Rathfarnham – ‘Big House’ borderlands

“Bottle Tower, Rathfarnham”, by Harry Kernoff, RHA (1940) – built 1742 as a famine relief scheme after 1740/1741’s “Year of the Slaughter”
DERMOT O’SULLIVAN shows the secret history of a Dublin suburb

In university I did a module on Irish Literature which included ‘Big House’ novels. When I first heard the term, I thought it was a generic description of all novels connected to big country houses, whether they be set in Ireland or not. I mistakenly assumed that Castle Rackrent and The Last September were only Irish examples of a genre that included Jane Eyre, some of Austen’s works, perhaps Portrait of a Lady too.

I quickly discovered that this was not the case, that Big House novels are uniquely Irish works of literature concerned with the big houses of the Irish landlords and (usually) their relationship with the surrounding peasantry and politics of the time. In Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, we follow the declining fortunes of an incompetent and abusive Anglo-Irish landowning family, the not-so-subtly named Rackrents. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen focuses on the cultural ambiguity and divided loyalties of an Anglo-Irish family during the Irish War of Independence, as they both hobnob with the members of the British army and demonstrate their sympathy for and connection with the local Irish, including those who are fighting for independence.

Elizabeth Bowen, who wrote of the ambiguities of Anglo-Irishness

These books made me suddenly curious − not about the literary genre itself − but about the social and historical reality that lay behind these works. I became intensely aware of the fact that people had actually lived in big houses, and – more importantly to my mind – around them, ordinary people existing in relation to these houses and what they represented. This may seem mind-numbingly obvious: after all, Irish history and popular culture is chock-full of stories about landlords and their tenants. However, there is a difference between knowing something and knowing something in italics, as the saying goes. And in thinking about the Big House novel and the world it sprang from, I was knowing in italics, for the first time, this strange, strange corner of Irish history.

This excited me, but left me a little disheartened, feeling I’d missed out on something important. It seemed strange and inappropriate for an Irish person not to know anything about a uniquely Irish reality that had given rise to a whole genre of literature. I was not a 18th or 19th Century peasant, nor ever would be. Neither was I the scion of some blue blood family that still spent summers in their crumbling mansion somewhere in rural Offaly or Meath. It was not that I wanted to be either of these people – not at all – but I was hungry to know this part of my country’s history.

I do not know how long this feeling lasted, a number of weeks perhaps. And then one day, while strolling by the enormous chestnut tree in the shadow of the castle, I realised how ridiculous this sense of historical deprivation was. After all, I had actually grown up in the grounds of a Big House!

Rathfarnham Castle (Photo: southdublinhistory.ie)

Remarkably this had completely slipped my mind as I mulled over the Big House novel. Rathfarnham Castle was of course a landlord’s Big House – arguably from its construction by Adam Loftus in the late 1500s and definitely from its refurbishment in the 18th Century – and the house in which I grew up in Rathfarnham Wood estate had been built on an old patch of the demesne gardens. I had spent my childhood playing in the woodlands of this Big House, climbing the exotic trees, sitting on the ornamental stone lions that flank its main entrance, hearing stories about its ghosts (including that of a girl bricked up in its walls), driving past its former entry gates, one by the village and the other down by the Dodder some distance away. Our “village” – with its newsagents, charity shops, pubs and takeaways − was the village that grew up around and serviced this house and castle.

How exciting and bizarre to think that a once powerful family’s garden was now occupied by dozens and dozens of individual families, squatting commoners far below the social and economic status of the historic Loftuses, but who nonetheless lived in a state of technological sophistication that the Loftuses could only have dreamed of. I briefly imagined I caught a glimpse of how Henry – the 18th century owner − may have viewed the sleepy (soporifically so) middle class housing estate where I grew up: a strange cyberpunk colony of unlanded plebeians who lacked even a simple chambermaid and yet, as a matter of course, rode mechanical horses fed by internal fires, ate for breakfast the foreign fruits that only he could afford or access in his time, and flew across and between continents in a matter of hours while casually watching probe footage from nearby planets on their handheld library-cum-galleries.   

I’d not only grown up on a former landlord estate (which is obviously extremely common anywhere in Ireland or indeed Europe), but within a stone’s throw of the house itself (which is also quite common, if less so). And, to top it all off, this was so unremarkable to me that I’d completely forgotten about it to the point of feeling sorry for myself, when it should have been the first thing I thought of on reading Edgeworth or Bowen. This now seemed to me far more interesting than any Big House reality from centuries ago.    

This realisation of course made history alive and immediate for me. It was not the first time I’d taken an interest in local history, or in history in general, topics that I’d always felt drawn to. But it certainly added more texture and impetus to this curiosity.

