Review of House and Home in Georgian Ireland ed. Conor Lucey

A beautifully-produced book, House and Home in Georgian Ireland is an innovative collection of ten essays exploring the intersections of daily life and domestic design in Irish homes during the long eighteenth century. Each essay is attentive to the proliferation of representations in text and image of living spaces which occurred in tandem with an increasing public interest in the business of making house and home during this time period, and many examples of such representations are included in the collection. Although each essay is highly idiosyncratic, often focusing intensely on the minute details of specific case studies, the collection as a whole is remarkably coherent, providing a thorough and original examination of the complex relationships between individuals and their homes in Ireland during this moment of profound social and political change, and referencing the broader historical themes of gender, power and class. 

            In the introduction, editor Conor Lucey acknowledges the contradictory nature of Ireland’s relationship to the British Empire during the time period under review, although disappointingly misses an opportunity here to elaborate on his choice to use a British temporal marking in the collection’s title. Taking theoretical inspiration from George Perec’s short text Species and spaces, the collection provides an “Irish analogue” to burgeoning research in British, European and American architectural and design history which examines the “real” rather than “idealised” ways in which people experienced and interacted with domestic spaces. In parts, this collection captures a relatively short-lived moment in Irish history, particularly urban history, when new and well-maintained Georgian buildings were inhabited mainly by wealthy merchant and ascendency classes (in contemporary Ireland, such buildings are generally more associated with the extreme poverty of the inner-city tenements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). 

            Judith Hill’s essay is especially interesting in this context. Using the well-documented preparations for an 1809 visit from the viceregal court to Charleville Castle in Co. Offaly as a case study, Hill explores how the complex social and political identities of the Irish ascendency class were reflected in their decorative preferences after the 1800 Acts of Union. The “post-Union Irish castellated house” is symbolic of the Irish ascendency’s attempts during this transition period to come to terms with their waning status, which was by then threatened by both the Catholic majority at home and new government policy decided at Westminster. Claudia Kinmonth’s essay provides an alternative perspective on the question of whether there existed uniquely Irish practices of domestic life during this period. Her examination of subjects on the opposite end of the socio-economic hierarchy, the rural poor, emphasises the sense of closeness in impoverished rural communities and such communities’ willingness to include strangers in their domestic rituals; features that, according to Kinmonth, seem “innately Irish”. 

            Emma O’Toole’s chapter on “lying-in” (the custom of new mothers confining themselves to bed for a few months beginning shortly before the birth of their child) negotiates, through the lens of material culture, a period of significant change in the history of childbirth and its associated rituals. Unfortunately, albeit perhaps unavoidably, O’Toole focuses exclusively on well-off or aristocratic women. Nevertheless, this essay provides a fresh perspective on the malleability of public and private spaces in homes during the lying-in period. It offers a high level of idiosyncratic detail which sheds light on the everyday aspects of childbirth in the upper classes of eighteenth-century Ireland, thus making a very worthwhile contribution to research on this subject, which has tended to focus on institutions rather than individuals. Melanie Hayes similarly addresses the possible contentions between the public and private in eighteenth-century homes, as well the fluidity of spaces’ functional boundaries in her essay on the then-aristocratic home, Number 10 Henrietta Street (just a few doors down from what is now a tenement museum located at 14 Henrietta Street). 

            Patricia McCarthy’s discussion of gender and performance in the dining room explores the power of social pressure within this “male domain”. Men took great interest in the décor, furnishing and accoutrements in this showpiece room. Decadent design choices straightforwardly signified wealth while more subtle prestige pieces, such as family portraits hung on the walls, reminded guests of the social weight carried by their host’s invitation. McCarthy provides further illuminating insight into the sometimes destructive nature of male social pressure in her discussion of the heavy binge drinking which took place in the dining room once women had left for the drawing room. This Irish/British social convention is satirised in a French etching included in the chapter, which depicts a messy, lurid scene of extremely drunk men. Although the scene is exaggerated for comedic effect, it is, according to McCarthy, a reflection of “reality in Ireland and England at this time.”

            Also on the theme of masculinity, the final essay, written by Conor Lucey, examines the homes of single men, a diverse group that has been under-researched in the Irish context. In this still-preliminary research, Lucey demonstrates the significant influence wielded by single men, as a market, on the Dublin real estate landscape, and explores the surprisingly varied accommodation within large divided houses designed to cater to them. This essay further provides illuminating insight into masculine forms of domesticity and patterns of consumption, neither of which were perceived as exclusively feminine.

            This collection provides many fascinating examples of how micro-histories can reflect large-scale historical processes. The theme of status anxiety (although it is not explicitly named), both in terms of Irish people’s social status relative to each other and Ireland’s political status within the British Empire, seems to underscore much of the collection. Toby Barnard’s essay on ceramics in Irish homes combines these elements, demonstrating the sometimes mindless consumption that accompanied Irish consumers’ eagerness to be included in international markets. Such observations are particularly pertinent now, at a time when Ireland’s complex legacy within the history of British imperialism, as well as modern patterns of over-consumption, are coming under increasing scrutiny. 

Hannah Cogan has a BA in European Studies from Trinity College Dublin and a MA in Global History from University College Dublin. She is due to start a PhD in History in the UK this year. Her PhD will examine the denazification of women in the British occupation zone of postwar Germany.