Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution by Terence Dooley

In the summer of 1922 Colonel Buckley’s dinner was interrupted by an armed contingent of local IRA members. He left his meal in the dining room as they escorted him outside, where he recognized a few of his tenants’ sons among the hostile group of visitors.

“You’ve got your Rosary?” one of them asked, before reminding himself that the colonel, like his ancestors, was a Protestant. “Come on, now, to the top of the hill.”

The colonel asked if he could retrieve a hat to wear to his execution, then followed them up to a hill that overlooked his estate. A captor stood next to him to ask: “Who does that demesne belong to, Colonel Buckley?”

“It belongs to me.”

“Oh, it does?” the young man responded. “Well, now, take a good look at me while you can. That demesne belonged to me before you came over with Cromwell. My name’s MacFerris! Now, down with ye on your knees.”

“You’ve got your Rosary? Come on, now, to the top of the hill.”

There was no separation between the past and the present for these young IRA men. The MacFerrises had held that land until the 1650s when, like thousands of others, they were evicted on Oliver Cromwell’s orders. The Buckleys, who had served in Cromwell’s armies as they slaughtered the royalist garrisons and Catholic civilians at Drogheda and Dundalk, had been rewarded for their loyalty with this confiscated land.

Colonel Buckley did not die that night — as he was about to be shot, the IRA heard the authorities approaching and fled. However, they had already set his Georgian house alight.

Buckley rose from his knees to watch as his home became one of about three hundred Irish “big houses” to burn between 1920 and 1923. Some, such as Summerhill in Co Meath, the 100-room “wonder of Ireland” where Lord Langford had hosted Empress Elisabeth of Austria on hunting visits, were large enough to rival palaces, while others, such as Ballydugan House in Co Galway, were relatively small.

Colonel Buckley rose from his knees to watch as his home became one of about three hundred Irish “big houses” to burn between 1920 and 1923.

Burning the Big House by Terence Dooley is an impeccably researched and thoughtfully argued gallop through “the tumultous history” of Irish country houses from 1914-23, when a fifth of them were burned to the ground. However, it is also the story of the fall of the ascendancy, the Irish landed classes.

Broadly speaking, the consensus among historians is that they were the losers in Ireland’s two revolutions. The first, lasting between 1879 and 1903, was social and economic. The government in London surprised everybody by siding with Irish nationalists to push through land reform. Three quarters of the land held by the aristocracy was transferred to Irish farmers. The second revolution, from 1916 to 1923, was political, establishing southern Irish independence, when the ascendancy were targeted for their British sympathies.

The reason the big houses were set alight is usually explained purely in terms of politics. However, Dooley explains that economic opportunism — the desire to appropriate land — also played a part in the fiery campaign against landowners.

Big houses were burned down because the family were known to be Crown loyalists or because the IRA had received word that British forces were preparing to use the house as a base for local operations, or in retaliation for atrocities by the Black and Tans militia and the British government. For instance, Sir Arthur Vicars was accused by the IRA of being a British spy and shot outside his home, Kilmorna House in Co Kerry, which was then burned down.

And, of course, there was rage too. One threatening letter to a landlord vowed: “No protection will save you from our vengeance. We might also say we hate Protestants as they would grind us and did when they had power. Our day has come.” Charles Phibbs of Doobeg in Sligo was a particularly detested landlord. In 1922 a grave was dug outside his house. The epitaph on its cross read: “Here lies the remains of Charles Phibbs/ who died with a ball of lead in his ribs.” He took the hint and left Ireland.

The reason the big houses were set alight is usually explained purely in terms of politics. But economic opportunism also played a part.

His case backs up Dooley’s thesis: house burning was a chance to seize land. In a country full of propertyless men, it would be “foolish to consider that they did not anticipate reward because in all revolutions, patriotism and the desire to improve one’s position in life are understandably compatible”. The social revolution that started in 1879 was continued by the torching of big houses. Ten years after Phibbs scrammed, the Irish Land Commission redistributed his demesne.

Dooley, a professor of history at Maynooth University, notes that “there are those who are easily offended by any claim that young men joined the IRA for any other reason than to fight for Irish independence”. Which is putting it mildly. The narrative that the violence of 1920 to 1923 was about independence, and nothing else, is particularly beloved of Irish nationalists. When a historian dared to suggest that the burning of Mitchelstown Castle in Co Cork was a cover for the looting of antiquities, one history enthusiast wrote: “How dare he castigate the republicans of that time who sacrificed their lives so we and he could enjoy the freedom we now have?”

As a mildly comic counterpoint to this looting, the Countess of Ossory saw the upheaval as a chance to rid herself of possessions that she had long ceased to cherish. She destroyed a set of wedding china she had always hated, then blamed it on an IRA raid.

Although also pointing to an economic motive, Dooley does not dismiss the idea that politics motivated many of the attacks. By aligning themselves with the Crown, many members of the ascendancy marked themselves as enemies of Irish separatism. His book is commendably fair to those who lived in the big houses of Ireland and those who burned them, chronicling the “bonfire for a generation” lit by nationalist politics, a hunger for land, and the failures of a declining aristocracy.

Gareth Russell is an Irish historian and writer. He is the author of several books, including The Emperors and The Ship of Dreams