New publication out now: “The Big House in Kerry: A Social History”

The Big House in Kerry
A new social history of the big houses of Co. Kerry is on sale now!

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Uncovering the stories of 20 of Kerry’s historic estate houses and their occupants, the highly awaited and beautifully illustrated “The Big House in Kerry: A Social History”, is now available to purchase.

A new lavishly illustrated book, The Big House in Kerry: A Social History, is now available to buy online and will soon be on sale in-store.

Running to 330 plus pages, this highly anticipated publication comprises 21 chapters exploring 20 of the Kingdom’s “big houses”. It offers the first detailed examination of the legacy of the landed gentry in the county. Many of the names of the families discussed will be familiar to our readers as influential players in shaping the story of post-medieval and early modern Kerry.

This includes the Leslie family of Tarbert House, the O’Mahony and Vicars families of Kilmorna House, the Ponsonbys of Crotta House, the Crosbie families of Ballyheigue Castle and Ardfert Abbey, the Denny families of Tralee Castle and Churchill House, the Bateman and Sandes families of Oak Park, Collis Sandes House and Oakvilla, the Macintosh and Mahony families of Kilmurry House, the Springs of Castlemaine, the Godfreys of Kilcoleman Abbey, the Leeson Marshall family of Callinafercy, the MacGillycuddy family of the Reeks, the Mullins of Beaufort House, the Herberts of Muckross House, the Coltsmann, Cronin and MacGillycuddy families of Flesk Castle, the Brownes of Killarney House, the Bland and Stokes families of Derryquin Castle and Askive, and the Butlers of Belleville House.

Kilcoleman Abbey
Kilcoleman Abbey, Milltown, Co. Kerry, c.1900, home of the Godfrey family (image courtesy of John Knightly and Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe, editor of The Big House in Kerry: A Social History).

This work reveals how these families altered not only the topography of Co. Kerry but also its socio-political landscape. Other fascinating topics covered include the burning of Kerry’s stately homes during the War of Independence and Civil War period (1919–23), as well as the concepts of custodianship and preservation.

Only a few weeks ago, we saw the release of Principal Houses in the Parish of Barryroe: 18th-20th Century by Margaret Dwyer, who ably addressed similar themes centring on a small region of West Cork. Publications such as these are helping to build a clearer picture of the impact of these elite Munster-based families, some of whom are no longer part of the local social fabric.

In his foreword to The Big House in Kerry, Sir Adrian FitzGerald, Knight of Kerry, writes:

“This book is an important addition to Irish social history over the last three centuries … [and] encapsulates the birth, life and death (almost) of the big house in Kerry. Each of the 20 houses selected for individual treatment is allocated a chapter of its own. This range of houses includes buildings of contrasting size and style, while their owners descend from families of contrasting origins: Gaelic Irish; Norman Old English; New English following the Munster Settlement; the Cromwellian Settlement and the Williamite Settlement. What is notable about these owners is that by the end of the seventeenth century, they began to intermarry and continued to do so in general, regardless of political differences. From this, perhaps rather unusually tight social cohesion, derives the expression ‘Kerry cousins’.”

Featured prominently in The Big House in Kerry are the portraits that adorned the halls and rooms of these properties, as well as previously unpublished old photographs of picnics and gatherings on the lawns from family albums and archives. Also included are historical images from the National Library, the National Archives and the Muckross House Research Library. Through these visual aids, this publication shines a light on the interiors of Kerry’s historic mansions but also on the private lives of the (often elusive) families that dwelt within them.

Denny family at Churchill House
The Denny family at Churchill House, Tralee, Co. Kerry, c.1870 (Denny Collection and courtesy of Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe, editor of The Big House in Kerry: A Social History).

The Big House in Kerry is the culmination of two years of hard work by 12 authors, many of whom will be well-known to Kerry history buffs. They include Dr Declan Downey of UCD, Dr John Knightly and Dick Spring, former Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party, among others. Edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe (also one of the authors), the book is self-published by the Tralee-based oral history organisation, Irish Life and Lore.

Speaking to Irish Heritage News, Jane (editor of The Big House in Kerry and owner of Irish Life and Lore) explained how the idea for the book came about:

“In late 2020, during the bleak days of lockdown at our home in Tralee, the germ of an idea began to form. A hundred years had passed since the days of death and destruction during the War of Independence and the Civil War in Kerry. The stark and skeletal ruins of some of the county’s big houses still stand to silently and powerfully remind us of those terrible years and the great destruction wrought.  

Would there ever be a more appropriate time to approach in imagination the pillared gates, to walk along the tree-lined avenue, to admire the stunning demesne and to knock on the old ornamental door? 

The long and complex history of these houses, and their families, was crying out to be documented and now was the time to begin.”  

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And that is just what Jane and her fellow authors have accomplished. Reflecting on the current state of these buildings and their legacy, Jane mused:

“Some of our big houses not deliberately ravaged by fire have fallen into dereliction or been demolished, their immense grace and grandeur long obscured by the mists of time and by natural decay.

Happily, many Kerry big houses have a more benign history, remaining in family ownership, being lovingly restored by their new owners or being taken into the careful custodianship of the State, properties such as Muckross House and Killarney House.”  

This book will, no doubt, feature in many Christmas wish lists this year and is currently retailing at €39 plus p/p on the Irish Life and Lore website. It is set to be officially launched next month (December 2022) at Muckross House in Killarney and will subsequently be for sale in all good bookshops and newsagents in Kerry, Cork and Limerick.

Irish Life and Lore was established in 1990 by husband-and-wife duo Jane and Maurice O’Keeffe to record local oral history. To date, over 4,000 voices have been preserved in audio recordings, podcasts, books and digital archives. Previous popular publications from this organisation include The 1916 Rising Oral History Collection and 1922-2022: A Century of Change.

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