- The Big House in the North of Ireland: Land, Power and Social Elites, 1878–1960
Olwen Purdue’s The Big House in the North of Ireland: Land, Power, and Social Elites, 1878–1960 adds to the ongoing recent critical work that has begun to uncover differences (though sometimes subtle ones) between the Six Counties and the rest of Ireland. Purdue seeks to rectify a historical perspective that fails to distinguish the extent of devastation to the homes of the Ascendancy between most of Ireland and the large estates in northeast Ireland, which have for the most part been ignored in previous studies of the Big Houses as exceptions to the story. The book does not construct a divergent history of the decline of the landed elite in Northern Ireland; in fact, much of Purdue’s research supports the conclusion that the Northern experience was a pattern of decline parallel to that occurring elsewhere in Ireland. But Purdue does argue, with attentive use of primary sources, for a more sympathetic view of the northeastern landlords. Her research undoes a sweeping vilification of Irish landlords, traditionally seen as powerful absentees who mismanaged their estates, and describes Ulster landlords as determined, noble survivors.
Each chapter traces one major force in the economic and political decline of the Irish landed elite, including the Land Acts, the tenant rights movement, the government’s purchase of lands, the struggles against Home Rule, and the rise of a mercantile middle class. In the North, however, many of the landowners managed to retain their estates through 1960. The northeastern landlords faced the same political and economic turmoil that affected their counterparts elsewhere; Purdue attributes their prolonged survival to several factors. She argues first, that in the northeast the landed class and the rising middle class tended to be linked by shared Protestant and Unionist sympathies, which enabled the landlords to keep much of their prestige and social influence even as their economic and political influence dwindled. She also notes that many of the land owners of large estates were successful because of careful management and creative economic ventures, including mining and sea exploits. The upper class’s insistence on maintaining an active social life, and on preserving key places in the political [End Page 152] and social organization, helped the landlords to save their name and prestige—even as the demands of survival forced them to sell off more and more of their belongings and to change their lifestyles drastically.
If Purdue’s project is in part to rescue those residents of the North’s Big Houses from a large-scale demonization of landlords, then Chapter Five is the most successful in accomplishing this goal. There, Purdue introduces the most human of her arguments as she tells the story of one “determined survivor,” Lady Mabel Annesley, who inherited her property and retained the estate through economic decline, a commitment stemming from a clear emotional attachment. Purdue details her fiery determination in excerpts from letters and journals in which Lady Annesley discusses in detail how she altered her routines and habits, including the symbolically charged measure of eating only potatoes for supper—a measure that might have been more than familiar for her tenants, but which to Annesley appeared draconian.
Purdue employs extensive and detailed charts and figures throughout the book to set up, objectively, the difference in the extent of decline between the northeastern landlords and the rest of Ireland. But the appeal of the book lies in the small anecdotes from letters and journals which offer insight into both the mindset and the rhetoric of the upper class. Purdue’s project might well spawn feminist rhetorical recovery, as she documents the ways in which women were involved in social activities and organizations. These activities played a large part in sustaining the resilience of the upper class’s symbolic prestige, enabling them to foster the respect of the rising mercantile class in the midst of economic downfall...