For millions of viewers, Downton Abbey is the ultimate portrayal of life in a stately home. Yet for most of the owners of great Irish houses, the domestic trials of Lord Grantham and his family remain a mystery.
“Would you believe I’ve never seen Downton Abbey,” says Tom Somerville of Drishane House, Castletownshend, Co Cork. “Dear me, no,” said Sir Charles Keane of Cappoquin House in Co Waterford.
Very few of what used to be called the “landed gentry” – many of whom gathered in Dublin’s National Library this week for the launch of an audio archive of their history – can bear to watch.
The TV drama shows the country house at its height, replete with raked gravel, manicured parkland and serried ranks of servants. It’s a far cry from leaky roofs, draughty rooms and the daily struggle to maintain a big house these days.
“We still don’t have central heating,” admits Tom Somerville. “But we’re on the Gulf Stream, so it never gets that cold,” he adds with the air of a man making a virtue of necessity.
“It’s a constant struggle,” agrees Sir Charles. “Parts of the house are under renovation, and there is always something to be done with the roof or the windows.”
Compared to the difficulties of keeping the fabric of an historic house intact, selling up and moving into a modern house “would be a doddle,” says Tom Somerville.
In Downton Abbey, the Earl of Grantham is preoccupied with finding suitable husbands for his daughters. Real-life country house owners are much more worried about the household charge, and the looming property tax.
“If they start taxing these houses on the basis of square footage, we just wouldn’t be able to manage,” says Tom Somerville, whose great great aunt was Edith Somerville of Somerville and Ross fame.
For these Anglo-Irish families, life has become
easier culturally, but more difficult financially.
“Some sort of grant system is essential,” says Sir Charles, whose family have lived in Cappoquin for 300 years. He cites the French system, under which all maintenance is allowable against tax.
“And in Belgium, they get 100pc grants for upkeep,” he adds. It’s much better value for the State to have a family work to keep a great house going rather than hand it over to the government, he says.
“Look at Mount Congreve. It was handed over to the State, and they’re selling off the contents. Much better to have the original families staying there and putting in their own money of course, but getting a little help.”
The Somervilles, who have been 400 years in the same place, now rent out Drishane House occasionally, and the Keanes open their house and gardens to the public a certain number of days per year in order to avail of section 482 tax relief.
Maurice O’Keeffe, who compiled the archive of interviews with Anglo-Irish families, says the struggle to maintain their heritage is a constant theme. So why do they persevere?
“We do it because we want to hand it on to the next generation,” says Tom Somerville. “We are not really owners, just custodians.”
The handing over to the next generation can be a tricky business. It’s a subject on which Sir Charles has strong views. “First, they’ve got to be interested. Even more importantly, their wives have got to be interested. It can’t be too run down. And then you’ve got to convince them it would be worthwhile.”
He has another piece of advice. “The parents must move out. That has to happen. You’ve got to let the children bond with the house.”
The Keanes have certainly bonded with Cappoquin House. You might say they’ve bonded with it twice. During the Troubles, the IRA called to the house to give warning they were going to burn it down.
Sir Charles’s grandmother managed to get most of the contents out of the house, storing them in outbuildings. The IRA were as good as their word, and Cappoquin House was duly burned to the ground.
The Keanes stayed in Cappoquin and, when the Free State government granted compensation to families who had been burned out by the IRA, they rebuilt it brick for brick.
The Somervilles were also targeted during the Troubles. “It was pretty rough, but we stayed put,” says Tom Somerville. “There was a Roman Catholic priest here at the time – a Fr Lambe – who managed to put a stop to most of it.”
“Until recently, the political climate has made it very difficult for these people to speak out,” says Maurice O’Keeffe, “they always felt they had to be careful what they said.”
Now, there is much more sympathetic attitude to Anglo-Irish families. “In part, that’s due to the rarity factor,” says Tom Somerville, “it’s remarkable to be still around. And we’re important for tourism. People recognise the economic argument.”
For these families, life has become easier culturally, but more difficult financially. “Survival is the name of the game,” says Tom Somerville, “you must adapt. No one has the right to remain as they were for ever.”