Part of the impetus for this book was a desire to chart the origins, development and decline of Kerry's network of big houses, and to reclaim from the ruins details of their elegant architecture and their elaborate interiors. It was equally important, however, to reinvest the ruins - and indeed the houses that endure - with the voices and experiences of the men and women who lived there, the people who sent sons to war, served on Grand Juries or at Westminster, managed or buckled under debt and navigated the twilight of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy in Ireland. Some remarkable women lived in these houses, women whose strength, foresight and hard work left an enduring impression on their localities. Their experiences and the experiences of local people who worked in or supplied the big houses are also reclaimed in this volume which seeks to provide an overview of life as it was lived in the Big House.
Beginning with a detailed survey of the destruction of the big house in Kerry during the War of Independence and the Civil War (1919-23) by Dr John Knightly, the subsequent chapters are organised according to the geographical distribution of the big houses, beginning with Tarbert House in north Kerry and concluding with Derryquin Castle in the south. The final two chapters by Victoria McCarthy, Architectural Conservation Officer for County Kerry, offer an appropriate close to this volume. The first, titled the 'Creators and Custodians of the Kerry landscape' focuses on the endeavours of the Brownes of Kenmare House and the Herberts of Muckross in Killarney, the Dennys of Tralee Castle, the Petty-Fitzmaurices of Kenmare, the Crosbies of Ardfert Abbey and Ballyheigue Castle, the Godfreys of Kilcoleman in Milltown and the Fitzmaurices of Old Court in Lixnaw, and speaks of the ebbs and flows of wealth and control, of war, famine and loss and of good management and terrible waste. These families, McCarthy concludes, remolded the landscape of Kerry and left an enduring mark and 'the guiding hand of educated and cultured landlords (and their wives) can still be seen to this day.' Her second chapter, a case study of 'Belville House, Portmagee: A Conservation Story' brings the volume to a close.
The book is Illustrated with a wide selection of rare images including, in many cases, previously unpublished photographs donated by the families themselves, and each chapter adds to our understanding of the origins of these grand structures, the fortunes and misfortunes of the families who lived and loved there, and the intricate connections between them.