The term 'big house' came about due to the simple comparison by the tenants of estates of their dwellings with the comparatively large and luxurious residences of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. They were termed 'big' both in reference to their size and in reference to their influence over the surrounding area. Elizabeth Bowen wrote of the big house:
"Is it height- in this country of otherwise low buildings- that got these Anglo-Irish houses their 'big' name? Or have they been called 'big' with a slight inflection- that of hostility, irony? One may call a man 'big' with just that inflection because he seems to think the hell of himself."
The Anglo-Irish became the ruling class in Ireland due to the phenomenon of the Protestant Ascendancy, which saw one class controlling almost all political power in Ireland for several hundred years. Members of the Anglo-Irish class were granted huge areas of land by the British Crown and quickly became leaders in the economic, as well as political, life of Ireland. The Big Houses that this class built served to demonstrate their power and "were meant to inspire awe among equals and deference in the lower classes." As such, the houses were signifiers demonstrating the elitist social status of the landed class. The Big House was the nucleus of the larger estate, commonly referred to as the demesne, and served key functions within many Irish communities. The lord of the demesne not only controlled the lands of the community but also often exerted much political influence over it. From the 17th century, it was common for the sons of the Anglo-Irish landowners to enter politics through election to the Irish House of Commons, thus increasing the level of political control over Ireland by these elite families, many of whom had seats in the Irish House of Lords. Despite being so influential over the community in which they existed, Big Houses often had little invested in them apart from the collection of rents. The demesne was designed to provide enough food to sustain the Big House and its inhabitants, as well as provide a profit. This granted it a level of autonomy that made it increasingly independent and cut off from the community.
From the mid-1700s, the Irish nationalist movement encouraged the native Roman Catholic Irish to view the Big House and its inhabitants as being isolated from the surrounding Irish landscape. This was often the case, as the divide between the Anglo-Irish and their community was felt not only geographically but also socially. The gap between the landed families and the tenanted widened in the wake of little serious interaction between the two. The Anglo-Irish occupied a social space where they were in Ireland yet not fully Irish, and English in manner and origin yet far removed from life in England. The social and economical disparity between the Anglo-Irish and local population they were governing was, for many, epitosmised by the Big House.
The Anglo-Irish elite went to great lengths in the process of designing their homes, as well as furnishing them. They almost exclusively looked to Great Britain and the continent for style and design, claiming to "bring culture back to the Irish homes" and emphasising their separation from the culture and tastes of the native Irish. Many of the Big Houses are known today for their immense architectural value, with some acting as the only surviving work of famous Irish and European architects. Regency style became the fashionable mode of architecture for an elite home in the mid to late nineteenth century Ireland. Features of regency design include the renowned Scagliola columns of Italian influence, made of imported stone, as well as French style plaster and painted ceilings. The objects within the house were also decidedly foreign and could range from collections of valuable Flemish paintings from the Northern Renaissance all the way to the installation of Lusterweiblen, Austrian light fixtures made of antlers and carved wood. The procuring of these items was often a considerable task and served to emphasise the purchasing power of the elite and their ability to live in decadence.
The Big House had extensive parts of it devoted to leisure and entertainment, included ballrooms, drawing rooms and parlours, as well as the outside grounds of the demesne that allowed for hunting or playing fashionable sports, like cricket. Much time was devoted to these spaces as the elite had the means to pursue leisure extensively. Photography became a major leisure activity among the Anglo-Irish in the late 19th century, and photographs today serve as one of the principle references for historians of the Anglo-Irish big house.
Similarly to photography, the ability to read and write so extensively was also a sign of privilege. Maria Edgeworth is one if the earlier Anglo-Irish Big House writers who wrote somewhat comically about the demise of estates thought the mishandling of the often absent family members. Much of her fiction is said to mirror that of her own life and family. The fact that she was a nineteenth century female writer emphasises her status as a woman of privilege. Another later and quite influential Big House writer is Elizabeth Bowen who wrote extensively on the precarious position of the elite as the power they had held for generations was retracted from them piece by piece over the period of great social and political change where Catholics were no longer denied power and land agitation and nationalism were growing. Her writings chronicle the decline of the Big House as experienced from within.