I had always adored – and still do – the nature of Rathfarnham Wood. And it was curious to know that where I had picked up my love of the natural world had been in the decadent and overgrown gardens of some long-departed landowning family. There was (and to a lesser extent still is) a sort of natural gothic to Rathfarnham Wood, with its shattered ruins and superabundance of ivy. It’s no doubt a common aesthetic taste, but I am sure that my obsession with ruins and overgrowth, and – the jackpot – overgrown ruins, was influenced by growing up in an environment that abounded in them.

Archbishop Loftus, constructor (or reconstructor) of Rathfarnham Castle

A short history of Rathfarnham I read many years ago, shortly after the events recounted above, described the area as a “waste village” in the early 1580s when Adam Loftus took possession and began the construction (or reconstruction) of Rathfarnham Castle. This simple phrase – with its hints of violence and war − stirred my curiosity and led to another novel insight into Irish history for me. I went on to read more about how Rathfarnham had been the frequent victim of Gaelic plundering. I had vaguely known about the raids of the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles before, and I’d of course heard ad nauseam in school about the Pale, the small area of Ireland surrounding Dublin that was still under the control of the English Crown in the 1300s. But it was only reading about Rathfarnham on this occasion that these facts really hit home.

It now seemed remarkable to me that the Wicklow highlands, so close to the centre of English power in the country, had remained Irish for so long. It took 400 years for English power to reach the hills and mountains that I could see out the window of my childhood home – and a further 200 for that control to be complete and uncontested. That’s 600 years total, more than the time that has elapsed since significant numbers of Europeans first set foot in the Americas. What’s more, these highlands are clearly visible from the city centre, and with good traffic, just 30 minutes away by car. Even back in medieval times they could only have been a few hours march distant at most. This was fascinating – the fact that two worlds co-existed side by side for so many centuries, the fact that in medieval times guards on the walls of Dublin Castle could have looked south at the hills and known that there lay another country: different language, different culture, different law.

That Rathfarnham was to some degree a borderland between these two realities, and would have witnessed these raids, was utterly engrossing to me. And the realisation that the expression “Beyond the Pale” literally applied to my neighbourhood (which straddled the Pale in fact, my house being inside it), that I could see “beyond the Pale” out the window of my redbrick suburban home, this was the icing on the historical cake.

Ticknock Forest, all too near Rathfarnham

Rathfarnham is a middle-class suburb located on the southern extremity of Dublin city, where the land begins to crumple into green hills that eventually give onto the granite Wicklow uplands and their rolling moors and peaks. At first glance it is an entirely unremarkable district. And at closer glance it is still quite unremarkable: suburban housing estates, main roads, shopping centres and parks. That’s basically it.

The parks – such as Rathfarnham Wood mentioned above – are the keys to understanding the neighbourhood’s history, as most of them are not recently developed urban parks, but the remains of the demesne gardens of wealthy, almost exclusively Protestant landowners. From the time of the English Reformation until Ireland’s Independence in 1922, the country was divided from its colonial overlords by religion, in addition to political and cultural questions. In essence, Ireland was ruled by a wealthy, landowning Protestant elite, much like in Britain, except in Ireland the vast majority of the population was Catholic (and extremely impoverished). Being close to the seat of English power in Dublin, Rathfarnham was greatly sought after by members of this class, and so the suburb boasts a high density of their mansions, giving the area an uncommon level of historical continuity when compared to many other areas of the city.

But all that comes much later: the history of Rathfarnham begins thousands of years before even Catholicism – not to mentioned Anglicanism – were even dreamed of. In the suburb − and particularly in its hilly, rural sections − are many millennia-old megaliths: cairns, tombs, dolmens, all left scattered by peoples whose languages, cultures and beliefs are utterly lost to the great bog of history. A Neolithic passage tomb recently excavated on Montpellier Hill probably dates back more than 5,000 years. Flint lithics, a polished stone axe head and a bone pin were found at the site. Another passage tomb cairn known as Fairy Castle is not actually in Rathfarnham, but is visible from the area as a grey nipple on the rounded summit of Two Rock mountain. The portion of Rathfarnham’s history that we can speak about with any degree of certainty – less than 1,000 years – pales in comparison to these deep stretches of time.  

There is not much to say about Rathfarnham before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th Century, but we can safely assume that this fertile country, close to the River Liffey and Ireland’s east coast, would have been inhabited. There were early Christian monasteries nearby, with one possibly being located on the site of the old churchyard in Rathfarnham village. From the founding of Viking Dublin in the 9th Century, there was probably extensive Scandinavian presence in the area. But it is only after the Anglo-Norman invasion that we begin to have a solid written record of Rathfarnham. Incidentally, Diarmaid Mac Murchadha – the Irish king who brought the Anglo-Normans to the island in order to try regain his lost kingdom – led the invaders through the Rathfarnham area on the final leg of their march to attack Dublin, the most prosperous settlement in Ireland at the time. Ironically, seeing as it would take the English settlers hundreds of years to subdue the Wicklow mountains, it was through these uplands that they first entered the Dublin region, choosing this difficult route in order to surprise the city’s defenders. So in one of those strange rhyming reversals of history, the hills that for several centuries afterwards would be a thorn in the side of English Dublin, the vulnerable southern flank of the Pale from which would descend raiders and armies; these very same hills that would become their nemesis in the centuries ahead, are what allowed the Anglo-Normans to invade and occupy the city of Dublin in the first place.

Just five years later in 1175, Rathfarnham was granted by Henry II to Walter the goldsmith (aurifaber). Then in 1199, Milo le Bret was given Rathfarnham and constructed a motte and bailey fort in the area. This marked the beginning of the Pale period of Rathfarnham’s history mentioned above, when the district’s position at the edge of Dublin, right on the foothills of the Wicklow mountains, made it a cultural and military borderland for centuries. The precarious situation of Rathfarnham (and all the Pale’s southern border) became much more severe in the 1300s when Europe-wide famine and the Black Death, among other factors, led to a weakening of English power in Ireland, subjecting Dublin’s hinterland to ever more frequent and vicious raids from the O’Byrne and O’Toole clans from the mountains. Violence also went in the other direction, with the medieval records of Dublin showing the levying of forces to carry out attacks on the Gaelic kingdoms.

This cultural fault line was plagued by violence for another 200 years. Only in the 1580s was the power of the Gaelic lords finally broken. It was at this time that Rathfarnham was described as a “waste village” and that the original Loftus − Adam – was granted the lands and built the Castle that still exists today. Adam Loftus was a Yorkshire clergyman who managed to secure extensive wealth while in colonial service in Ireland. As well as being the man who built Rathfarnham Castle, he was Archbishop of Dublin and the first provost of Trinity College Dublin, which he helped to found and which was named after his alma-mater in Cambridge. He had a reputation for being a self-serving opportunist and apparently opposed the foundation of Trinity College in St Patrick’s Cathedral as it would have deprived him of a lucrative source of income. In any case, the fortified house that he built – and the village that grew to serve it – has remained the central historical feature of Rathfarnham to this day. And, of course, it is in the lands of this castle that the red-brick 1980s housing estate that I grew up in would be built, almost exactly 400 years later.  

In 1600, in an act of nostalgic violence, the Wicklow clans, taking advantage of the Nine Years’ War, attacked the castle. Letters of Adam Loftus from the time lament the loss of his cattle, sheep and other goods to the raiders. During the Irish Confederate Wars and Cromwellian invasion of the 1640s the castle changed hands many times and was occupied by both Royalists and Roundheads. There is a tradition that Cromwell himself stayed in the castle but no one knows if this is true.  

Cromwellian agitprop – the English warrior slays the Irish dragon

After peace came to Ireland in the late 1600s, a “golden era” (at least for some) began in Rathfarnham. The 18th Century was the height of the power and influence of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, a period when wealthy Protestants (some recent arrivals from England, others not) consolidated their control over the island. These landlords owned vast estates across the entire country, while Catholics had their rights restricted under various, ever-changing Penal Laws. It was from this landowning class that came the writers Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Bowen, and it was from the social reality of this elite’s status in Irish society that came the Big House novel genre. In Rathfarnham this contrast would probably have been less fraught, as ordinary peasants living close to Dublin would have been less obviously impoverished and less obviously “Irish” than those elsewhere in the country.

In any case, it is at this time that were built most of the large, extant and historically relevant structures in Rathfarnham: Rathfarnham House, The Hermitage, the Church of Ireland church in the village, Eden House (now a pub), Marlay House, the Priory (later demolished) and other less extravagant homes.

Just as significant was the refurbishment by Lord Ely (Henry Loftus) of Rathfarnham Castle, which converted the 16th Century fortified house into a luxurious modern home, complete with rococo ceilings, painted glass windows and other decorative features. Perhaps most tellingly, the Castle’s windows were enlarged to a size that would have been unthinkable in the era of the Wicklow clans’ incursions. But this was a new era for Rathfarnham, when security was no longer a great concern.

Lord Ely’s Gate, formerly the main entrance to the Rathfarnham Castle demesne

Funnily enough, approximately 250 years later an “attack” by another group of outsiders – probably some drunken roughs from another area of the city that had gate-crashed a party nearby –would result in some of these windows being smashed and a return to a state of  high vigilance at the castle. Motion sensors and cameras were installed to defend the place, instead of the more traditional armed watchmen of centuries past.

With increased freedom for the majority of Irish following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Rathfarnham underwent another interesting shift that mirrored the social and political changes taking place across the country. From this time until Irish independence in 1922, the big structures of Rathfarnham were increasingly occupied by Catholic institutions as the power of the Protestant Ascendancy began to wane. Rathfarnham House became the Loreto convent (where Mother Teresa of Calcutta trained). The Hermitage became St Enda’s School, or Scoil Éanna, a bilingual Catholic school under the direction of Pádraig Pearse, the man who later led the 1916 Rising, which though a military failure led to the conflict that eventually saw Ireland gain independence from Britain. And the Castle itself became a Jesuit college and retreat centre. During this period the Church of the Annunciation Catholic church was built, there having been only a small mass house before.

Rathfarnham’s final transformation (and probably its last for the foreseeable future) came in the mid to late 20th century, when Dublin’s suburban sprawl spread to what had been a populated but still largely rural district. Many housing estates were built, including the one I grew up in. Shopping centres, schools, pubs and other services sprung up to attend to the needs of the new inhabitants. And now that is what Rathfarnham is: an area of suburban housing estates scattered with old Ascendancy mansions, or perhaps an area of stately Ascendancy parklands now occupied by suburban homes. It all depends on your perspective.           

So where does this leave us? Ultimately, for most of its residents, with a suburb that they can live in and its local parks that they can jog in, or play football in, or drink in at night when they are still underage. Rathfarnham is a place that holds a lot of physical history: there are few places in the whole country with such a high density of old buildings and ruins, particularly from relatively recent times, but also from extremely distant eras. However, buildings do not have memory, people do, and in this way Rathfarnham is a paradox, as while many old structures have persisted through the ages here, its people have not. In recent decades, this has been due to the explosion of suburban growth: the residents of the housing estates of Rathfarnham are mostly not from the area and a huge number are not from Dublin at all. As such there is little of the folk memory and interrelations that exist in parts of rural Ireland. And none of the big houses are occupied by their original residents.

Before this, Rathfarnham had its cultural continuity disrupted by the Viking and Anglo-Norman invasions and subsequent settlement. One thinks of the late, great Tim Robinson’s exceptional books on the Aran Islands and Connemara (Stones of Aran – Pilgrimage, Stones of Aran – Labyrinth, and the Connemara Trilogy – Listening to the Wind, The Last Pool of Darkness and A Little Gaelic Kingdom) how − though these were disappearing even as he recorded them – names existed for individual rocks and hummocks in the land; and how there were folk tales and traditions associated with individual cliff faces and bogs and bays. In Rathfarnham, this is almost non-existent, and entirely so for the vast majority of residents these days. One thinks of the local names and stories and traditions that must have existed here over the centuries, in English more recently, and further back in the Irish language itself.

This cultural dislocation is perhaps illustrated most clearly in the name of the place: no one knows exactly where the name Rathfarnham comes from. All that is certain is that it originates in a time when Gaelic culture would have been ascendant in the area. The Irish Ráth Fearnáin is usually translated as Fearnán’s ringfort, but even this is debated. And, even assuming this is correct, no one knows who Fearnán was or – though there are educated guesses − exactly where his ráth lay. The English form obviously alters the last syllable to make it similar to British place names such as Birmingham or Nottingham. This would be like renaming Castledermot in county Kildare, “Castledertown.” And if we translate ráth loosely as “castle” (on the logic that both were the central defensive structures of their respective cultures), the strange disjunction of this cultural forgetting becomes even clearer, as it would mean that Rathfarnham Castle, the central point of the neighbourhood, can be construed as the tautological “The Castle of the Castle of Fearnán,” which makes zero sense, or all the sense in the world. Again, it all depends of your perspective.

Study for the Head of Samuel Beckett, by Louis de Broquy – the Anglo-Irish analyst of states of mind depicted like a Celtic warrior

Exploring the history of Rathfarnham (or anywhere perhaps) is akin to psychoanalysis, insofar as what is most interesting and revelatory is usually not the discovery of something completely unknown, but rather the coming to awareness of things that were clearly there all along. In the case of Ireland, one theme is the ambiguity of our attachment to the relics of a colonial past, animosity towards which – for lack of other things, much of our native culture having been destroyed – is a fundamental part of the country’s national identity. For all the reasons outlined above, Rathfarnham embodies this starkly, it being a seat of both Protestant ascendancy and nationalist revolution. With its completely obliterated Gaelic past, and its colonial history remaining only in the repurposed or ruined shells of old buildings, Rathfarnham is ultimately the unremarkable embodiment of a clash of cultures that began 850 years ago and which continues to this day.

Unremarkable as, in the final analysis, this story is repeated all over the island, and is simply another way of defining the idea of Ireland itself, whether one lives on the grounds of a literal Big House or not. And as much as battles and rebellions, this clash is equally well represented by a modern, health-conscious suburbanite jogging in an ornamental parkland planted by a colonial landlord long, long ago.