The Big House

Castletown House, Co. Kildare
The so-called 'big houses' of Ireland were the country homes of Irish landlords. They acquired this name simply because of their physical size. They ranged in size from the modest glebe houses which were to be found in most parishes to huge mansions such as Castletown in County Kildare. Even the modest glebe houses dwarfed the houses of the large farmers and even more so the simple mud cabins of the cottiers and labourers.

The Demesne

Big houses were surrounded by the landlord's demesne. The demesne, which was usually hundreds of acres in size, was the area of the landed estate that the landlord


  retained for his own private use.

It was often surrounded by high stone walls (often called famine walls because in some cases they were built in the late 1840's to provide much-needed employment to the impoverished tenantry.) Inside the walls, demesnes were characterised by woodland that offered privacy to the big house and was used for the rearing of game for shooting purposes. There was also usually parkland used for grazing cattle; kitchen gardens where vegetables and fruit were grown for the use of the house; and ornamental gardens were the family could relax.

The demesne was part of a much larger estate. These estates also varied in size from a few hundred acres to tens of thousands of acres. The Digby estate at Geashill in Offaly,for example, was almost 31,000 acres in size by the mid-nineteenth century.

Some landlords owned estates which were distributed throughout Ireland. For example, even though Thomas Conolly lived at Castletown in County Kildare, the largest part of his estate was located in County Donegal. One of the largest landowners in Ireland in the nineteenth century was the Marquis Conyngham of Slane who owned 157,000 acres divided between Meath, Donegal and Clare.


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