From the 1780s Dublin Castle played host annually to a “Ball and Supper”; these austere events were very much the preserve of the “upper crust” of Irish society. With the passing of the Act of Union in 1801, the St. Patrick’s Day Ball received a new impetus — something that was said to have greatly impressed the emerging Catholic gentry. For the hordes of Dubliners who would never be admitted to such events, there was an element of mystique and wonder, and crowds thronged the streets leading to the castle in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the affluent, glamorous attendees. In keeping with the custom begun in the 1830s, on the eve of the Famine, Thomas Philip, the Lord Lieutenant, appeared from the castle balcony “swathed in shamrocks,” although the gesture was largely ignored by the masses. Whether this lack of interest reflected their objections to the extravagance of the occasion in the face of deprivation and poverty outside the castle remains unclear, but either way there was little public interest in the office of the Lord Lieutenant.
In March 1846, six months after the discovery of Phytophthora infestans (potato blight), Dublin Castle played host as usual to the elaborate celebration in honor of Ireland’s patron saint. The route to be taken by carriages to the castle — which was publicized in advance in the national newspapers — was intended to avoid the throngs of destitute and hungry who sought sanctuary in the city. Guests attending the castle ball were expected to adhere to a strict protocol, which included bringing “calling cards” that would be used to announce their arrival at the event. Such was the excitement in anticipation of the “Dublin Season” that a Mr. Burke provided “dancing and graceful exercises” for debutantes. Ladies were instructed to wear “feathers and lappets” and to appear in “Irish manufacture.” When George William Frederick Villiers, 4th Earl of Clarendon, took the office of Lord Lieutenant in 1847, his wife Lady Katherine insisted solely on Irish dress for such occasions. Encouraging others to do likewise, in 1849 she ordered a dress “composed of the richest crimson Irish poplin, interwoven in colours of gold”; designed by a Mr. Reynolds of Grafton Street, it was said to have been of the “most costly and gorgeous description.” As these events were attended by several hundred people, women were not allowed to wear trains on their dresses. Likewise, mourning clothes were forbidden, perhaps an indication that the organizers wished to forget what was happening all across the country.
This post was excerpted from the "Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger" exhibition catalog.