerry Bristol’s essay about exotic pets demonstrates that the collection of live animals also featured in the portrayal of one’s status. Using the Winn family from Yorkshire as an example, he shows how, from the mid eighteenth century, successive generations of the family created and maintained the Menagerie Garden, collecting exotic wildlife. Bristol’s use of family letters facilitates an insight into the family’s involvement in the animals’ care, along with the warning of the ‘threat posed by women who became so emotionally attached to their pets that they neglected their homes, husbands and children’ (p. 16), quite a divergence from Servilan Brown’s portrayal of Edith Somerville.

However, families who lived in country houses did not just concern themselves with expensive sports, such as horse racing and its associated excessiveness, including, as Oliver Cox outlined, the building of stables and commissioning of portraits of horses, to pursue social and political opportunities, and some of the alternative activities are demonstrated in the two case studies featuring Monksgrange, Co. Wexford. Lesley Whitside’s essay on amateur astronomy shows the enthusiasm shared by father and daughter, Edward and Adela Richards, for astronomy, and their efforts to advance the subject through patronage and the building of an observatory. Yet it, too, was an interest impacted by the Irish political atmosphere and threatened agrarian crisis. While the telescope was sold, Philip Bull’s study on the Richards and Orpen families, shows that Adela retained the estate after her father’s death, although her interest in astronomy was replaced with gardening, painting and archery.

Further insight into lives of women of the country house is provided by Maeve O’Riordan’s examination of Lady Castletown’s scrapbook. The second of the two articles mentioning a woman in the title, the study of the scrapbook, which was started at her marriage, facilitates a deeper understanding of the social lives of women who lived in the big house. Yet the material included in the scrapbook reinforced both the local and national political atmosphere and the impact on family members during tumultuous times. It also enables an insight into women’s interaction with tenants living on the estate, who often approached the lady of the house for assistance during difficult times.  This theme of interaction is also mentioned in Brian Griffin’s study of the big house during the Famine, an essay which shows the efforts made by many country house owners who used events such as children’s birthdays to give gifts to tenants and their families. One example used to illustrate this is Lady Henry Moore of Moore Abbey, Co. Kildare, who, to mark the Marquis of Drogheda’s coming of age, distributed dresses, bonnets and caps to children who had regularly attended school. 

Sport and Leisure in the Irish and British Country House is a collection of well-researched essays which make use of rich archival material in both public and private collections to highlight and analyse the engagement of country house owners in sporting activities. The reader is reminded that families’ participation in these past-times was far from frivolous; instead their participation stemmed from its necessity as an acceptable means to develop social and political promotion, as well as economic security, although the related social events could have merited some further analysis. Despite this, the collection, while academically focused, is easily accessible to all readers, and successfully complements and builds on the intertwining history of sport and the country house.

Emma Lyons holds PhD in History from UCD, where she lectured in early modern History. Her research focuses on the education of Irish Catholic children in the eighteenth-century, and the impact of Penal Laws on Catholic-owned estates. Her book, Morristown Lattin, 1630-1800: the estate and its tenants, was published by Four Courts Press in September 2020.