Magazine article The Spectator

The Glory Has Not All Departed

Magazine article The Spectator

The Glory Has Not All Departed

Article excerpt

GREAT HOUSES OF IRELAND

by Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, with photographs by Christopher Simon Sykes

Laurence King, L40, pp. 272

Is any book worth 40? Your answer, as advertisers in this magazine know well enough, is yes, yes, oh heavens yes. Thankfully your attestation of faith is seldom put to the test. Few books, beyond academic texts, cost anything near that amount. I noticed the price on lifting the dust-jacket to look at Castle Ward's gothic plasterwork, pictured on the end-papers and, despite the glory of what ties between the covers, I'm not convinced.

Among its many virtues, it's a better book even than its excellent predecessor, Great Houses of Scotland. Somehow both prose and photography are superior here, despite the poorer architecture to hand. The author is a member of that tribe so skilled in such work. Know them by the houses they've known: MontgomeryMassingberd (Blessingbourne); Mark Girouard (Curraghmore); Mark BenceJones (Lisselane); Desmond Guinness (Leixlip Castle); and in the case of Glin, its eponymous Knight.

Indeed, as a form of literature, one has to wonder if writing about Irish big houses was the first flowering of post-modernism. For knowing irony consider Atkinson in The Irish Tourist, writing in 1815 about Ballinlough Castle:

The castle and demesne had an appearance of antiquity highly gratifying to my feelings ... the appearance of the trees, and even the dusky colour of the gate and the walls, as you enter, combine to give the whole scenery an appearance of antiquity, while the prospect is calculated to infuse into the heart of the beholder a mixed sentiment of veneration and delight.

The tongue-in-cheek tone which has always informed such writing needs to be remembered. So doing helps us to appreciate fully effusions like 'most lovable room in Ireland'.

Some might miss 'thinly detailed entablature' laden sentences but most will relish this well-honed blend of gossip, historical anecdote and social history. Admittedly when Curraghmore's Admiral Lord Charles Beresford once more comes down Piccadilly on the back of a pig it does bring to mind the lower orders pining for the fallen dynasty in When William Comes. As likewise 'Charlie B' et al

live in a sort of domestic pantheon, a recollection that is a proud and wistful personal possession when so little remains to be proud of or to possess. …

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