And what about palatial Castletown – Ireland’s largest and earliest Palladian-style house. It was built for William Conolly, Speaker of the Irish House of Commons and the wealthiest commoner in Ireland. The son of a Donegal innkeeper, he became prosperous dealing in forfeited estates following the Williamite war in the late 17th century.
More than two centuries later, during the War of Independence, Republicans were about to set Castletown alight with 50 gallons of petrol when a local leader remembered Conolly’s Irish and relatively humble origins. The house was saved.
A world that was once divided between great landowners mostly loyal to the British Crown and a dispossessed majority who were anything but. At grand houses such as Russborough or Powerscourt you can imagine yourself in the world of the 18th century super-rich. But what if you’d been a poverty-stricken local sitting in nearby Wicklow Gaol or on Spike Island in Cork Harbour, awaiting transportation to Australia? Or a farm labourer racked with hunger in the 1847 famine, making your way towards an emigrant ship to New York?
You can try to put yourself in their shoes at historic sites now set up to allow just that. And you can feel the history when you walk on famine roads, witness the Emigrants’ Flame at the Dunbrody Famine Ship, and stand next to the statue of young Annie Moore and her brothers on the quayside at Cobh.