The ‘Big House’ - residency of Anglo-Irish landlords from the mid-18th century

Woodlawn House – Georgian Architecture at its finest


The small quiet village of Woodlawn was once a hub of economic activity with its aristocratic owners possessing wealth, prestige and political power. Woodlawn House, 19th centuryAs was the case with the largest Anglo-Irish landed estates during the 18th and 19th centuries, it had during its heyday a staff of hundreds including maids, cooks, governess, butler, coachmen, cooper, blacksmith, gamekeepers and gardeners.

The most famous owner, the second Baron Ashtown (Frederick Trench), was powerful enough to have the new Dublin-Galway railway line diverted to go through his lands. He built a magnificent railway station that is still in use today. In fact his building programme included many other fine buildings of architectural beauty that still dominate the locality including the Protestant church, gamekeeper’s lodge, the family Mausoleum, an ice house, artisan cottages as well as a major redesign of  Woodlawn House.

This mansion was originally constructed in the late 18th century by Frederick Trench who gained the peerage of Baron Ashdown from the British Clonbrock Housegovernment for voting in favour of the Acts of Union (of Great Britain and Ireland) in 1800 after initially voting against. The renovations of the building in the 1860s extended it to over 9,000 sq. metres containing 26 bedrooms and a majestic staircase. It is one of the finest examples of the gentry houses and supporting landed estates that dominated the physical, economic and political landscape of Ireland from the eighteenth century up until the early twentieth century..


Upstairs, Downstairs


Many of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry were absentees landlords, some living most of the year on their ancestral English estates or in their families’ townhouses in London, serving as Members of Parliament (MPs) in Westminster, or as British imperial military officers overseas, diplomats or colonial administrators. Many of those that lived in Ireland took on the roles of local justices of the peace and had to attend sittings of the law courts. But they also enjoyed busy social calendars based around dance balls, dinners, race meetings, hunts, fishing and shooting parties.

Of course the gentry’s lavish lifestyles were only made possible by the rents collected from their Irish tenantry who often lived in abject poverty as well as by the household and farm workers who looked after their personal needs from dressing them in the morning to producing the foods for their dinner tables. On the eve of World War One, 30% of the Irish female workforce, primarily daughters of labourers and small farmers, were in domestic service a profession where exploitation was high.

Whilst many of the Big House servants developed strong bonds with the landowning families, nevertheless a strong class barrier was maintained
between those that lived ‘upstairs’ in the Big House and those that lived mainly ‘downstairs’ in the servant quarters.  Servants had a separate back entrance to the house; would have to stand still or look the other way when a member of the owner’s family passed; or hide if they were working in the grounds when the master and mistress were out walking in the estate.

After the defeat of the rebellious Irish Catholic forces in the 1690s, the ruling Protestant Ascendancy class soon moved from living in austere castles built primarily for military and defensive purposes to creating ostentatious mansions and gardens where luxury and architectural beauty were the prerequisite. These fine Georgian and Victorian buildings dotted the Irish landscape. But viewed as symbols of centuries-old malignant foreign rule that left the majority population in servitude and penury for so long, over two hundred were burnt by Irish republicans during the War of Independence and Civil War period.


The pictures, stories and films shown here of the owners, servants, tenants and neighbours of the Big House (‘Tí Mór’ in Irish ) portray the changing fortunes of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry from the glory days of the Hanoverian monarchy, when they played a prominent role as builders and administrators of a British Empire on which it was said ‘that the Sun never sets’, to their decline from the end of the 19th century as a result of political, legal, religious, property, economic and social change.


Click on the blue text in each of the titles below to hear the stories of life in the Big House in days gone by.

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