11/05/15

Speech for Heather Humphreys, T.D., Minister for Arts, Heritage & the Gaeltacht at the opening of the 13th annual conference of the Centre of Historic Irish Houses and Estates

A Dhaoine Uaisle, Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests and Speakers.

I am delighted to be here today in the National University of Maynooth to officially open this conference.

I would like to thank the Centre for the Study of Historic Irish Houses and Estates, and in particular Professor Terence Dooley, for your kind invitation to be here today.

I would also like to acknowledge the support of both the OPW and Kay and Fred Krehbiel for this event.

This conference will focus on the role of women in country houses in Ireland, the UK and beyond.

I am extremely impressed at the variety of speakers that Professor Dooley has assembled to explore this fascinating subject.

From daughters, matriarchs, housekeepers and housemaids, women were ever-present figures in the microcosm that was the country house and estate.

Over the past decade, research has begun to reveal the extent of their involvement in managing households and estates.

We now know, in much greater detail, that women were intrinsic to the overall success, management and indeed longevity of Irish landed estates.

This conference will explore themes such as social networks, estate management, marriages and family settlements, philanthropy, politics and the arts.

These themes highlight the multitude of tasks and roles that women were involved in and it will also touch on the challenge of managing a country house in today’s world.

Some of these themes are particularly intriguing.

Take, for example, the interaction between men and women.

Despite the fact that women faced considerable inequality, they often shared their duties and responsibilities with their husbands.

While arranged marriages were far from unusual, many women were clearly conscious of how marriage would improve their prospects and – as Jane Austen wrote with such flair – tried to find husbands who were socially, financially and personally compatible.

Yet it was also the case that many bravely recognised their vulnerability if a marriage failed and they were faced with losing the custody of their children.

The important role played by women in the everyday management and running of country houses has not been acknowledged in general research up to now.

In today’s world, many of these women would be regarded as project managers – many were shrewd business women, canny budget operators and able estate managers.

Few had training or what we would consider a suitable education and they were often restrained within what were considered ‘acceptable boundaries’ of female behaviour, family relationships and personal circumstances.

Nevertheless, their involvement in philanthropy, in helping local communities and the less well-off reveals a side of the country house that has often been overlooked.

Many of these women forged important independent links with the local community and in the process narrowed the gap between the world of the big house and its hinterland.

Their role during the Great Famine is only now being explored.

It was only recently, for example, that letters written by Hester Catherine Browne – Lady Sligo of Westport House – came to light.

They reveal the remarkable story of how her family responded to the catastrophe of the Great Hunger.

These letters challenge stereotypes about the role of women, of life in the country house and the relationship between Protestant landlords and their mainly Catholic tenants.

What is also quite interesting is how the world of the country house was an international one.

The Grand Tour, for example, was a rite of passage for many of the younger sons of the country house, but what of their sisters and mothers?

We now know that these women enjoyed cultural and political activities outside the home such as sport, travel, fashion, art, architecture, writing, philanthropy and politics.

You will hear about Lady Gregory of Coole Park in Galway who combined the role of landlord, widowed mother and cultural nationalist.

After the death of her husband, Lady Gregory managed the family estate on behalf of her son, took up Irish lessons and supported Horace Plunkett’s cooperative movement.

Her role in co-founding the Abbey Theatre in 1904 ensured a cultural legacy that we still celebrate.

As an Ulster woman, I am particularly interested in the paper presented by Dr John Cherry and Dr Arlene Crampsie in relation to the women of Ulster’s country houses and their role in Ulster Day.

On the 28th September 1912, over 228,000 women signed the Ulster Declaration against Home Rule, a parallel document to the Ulster Covenant.

The signatories to the Declaration were drawn from across the whole spectrum of Unionist society from labourers to aristocrats.

It is remarkable how women from Ulster’s country houses acted as agents in organising the signing of the Declaration throughout the province.

Even though they had no vote and for the most part lived a privileged existence, the prospect of Home Rule galvanised their collective energy, skills and influence towards defeating this measure.

Many would adopt a local political role, which had up to that point been the preserve of their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.

In the south, the role of women during this period was perhaps more restricted.

However, any discussion on the role of women in country houses in Ireland would be incomplete without mention of  Countess Markievicz.

The Countess is an iconic figure, famed for her role in the revolutionary period of the early 20th century.

Personally, I have been taking a closer look at the life of Countess Markievicz due to my current role in heading up the Government’s plans for the commemoration of the 1916 Rising.

Just as we are reflecting today on the role played by women in historic houses, I want to ensure that the role of Countess Markievicz and other women involved in the Rising is accurately remembered in 2016, in contrast to how it was overlooked in the past.

Indeed, I know a number of exhibitions and events are being planned at Countess Markievicz’s former home, Lissadel House, as part of the 2016 commemorations.

Ireland’s country houses have an important role to play in our national narrative and are a vital attraction for both domestic and international.

Country houses such as Castle Leslie, Bantry House and Westport House help to stimulate economic growth, particularly at local level.

We will hear from Sophie Shelswell-White about the issues surrounding managing Bantry House.

Similarly, Sammy Leslie who undertook the full running of the Castle Leslie estate when it was in serious disrepair at the age of 24, will discuss the management of Castle Leslie which now employs a team of over 140 dedicated staff.

Many surviving country houses have forged a new dynamic relationship with their local communities and local authorities.

They are an integral part of our national life, conserving cultural treasures and telling the story of the families who have looked after them in the past and those who care for them in the present.

In recognition of the important role played by historic houses, earlier this year I set up a Steering Group, co-chaired by my Department and the Irish Historic Houses Association, to advise me on how we can support the sustainable future of the Irish country house and to establish if existing supports can be improved and adjusted to support the owners and custodians of these properties.

All of us here are very conscious of the financial and curatorial burden that these properties place on owners and I wish to look at whether we can ease these burdens.

I hope we will be able to develop a model that will ensure the on-going sustainability of country houses into the future.

I would like to thank the chair of the Irish Historic Houses Association, Susan Kellett, for assisting us in this regard.

Last year fifty-five country houses of various sizes were grant aided under the Built Heritage Jobs Leverage Scheme operated by my Department.

Altogether this scheme supported the conservation and repair of over 540 historic structures and unlocked over €10million in private investment.

I am continuing to pursue options for continuing this successful initiative for 2015.

Meanwhile, I was pleased to announce last week that a number of country houses at a significant risk of deterioration across the country will benefit under the Structures at Risk Fund in 2015, operated by my Department.

This will help safeguard these structures which otherwise might be lost.

It is revealing how the country house continues to be a subject of innovative research.

This conference will give an insight into the campaign for women’s equal rights, the true extent of women’s influence in country houses and their position within their communities.

It is encouraging to see that we have moved away from the usual themes of landlord and tenant, wealth, famine and poverty towards a more nuanced understanding of how the Irish country house functioned and what its legacy means.

It is a topic that will continue to reveal as yet unexplored elements of our history and I am conscious that research into the role of women is itself an evolving theme.

In conclusion, I would like to thank you for inviting me to open this conference, and I hope you enjoy the contributions that will follow.

Go raibh maith agaibh.

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