House and Home in Georgian Ireland: Spaces and Cultures of Domestic Life

Four Courts Press, 2022
pp 210 illustrated h/b
€45 ISBN: 978-1-80151-026-4
Peter Murray

With the scarcity of affordable housing in Ireland now at crisis level, this scholarly book, detailing how and where people lived during the Georgian period, is pertinent. Edited by Conor Lucey, the book contains essays by a range of academics, giving insights into aspects of housing and domestic life. Lucey’s own contribution, in which he quotes newspaper advertisements from those both seeking and offering rented accommodation, gives an authentic flavour of what life was like for tenants in 18th-century Ireland. In time, many of these rented rooms, notwithstanding their ornate plasterwork and fine chimneypieces, became the infamous tenements of early 20th-century Dublin.

The property boom that began in the 1720s and gained pace after the completion of Kildare House in 1748 barely slackened after the Act of Union, as towns and cities spread out into surrounding countryside. Building design and technology remained conservative, and Georgian-style houses continued to be built well after 1830, the year when George IV died.

Happily, Lucey’s book is not devoted entirely to the domestic concerns of the privileged and, in Claudia Kinmonth’s essay, ‘Communality and Privacy in One- or Two-Room Homes before 1830’, readers are given a vivid account of the lives of the less well off. In this volume, cataloguing and describing have given way to interpreting and understanding, reflecting a new interest in how objects and buildings were used and how they acquired meaning through such use.

cataloguing and describing have given way to interpreting and understanding, reflecting a new interest in how objects and buildings were used

Some of the writers are veterans in the field, while others are ensigns. Aisling Durkan, a recent PhD graduate in history of art at Trinity College, whose thesis documents Drogheda mercantile townhouses of the 18th century, contributes a chapter on one such house. Melanie Hayes’ recent book on Henrietta Street provides an architectural and social history of Dublin’s first great Georgian thoroughfare, and her essay in this book focuses on No. 10, home of the Gardiner family. Emma O’Toole writes on the material culture surrounding childbirth, while Patricia McCarthy decodes the dining room, with its silver and sideboards, claret tables and decanters. Tony Barnard, retired history tutor formerly at Hertford College, Oxford, looks at ceramics in houses between 1730 and 1840, while Judith Hill writes on Charleville Castle in Co Offaly. Priscilla Sonnier is a doctoral candidate at UCD, documenting portraits of women and how they reflect the patriot spirit of the Ascendancy; she writes on domestic space in female correspondence, while Conor Lucey provides a quiet finale with his essay ‘Single Life, Single Houses’. Lucey’s essay is illustrated with moral engravings comparing Georgian profligacy with prudent living, although to this reviewer’s eye there seems not much in the difference. For many in 18th-century Dublin it was clearly prudent to be profligate, and so cut a dash in society. In this vein, Lucey includes a wonderful hand-coloured engraving, published around 1818, depicting a pair of swells drinking tea in a threadbare Dublin garret.

The overarching interest in this fascinating volume is not in documenting sterile boxes, but in examining how lived-in spaces worked. The range of domestic spaces examined is necessarily limited, there being little mention of barracks, brothels or boarding houses, but future research will no doubt devote attention to dwellings that fall outside the felicitous domestic norm.

Peter Murray is a freelance writer, curator and historian.