Learn about life in the 19th century


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.


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

Heat: Fireplaces were lit to keep the old house warm before central heating and radiators were installed.

Electricity: Before they had electricity candles were used in the chandeliers to light the rooms.

Transport: Guests arrived in horse drawn carriages. They made a racket on the cobblestones so there were wooden sets on the ground outside the house to dull the sound when the carriages arrived at the door.

Servants: Washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking, lighting fires and other work was done by servants – not the occupants of the house.

Servants had separate quarters. Work rooms in the basement. They used the back door, back stairs and “jib doors” when moving through the house. Look out for the jib door in the dining room.

Some rooms had special bells, spot them beside the fireplaces, to call the servants.

The dumb waiter was a type of lift for food, not people, to bring it from the kitchen in the basement up to the family and guests upstairs. Kitchens were in basements to keep sounds and smells of cooking far from guests.

Architecture: Farmleigh as we know it today was built in the 1880’s, but it was actually built around an older Georgian house. Some of the older rooms can still be seen inside on the tour.

The architecture, furniture and craftsmanship is very different in Farmleigh house from houses today. Spot wooden carvings of fruit, leaves and faces in dining room. Tapestries on the walls helped kept in the heat in the old days. Stuccowork/ plasterwork on the ceilings in the older rooms was all hand made. By the time the ballroom was added moulds existed and the stuccowork could be copied – see repeat patterns.

The function of the room was sometimes shown in the decoration. For example you’ll find fruit in the decoration of the dining room and musical instruments in the decoration in the ballroom.

Gender: Men and women would retreat to separate rooms after dinner. For example, the ladies had the boudoir, the gentlemen had the billiards room. See the difference in the styles of the rooms. Wooden panels feature in gentlemen’s rooms, stuccowork and lighter colours in ladies’ boudoir.

Living landscape: One of the fireplaces has a window over it instead of a chimney! Instead of having a painting of a landscape over the mantelpiece, the window was there to frame the view of the real landscape outside. Where do you think the smoke went?

Plastic: You won’t find that many objects made of plastic in Farmleigh house. No plastic cups, plates, cutlery, furniture, containers, etc, were used here in the past. What plastic objects did you spot on your visit?

Some of the artwork and objects come from other parts of the world. Do you have things in your house that come from other countries?

See Map Activity

Technology: There was one television in the house when the last of the Guinness family lived here, kept in the Library. Now there are many computers, televisions, phones, wifi and other technological improvements. These help improve communication and entertainment.

Communication: Many old letters are kept in the library as well as books. When is the last time you wrote someone a letter? Spot the bust of the “Seanachaí” (story teller) in the library. Not everyone had the opportunity to learn to read and write in the past and often tales and folklore passed on from generation to generation by the seanachaí.

Library: Farmleigh library contains old and rare books written by famous Irish writers like Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s travels), James Joyce (Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake), Samuel Beckett and many more.

Some books were actually collected for the covers, they have rare decorative leather bindings.

The Nobel room celebrates the Irish winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. Yeats, Heaney, Beckett and Shaw.

Art: There are some portraits of the Guinness family hanging on the walls of the house. Before people had cameras an artist might have been hired to paint family members. How long do you think that would take? How many portraits would each person have?

See Portrait Activity

After the house tour, you can download and answer our Farmleigh House Quiz (answers included)

Chinoiserie style room
Detail of wood carved face in fireplace

The Guinness Family

The Guinness Family lived in Farmleigh. Arthur Guinness set up the Guinness brewery in 1759. Later in the 1880s his great grandson Edward Cecil Guinness lived at Farmleigh and ran the Guinness Brewery. He had another house on St. Stephen’s green called Iveagh House and more houses in England.

The Guinness family paid the workers in the brewery well, gave them 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 flats for the people in Dublin to live in.

Edwards 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 grew up at Farmleigh and later sold the house to the government in 1999. They now have houses and families of their own, but many of their things like art and furniture are still here on loan.

Farmleigh House & Estate Today

State Visits: Farmleigh is now owned by the government. Farmleigh is used as a residence or home away from home for visiting presidents, prime ministers, world leaders and kings and queens. It is also used for important meetings and ceremonies like the bravery awards and the president’s awards. A lot of conservation work was done by the government to make sure the house would survive. They have added modern conveniences like lifts and underfloor heating.

Farmleigh Estate

Walled garden: Used in the past to grow fruit, vegetables and exotic flowers for the house. Usually no bigger than 4 acres so as not to be too breezy. Usually not smaller than ½ an acre so it’s not too shady. South facing wall is sunniest/hottest. Fruit that needs the most sun grown here. Often there is a greenhouse here for extra heat for growing tomatoes, grapes, etc.

Sunken garden: A formal garden inspired by gardens in palaces in Europe often featuring carefully clipped hedges and bushes, planned landscaping and planting. Man-made in appearance, not very wild or natural looking.

Follies: In the 18th century rich 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 the garden in the style of these ruins. The building didn’t often have a practical function. In the 19th century it became fashionable to build a building in the garden that did have some function.

Ornamental Dairy: Pretty building for family guests to try milking a cow away from mud and smell of farmyard.

Clock Tower: The clock tower at Farmleigh not only tells the time, it has a water reservoir at the top. The water comes 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.”

Sculptures: There are some modern artworks and garden installations decorating the grounds at Farmleigh.

See Sculpture Map Activity

Tempietto in the Walled Garden
Fountain in sunken Garden

Trees: Trees use water, sunlight and CO2 to make their own food and create oxygen. Photosynthesis takes place in the leaves using chlorophyll, which also gives leaves their green colour. Trees provide shelter for birds, insects and other creatures such as squirrels.

Many native trees like ash, hawthorn, birch and willow grow in the hedgerows and around the lake Farmleigh estate. Yew and Irish Yew are found dotted around the gardens and clipped into hedges.

Many exotic trees were imported from other countries. Big estates had collections of trees in the same way as they would have collections of art or expensive furniture. Trees like sequoia trees that have been growing for thousands of years in America were only introduced to Ireland in the second half of the 19th century so are much “younger” and smaller here than in their native country.

Plant hunters were sent on dangerous expeditions to find rare and exotic plants such as the handkerchief tree from China.

See Tree Detectives Activity.

Have a look at our tree trail during your visit to Farmleigh Estate. – Tree trail coming soon!

thuja Avenue interspersed with hornbeams
Mount Fuji Cherry Tree in Walled Garden


There are many habitats for wildlife at Farmleigh like the meadows rich in native flowers which are good for the bees. Bees spread pollen to flowers so they can reproduce but also spread pollen to crops and food producing plants. The lake is home to dragonflies and damsel flies as well as fish, ducks and sometimes heron.

There are many bird species at Farmleigh as well as the donkeys in the donkey sanctuary and the horses in the fields.

Some shy creatures visit at only at night or early in the morning like badgers, foxes and pheasants.

Did you spot any pollinators on your visit to Farmleigh? What kind?


Butterfly on echinacea flower
bumblebee on allium flower

Be sure to enquire while planning your visit about what other activities/work sheets are seasonally available.