Sybil Connolly’s In an Irish House.

Gavin Clarke Architecture, design, history

By PATRICIA JENKINS

Sybil Connolly was a world-renowned Irish fashion designer – the first to achieve international recognition for her couture collections. She took her inspiration from the traditional costume of Irish peasant women in fashioning a classically simple ensemble made up of a full circular skirt worn with a light-coloured frilly blouse and teamed with a woollen shawl, all lovingly recreated in luxurious fabrics: Donegal tweed, Bainin wool and pure Irish linen trimmed with delicate Carrickmacross lace – and, whether by ironic appropriation or appreciation, popularised this style amongst her Ascendancy clients. Like many of her wealthy clients Connolly tirelessly championed Irish artists and craftspeople. In the mid-1950s she collaborated with Mourne Textiles of County Down in the creation of open tweed – a combination of thickly spun cloth with silky smooth threads. She went on to create collections inspired by the flora and fauna of the Irish countryside.                       

Widely lauded throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s in Ireland and the UK reviews of her collections in the fashion press led to acclaim and commercial success in the United States. By the 1980s fashion had moved on. Like many designers who enjoyed a fifties heyday – Hartnell in England, Dior in France – Connolly was uncomfortable with the more informal styles of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Consequently, her design portfolio widened to encompass other crafts. Collaborations and commissions followed: designing fabrics for the prestigious design house Brunschwig & Fils and glassware made by Tipperary Crystal for Tiffany and Co.

Sybil Connolly

By the late 1980s having built a solid reputation in fashion, interior and product design Connolly turned her hand to writing. The success of her first effort, In an Irish Garden (1986), encouraged her follow-up, In an Irish House (1988). The book comprises a collection of short memoirs by the chatelaines of seventeen Irish houses ranging in scale from castles to humble cottages. With a forward by the novelist Molly Keane written in admiration for those whose ‘deep affection and pride in their inheritance is as strong a motive for work as was their forefathers’ insatiable desire to build beautifully.’ In the words of the upper-class novelist Una Mary Parker, the contributors comprise a ‘like-minded people’. Throughout the book’s glossy pages, one is struck by the fidelity observed to the aesthetic of the original designers. Such appreciation of Georgian taste is widely held now but just consider that this book follows, and is perhaps partly in response to, a period of campaigning to save much of North Dublin’s Georgian building stock from destruction planned by the Corporation. The contributors were a sprightly collection of patrons (Lady Dunsany), grand dames (the Countess of Rosse) and old friends (Mrs Vincent O’Brien). While each house expresses the personality of its owner, Connolly’s chatelaines – many of them clients – display throughout an aesthetic sympathy with Connolly’s couture collections. Connolly’s own home exemplified the ‘combination of formality and comfort’ she strived for in all her design work.

“It is nice to use things indigenous to one’s country, so the table mats are almost always made from Irish linen or Irish lace.”

Home for Connolly was 71 Merrion Square, an elegant Georgian townhouse, often referred to as ‘the house that linen built.’ It features here in Connolly’s own account as one of the 17 studies. Of the five storeys in Merrion Square three were dedicated to the art of Irish couture whilst the top two were ‘Sybil’s’ sanctuary. From her bedroom she looked out to a sweeping landscaped garden, its central winding path bordered with pruned hedges and fruit trees topped with blossoms that led the eye to the soft rise of the Dublin mountains beyond. Peonies and vintage roses from the garden nestled in Irish baskets throughout the house. Pot pourri too – the instructions for which are shared with her readers – was sprinkled in bowls throughout the house.

While the book occasionally glints with shining silverware – one image invites our joining a table sparkling with Irish crystal overlooking the garden at Birr Castle – a more homely art is also celebrated throughout. The Wicklow willow reed roof of Glenmacass, Dana Wynter’s charming thatched cottage set amid the Featherbed mountains, opens a theme: many of the featured houses are set amongst the mountains. The natural colours of Ireland’s countryside mix with the cool palate of Georgian taste as warm yellows, soft oranges and cool greens prevail on the walls of the selected houses. Saffron yellow is punctuated with old masters all along the 18th century cantilevered staircase at Dunsany Castle; a mix and match of drawings and watercolours by Sir John Lavery and William Sadler are made at home by the presence of a Versailles vase of Irish wildflowers in the sitting room at Celbridge Lodge in Kildare. The mood of the book rests among the apricot yellows of Connolly’s mews house drawing room, the pale yellows of her sitting room and the peridot green upholstery of her Louis XV fruitwood day bed. That coolness is again seen in orange of the front hall at Barons Court in Antrim and cheered somewhat by a dash of daring’ – the presence of a Victorian rocking horse ‘escaped from the nursery’.

Wealth is a nonchalant presence throughout. Like her chatelaines Connolly was a maximalist at heart…

Seashells are laid out lovingly in a Chinese cabinet at artist Derek Hill’s Glebe in Donegal all of them memories and nostalgia for the past’. Personal mementos are telling of varied lives of Connolly’s subjects, consider Dana Wynter: Irish penal cross; Russian battle icon; Mexican painting of a child. Connolly had her souvenirs too, ‘exotic and colourful shells, collected many years ago on the beaches of the Yasawa Islands’near Fuji. She arranged them in ‘early Belleek fruit bowls with dolphins at their base’ on her dining table. Irish delft and floral plates are artfully arranged in these profiles, sometimes displayed in sweet little alcoves like the one in the drawing room of the mews house at the end of her garden, sometimes on the walls clustered in circles or arranged pyramid style in the Georgian drawing room at Whitchurch Stud in Kildare; elsewhere, lined up like soldiers on the Irish pine dresser at Ballynacourty in Limerick; the Old Willow patterned china decorates Mrs Vincent O’Brien’s crowded dining table at Ballydoyle in Tipperary.

Wealth is a nonchalant presence throughout. Like her chatelaines Connolly was a maximalist at heart and her couture – like Balenciaga’s – utilised a generous supply of fabric allowing ease of wear for both living and working. At Connolly’s ‘Fashion Parade’ at Dunsany Castle in 1953 Anne Gunning modelled a rich red Kinsale cape, its collar and puffed sleeves harking back to the 18th century, the Golden Age of Ireland’s Ascendancy. The aesthetic of the period chimes with Connolly’s classicism both in her couture and interior designs which softened geometrical austerity with natural fabrics and colours. It was therefore fitting that Connolly’s couture collections, her archive of sketches and her fabric library found another ‘happy homeamongst the collections at the Hunt Museum in Limerick – one of the finest examples of classical architecture in Ireland.

A pleasure to read In an Irish House is Sybil Connolly’s tribute to the homemakers of Ireland with whom she shared a sympathetic connection to the past. The book is lavishly illustrated throughout with colour photographs by David Davison, one of Ireland’s most distinguished photographers. With its delightful mixture of personal insights, country house histories and recipes from seventeen homemakers, the book is a fine addition to the literature of the Irish house – not as relics of the past, but as well-loved family homes.

Patricia M Jenkins is a Scots-Irish writer who was educated in Britain and Sweden. She has been a contributing journalist to The Biographers Club newsletter, Ireland’s Own and Best of British magazines. She is currently researching the life of David Mountbatten, 3rd Marquess of Milford Haven for a planned biography. She is also working on a book about the dog and horse breeds of Ireland as well writing screenplays for TV and film.