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Burning the bastards out

The destruction of country houses in the Irish revolution can be seen as the last stage of a long Land War.

By Roy Foster

“The roads in unnatural dusk ran dark with movement, secretive or terrified; not a tree, brushed pale by wind from the flames, not a cabin pressed in despair to the bosom of the night, not a gate too starkly visible but had its place in the design of order and panic. At Danielstown, halfway up the avenue under the beeches, the thin iron gate twanged (missed its latch, remained swinging aghast) as the last unlit car slid out with the executioners bland from accomplished duty. The sound of the last car widened, gave itself to the open and empty country and was demolished. Then the first wave of a silence that was to be ultimate flowed back, confident, to the steps. Above the steps, the door stood open hospitably upon a furnace.”

The supercharged conclusion of Elizabeth Bowen’s quintessential 1929 novel about the Irish revolution, The Last September, describes the IRA’s burning of an Ascendancy house, modelled on her own family pile in Co Cork, the part of Ireland that saw more of these conflagrations than anywhere else. Given the history of conquest and expropriation from the 17th century (and earlier), the resentment that lay behind the arson seems obvious. As Bowen also wrote, “My family got their position and drew their power from a situation that shows an inherent wrong… Having gained this position through an injustice, they enjoyed their position through privilege.” More immediately, Big Houses were formally targeted because of their owners’ identification with the British Crown.

The achievement of both Terence Dooley’s magisterial new study and Robert O’Byrne’s evocative collection of case histories is to suggest a much more complex web of motivations for house-burning, particularly that of longstanding agrarian agitation and land hunger. Dooley not only provides a comprehensive history of the end of the Ascendancy families, mostly Protestant, who had once dominated rural Ireland from behind their estate walls; he arrestingly suggests that the “Troubles” of 1919-23 might be seen not only as a guerrilla war against British rule, but as the last stages of the Land War – in which rural populations mobilised to secure land reform – that began in 1879. O’Byrne profiles ten families and their lost mansions to show the tangled roots and relationships before the descent of what Bowen called the “ultimate silence”.

Dooley, the doyen of the history of Irish country houses and founder of a dynamic institute devoted to their study, conveys the drama and trauma of the times with Bowenesque vividness. The odd collusion between landlords and dependants, nostalgically evoked by the fiction of Somerville and Ross, had radically broken down. Both Dooley and O’Byrne record some memories of IRA Volunteers apologetically helping the owners pile valuables on the front lawn before dousing floors and staircases with petrol and throwing in a match – or, in the case of Glin Castle, backing off when the owner climbed onto the prepared bonfire in his hallway and invited the intruders to burn him too. However, the accounts which reflect a violent lack of deference carry more conviction. When the men who torched Mitchelstown Castle urinated against panelled walls hung with tapestries, a snobbish neighbour put it down to their having no use for lavatories; this entirely missed the point.

Burning an aristocratic house, as it had been in France or Russia before, was a revolutionary act, but Dooley’s research shows that it represented more than simply historical resentment. With forensic detail he investigates longstanding links to campaigns to acquire the land still attached to a Big House. Though many large estates had been dispersed to the occupying tenantry by a series of radical land purchase acts introduced by the British government from 1881 to 1909, the remaining demesne (surrounding land) around a Big House could run from a few hundred to a couple of thousand acres, with ample potential for redistribution to land-hungry locals. Using a profoundly impressive range of sources and reconstructing some fascinating case-studies, Dooley shows that this was in many cases a conscious motivation behind the burning of a mansion and analyses the manipulation of official compensation procedures and buy-outs that succeeded the event. “Thus the aristocracy’s revolutionary experience lasted from 1879 to well beyond 1923, but this rarely features in the historiography.”

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[See also: Nietzsche before the breakdown]

This conclusion questions the assumption that the Irish Troubles constituted a political but not a social revolution, controlled by “the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through successful revolution”, as Kevin O’Higgins, a minister in the Irish government between 1922 and 1927, famously boasted. Certainly the politicians who took over in 1922 tried to restrain land grabbing, and feared rural anarchy, but Dooley shows that there was also a good deal of connivance at more genteel methods of expropriation, and an impressive amount of looting (O’Higgins described farmhouses so crammed with pilfered treasures that they resembled Tutankhamun’s tomb). This, like the reassignment of landholdings to local clients, remains a delicate question; one of the obstacles to research like Dooley’s is the obdurate secrecy of Land Commission records, for reasons of “sensitivity”. He also quotes several instances where recent research into the destruction of an Ascendancy mansion has provoked furious reactions from local opinion still simmering with historical resentment – or bad conscience. “We burned the bastards out,” one descendant gleefully told him.

They certainly did, but O’Byrne’s book shows the varied origins of the “bastards”. He explores the records of families such as the Catholic-Unionist Morris clan, one of the ancient Galway “tribes”, whose concrete-built Spiddal House – an “unlikely but successful synthesis of Hiberno-Romanesque and Byzantine” – went up in flames. He reminds us that not all Ascendancy families were descendants of Elizabethan conquerors; the Talbot-Crosbies of Ardfert, Co Kerry and the Keanes of Cappoquin, Co Waterford, descended from old Gaelic families who had made terms with the new dispensation. They were targeted nonetheless, and so were those who identified with the new Irish Free State, created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. During the Civil War of 1922-23 – fought between the pro-treaty provisional government and the anti-treaty IRA – the houses of several senators, like Sir John Keane, were added to the roster: Lord Mayo’s Palmerstown, John Bagwell’s Marlfield, Thomas Esmonde’s Ballynastragh (despite the family’s long association with the Repeal and Home Rule movements, and the house’s great library of nationalist archives, which were burnt to cinders). Many families decamped, but a sense of divided identity remained. The Cuffe family of burned-out Desart Court, Gaelic Revivalists and noted local philanthropists (Lady Desart came from the Bischoffsheim banking family), transplanted themselves to Sussex; Desart’s daughter noted “a look of great weariness and deep indifference” on her father’s face when they tried to interest him in their new home. Struggling with armed arsonists who threatened to shoot him before they burned his house, Captain Skrine (father of the novelist Molly Keane) shouted, “I’d rather be shot in Ireland than live in England.”

Nearly 300 houses were burnt in 1920-23, leaving Ozymandias-like ruins of Palladian masterpieces such as Summerhill, Co Meath, and Castleboro, Co Wexford. The compensation awarded was generally a small proportion of the amount claimed (both these books make illuminating use of the claims records submitted to British and Irish government departments), and very little rebuilding took place. Dooley records how in some cases the fabric of destroyed houses was refashioned into a new church or power station, but mostly the blackened walls remained as ghostly remnants. A rare exception was Keane’s Cappoquin House, painstakingly rebuilt. Keane and his family were committed to staying in Ireland and accepting the new order, but many others left for Britain or farther afield. Compared to the eradication of the ancien régime by revolutionaries in contemporary eastern Europe, it was a mild enough expulsion. For this, the Irish gentry probably had to thank the more gradual form of expropriation and compensation accomplished by the Land Acts over the previous forty years. But both these impressive books complicate the narrative of the long Irish revolution and its often paradoxical outcome, providing an arresting new perspective on a class and culture at the point of its extinction.

Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution 
Terence Dooley 
Yale University Press, 368pp, £25

Left Without a Handkerchief
Robert O’Byrne
Lilliput Press, 224pp, £16

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[See also: A creed for the anthropocene]

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine