Past v Present

Take a guided tour of Farmleigh exploring the differences of living in a big house in the 19th century compared to how we live today.


Strands and Strand Units explored

Strand: Life, society, work and culture in the past. Strand unit: Life in the 19th century.

Strand: Continuity and change over time. Strand units: Homes, housing, urban development, energy and power.


Learn about life in the 19th century

Farmleigh House is the official government residence for visiting presidents, prime ministers, world leaders, and kings and queens. Important government meetings and ceremonies are held there, such as The Bravery Awards and The President’s Awards.

Can you name any foreign presidents who recently visited Ireland?

Farmleigh House once belonged to the Guinness family and most of the house was built in the 19th century.


What are the differences between living in a big house in the 19th century and how we live now?

In the Big Houses in the 19th century, staff were hired to clean, cook, iron and do jobs about the house and grounds. They got up early and lit the fires so that when the family got up the house was warm.

They had rooms in the basement for working and cooking so that the sounds of pots in the kitchen or smells of polish, cleaning products, etc, wouldn’t be heard or smelled by anyone in the nice rooms upstairs. The kitchen was quite far from the dining room so the servants had a lift called a “dumb waiter” to bring the food upstairs quickly, to prevent it going cold!

There were bells that the family could ring which connected to the basement if they wanted to call the servants. The servants in the big houses often used the back door instead of the front door and a back stairs instead of the main stairs so that they wouldn’t be seen by visitors.

Servants in a typical big house were nearly always single, aged between 16 – 25 and worked 14 – 17 hours a day. They lived in servants quarters near to or in the house and enjoyed a standard of living higher than they would at home.

Who does the cooking and the washing up in your home?

Who cleans the house or does the ironing?

Is the work divided up between everyone in the house? Does anyone come in to help?



In the 19th century, fireplaces were used to keep Farmleigh House warm. Count how many fireplaces you see when you visit Farmleigh house.

How many fireplaces do you have in your home? If you have one, who lights it?

Do you have another heating system? Do you know how it works?



Gaslights and candles were used in old houses to light the rooms when it was dark.

Gas is still used today to light the 224 lights in the Phoenix Park. The Phoenix Park is one of the only public places in Europe that still uses gaslights.

What things in your home are powered by electricity? What do you do when there is a power cut?



In drafty old houses and castles tapestries were hung on the walls to keep in the heat. Sometimes expensive silks or wooden panels were put on the walls as decoration.

Do you have paint, wallpaper, material or wood on the walls in your house?

How do you think having wood or wallpaper or paint changes the atmosphere in a room?

Often in the Big Houses a room was decorated with images that symbolised the function of the room. A dining room might have symbols of fruit, a music room might have images of musical instruments and so on.

What pictures or symbols would you put in your classroom to show the function of the room?

What about the PE hall?

In the old days men and women would retreat to separate rooms after dinner. For example, the ladies used the boudoir or drawing room, and the gentlemen used the study or the library.

Note the different styles of the rooms when you visit Farmleigh. Some of the gentlemen’s rooms have dark wooden panels and ladies rooms have stuccowork and lighter colours on the walls and furniture.



Most of the furniture in the big house was hand carved from wood and sometimes decorated with fine materials. There were no objects made out of plastic. In our homes today we have lots of modern technology like computers, televisions, phones, wifi, tablets.

In your home do you have many things made out of plastic?

How many electronic items do you have in your home?

See if you can count how many televisions, phones and computers you see on your visit to Farmleigh. How many objects did you see made from plastic?

Some of the objects and artworks at Farmleigh come from other parts of the world, such as chandeliers from France and Italy, carpets and rugs from India and Iran, and wooden panels from Austria and Riga.

Do you have things in your house that come from other countries?



The library in Farmleigh contains over 5000 items, including books, letters, maps and pamphlets. Lots of them are written by famous Irish people. Can you name any famous Irish writers?

Some famous books in the library include James Joyce’s Ulysses, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Táin, and many books of poems by Seamus Heaney. The oldest book dates to the 13th century; it is a copy of a manuscript by Gerald of Wales called Topographia Hibernica. It is a strange account of the people, places, landscape and folklore of Ireland in the 12th century.

Do you keep books at home? What are your favourites?

Some of the books in Farmleigh library were actually collected for the covers. They have rare decorative leather bindings. In the old days book covers were sold separately from the book. The more you wished to spend the more decoration you could add, for example gold leaf decoration or marbled paper inside.



Farmleigh library contains many hand written letters.

Do you ever send letters to friends? How do you communicate with others?  How would you feel if you got a letter in the post?

How do you get information today? How do you find out what’s going on in the world?

Have you ever heard of a “Seanachaí?” This was a storyteller that people would come to listen to, and who passed down stories to new generations.




Do you have any pictures of family at home?

Before photography was widespread, artists were commissioned to paint portraits of people. Portrait paintings were expensive so often a person might only have one. As well as showing the sitter’s likeness, they sometimes feature objects to represent their personality. A book, a musical instrument or even a building or a place could be included to show their interests.

Pick 3 things you would include in a self-portrait to show your personality.

See Portrait Activity

The Guinness Family

Arthur Guinness set up the Guinness brewery in 1759. Later in the 1880s, his great grandson Edward Cecil Guinness ran the Guinness Brewery and lived at Farmleigh and. At this time, the Guinness Brewery was the biggest brewery in the world. He had another house on St. Stephen’s Green called Iveagh House.

The Guinness family paid the workers in the brewery well, provided lots of them with houses and gave them access to doctors when they were sick. This kept the workers happy.

Edward Cecil Guinness set up the Iveagh trust. There were a lot of slums in Dublin and many people lived in bad conditions. The Iveagh trust built better quality flats for people in Dublin to live in.

Edward’s father Benjamin Guinness was the Lord Mayor of Dublin. He helped to save St. Patrick’s Cathedral from ruin and collapse by paying to have it restored. He lived in a house in St. Anne’s park in Raheny. The park used to be their garden.

Edward’s brother, also called Arthur, bought St. Stephen’s green. It used to be a private garden only for residents of the square, (like the garden at Fitzwilliam square.) He turned the garden into a park and opened it up for the people of Dublin.

Edward’s son Rupert had a house on St. Stephen’s green called Iveagh house. He gave it as a gift to the Government. They now use it as the Department of Foreign Affairs. The garden behind it, Iveagh Gardens, is open to the public and sometimes holds concerts and events.

Edward’s great grandson, Benjamin, was the last of the family to live at Farmleigh. His four children sold the house to the government in 1999. They now have houses and families of their own, but many of their belongings, like art and furniture, are still in Farmleigh House on loan.

Farmleigh Estate

Farmleigh Estate is 78 acres in size and contains decorative gardens, ornamental buildings, a pond and lake, native and imported tress, and animal fields, with Galway sheep, Kerry cattle, donkeys, alpacas, horses.

Walled garden

Walled gardens were often found in the estate of a big house. They were used in the past to grow fruit, vegetables and exotic flowers for the house. They were usually no bigger than 4 acres so as not to be too breezy or chilly, and usually not smaller than ½ an acre so as not to be too shady. The south facing wall is sunniest and hottest part of the garden. Green houses were located here to grow fruit that needs the most sun and heat.

What kind of fruit have you seen growing in green houses? Have you ever grown your own vegetables or plants?

Sunken garden

The sunken garden is a formal garden inspired by gardens in palaces in Europe, often featuring carefully clipped hedges and bushes, planned landscaping and planting. It is man-made in appearance, not very wild or natural looking.

If you visit the sunken garden at Farmleigh look out for the bushes chopped into the shape of a creature. What creature is it?

What do you call the art of clipping hedges into shapes?


In the 18th century wealthy men often went on a grand tour, a trip to Europe for a year or two to admire art, architecture and ancient ruins, (such as Pompeii or the Pantheon in Italy, or the Parthenon in Greece.)

When they returned home they sometimes built a small building in their garden in the style of these buildings or ruins. The buildings were often ornamental, meaning they didn’t have a practical function, they were for decoration only.

The tempietto in the walled garden is an example of a folly.

In the 19th century, it became fashionable to build a building in the garden that was ornamental but also had a function.

Ornamental Dairy

The ornamental dairy was a pretty building for family and guests to try milking a cow away from the mud and smell of the farmyard.

Clock Tower

The clock tower at Farmleigh not only tells the time, it has a water reservoir at the top. The water is pumped from the river Liffey and is piped to the pond, lake and farmyard. The clock tower had a lookout balcony near the top and became a landmark to the local people inspiring the rhyme, “Mr Guinness had a clock, on the top a weather cock, to show the people Castleknock.”


There are some modern artworks and garden installations decorating the grounds at Farmleigh such as “Éan Mór” by Breon O’Casey and “Buncloch” by Mary Reynolds.

See Sculpture Map Activity

Contact Farmleigh Guides at 01 8155914 or to book your school tour.