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 State Ball, Dublin Castle c. 1850

Chapter 15

Dublin Castle Social Scene

State Ball, Dublin Castle, c. 1850

There was a history of lavish entertainment by the Viceregal Court, from the early 1670s when Lady Essex was a renowned hostess. The Duke of Ormond created a sumptuous Viceregal Court, during his second tenure of office, 1677 - 1685, with over one hundred servants and officials. A few years later, Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell, orchestrated the use of pageantry and cheering crowds for the arrival of his master, King James.

Successive Viceroys encouraged the participation of the powerful Protestant landlord ascendancy class in Viceregal Court life. The Illustrious Order of St. Patrick was instituted by George III in St. Patrick's Hall in 1783 and being honoured with that distinction was seen as evidence of the high social standing of the recipients. The Castle remained the focus of Anglo Irish social life with its mixture of pomp, splendour, extravagance, rituals and pageantry throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries. Unfortunately, the Castle's social scene and the privileged lifestyles of this wealthy elite continued undiminished, throughout the famine of 1845 - 1849, when 1.5 million Irish people died and a similar number emigrated, mainly to Britain, U.S.A. and Australia.

The Permanent Secretary at the British Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, had responsibility for social and economic policy in Ireland. He was well intentioned but not very humane and passionately believed that market forces should never be interfered with. This policy was responsible for many deaths. Along with most of his Whig colleagues, he saw the famine as a visitation of God on the Irish - a belief that the starving Irish later came to share.

The most important period in Dublin's social calendar was the six festive weeks of the Castle's balls and dinners, which culminated on St. Patrick's Day, 17th March. During this 'Castle Season' the Viceroy resided in Dublin Castle with his personal staff, chaplain, secretary, gentlemen-at-large and aides-de-camp in waiting. Dublin hotel and boarding rooms were booked well in advance. Gentry, aspiring gentry and debutantes from the great houses of Ireland eagerly awaited the Viceroy's gilt edged invitation to attend.

The Viceroy's Levée opened the proceedings with a parading of the men of court. On that evening a stream of carriages made their entry through Cork Hill Gate. 'They are of all sorts and condition, from the handsome brougham which conveys the Lord Chancellor in his wig and gown, to the jarvey upon which lounge a couple of officers in resplendent uniform'. The Levée is but an inferior occasion when compared with the 'Drawing Room' of the second evening 'when the Castle is a scene of wonderful animation. The windows blaze with light, scarlet cloth covers the staircase and corridors, which are filled with lovely debutantes and handsome matrons. There is frou frou of silken dresses and the chatter of many voices. There is the crowding into the antechamber, the passing into the pen, the letting down of trains, the final presentation'.

Lady Fingal in her memoirs - seventy years young - remembers being presented as a debutante at her first 'Drawing Room', to Lord Spencer (great great grandfather of Princess Diana) who was in court dress with 'glittering orders'. "It is the beard that I remember. In those days the Lord Lieutenant kissed each of the debutantes as they were presented - an ordeal for both. I can remember now the feeling of that long thick red beard against my cheek, tickling it. Then it is over and now I curtsey to the lovely golden haired, rose and white, but rather pompous-looking lady in her glittering jewels, beside Lord Spencer, and walk backwards a few steps as I have been taught to do; without, I pray, falling over my train. An ADC picks it up and replaces it on my arm, and the ceremony is over. In the long gallery, refreshments are served, and one meets one's friends as at an ordinary evening party".

In contrast to many of her ascendancy colleagues who were untouched by the destitution of the majority, she was aware of her position in relation to society at large. "There was a crowd about the gates of the Castle. The Dublin poor always turned out to see any sight that there was. They shivered on the pavement in their thin, ragged clothes, waiting for hours sometimes, so that they might see the ladies in their silks and satins and furs step from their carriages into the warmth and light and gaiety that received them. The poor were incredibly patient. Even then I was dimly aware the appalling contrast between their lives and ours, and wondered how long they would remain patient".

Another account however suggests that the crowd could be less than patient. "The motley throng in the sidewalks indulge their pungent wit, not unmixed with sarcasm, at the expense of each individual as he goes by".

The Castle social season culminated on St. Patrick's Day, 17th March. That day began with an inspection of the guard and military manoeuvres, by the Viceroy and his entourage on the State Apartments balcony, while the State Band played from the other balcony in Bedford Tower. It was customary for them to then 'make merry' and 'drown the shamrock'. On that festive night he gave a banquet at the Castle which was followed by the St. Patrick's Ball 'in the hall of that name which hardly holds the crowd of dancers'.

Dublin escaped the worst horrors of starvation but experienced a huge influx of refugees. However, the silent killers of disease and infection (typhus, dysentery and yellow fever) accompanied the famine and Asiatic cholera broke out and spread quickly in the congested city of Dublin. It decimated the garrison of Ship Street Barrack at the time of the intended royal visit.

The famine ruined many businesses and the Viceroy Clarendon encouraged the visit of Queen Victoria, as he believed it would stimulate trade. On August 6th 1849 Queen Victoria landed at Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) accompanied by their Royal Highnesses the Prince Consort, the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal. She did not mention the famine in her letters. However, in a letter dated 6th August from the Viceregal Lodge to her Uncle Leopold (King of the Belgians) she stated that "you see more ragged and wretched people here than I ever saw anywhere else" and that "tomorrow we have a levée (in Dublin Castle) where 1,700 are to be presented and the next day a review (of the troops) and in the evening the Drawing Room, where 900 ladies are to be presented".

As was normal, a series of toasts were drunk at dinner. The first was made to the health of the monarch, the next to the Prince of Wales. This was followed by one to the glorious memory of King William of Orange and again to his glorious victory at the Battle of the Boyne on the 12th July 1690. The final four toasts were made to the prosperity of the city, the linen industry, the prosperity of Ireland and its trade.

The royal visit passed off without the slightest incident - in contrast to her third visit of 1861 during which there were street protests and stones were thrown at Prince Albert.