'[V]ile murders being committed all over this wretched little country with apparent impunity & everybody more or less up in arms about everything – I rather wish we could go & settle for the rest of our days in California & never set foot in Ireland again – life has become so utterly futile and hopeless & generally disgusting here [...] Fancy this being Ascot week! & Oh the merry days that we used to have there 100 years ago when all the world was young [...] I think the longer one lives the less one likes living.'

This undated letter to her long-term American correspondent succeeded in capturing some of the sense of loss felt by Lady Castletown in the immediate post-revolutionary years. When she married Lord Castletown in 1874 they became one of the premier couples in Ireland. The Castletowns had property in counties Laois (Granston Manor), Cork (Doneraile) and Waterford (Tramore) and a fashionable house in London. The expected rental on their 51,843-acre estate was £30,758 (Bateman, 1878).

Image - Lord and Lady Castletown. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Lord and Lady Castletown. Image courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Two hundred people

According to Fergus Campbell, there were only two-hundred people with estates with a rental over £10,000 in Ireland in 1878. The illustrated address and expensive jewellery presented to Lady Castletown on the occasion of her marriage from her father's tenantry was an example of a long tradition of paternalism and fealty (outward at least) on these estates. The decline of the Big House in Ireland, and the ascendancy class who owned them, can be mapped over the lifetime of this marriage.

While threats and violence had been directed towards landlords during the Land War (including her father, Viscount Doneraile), it was during the revolution that the real shift took place. The Castletowns were not burned out, but as can be seen from her letter, the violence took a toll on her sense of position.

What was a 'Big House'?

A 'Big House' was tied to an estate with an annual rental or land value of over £500, where at least some of that estate was rented to tenants. At the bottom end of the scale, therefore, a house might be only slightly elevated above the homes of the increasing number of prosperous farmers who had purchased land through a series of Land Acts, most especially the Wyndham Land Act (1903).

The most comprehensive, but not exhaustive count to date, by Terence Dooley, has found that nearly 300 Big Houses were burned in the twenty-six counties during the revolutionary period (75) and the Civil War (200).

Olwen Purdue noticed that houses in the north-east of Ulster enjoyed relative safety as, owing to the prevalence of unionism, there was a different relationship between landlords and tenants there. Some counties, like Galway and Offaly, did not see any burnings before the Civil War.

County Cork was the country's tinderbox with about one-third of the total number of burnings; retaliation in part for the campaign of official reprisals by the Crown forces which culminated in the destruction of much of Cork city in December 1920.

This map shows the extent of the Big House burnings during the War of Independence. A third of the total number of burnings took place in Cork. Map courtesy of the Atlas of the Irish Revolution.

Image -

Why were more houses not burned out?

Terence Dooley, the leading historian of the Big House, posed the question, not why individual houses were burned, but why were about ninety per cent of these symbols of landlordism and inequality left standing?

There were many, often overlapping, reasons to burn houses down: they were symbols of a hated system of landownership; they might be occupied by sworn enemies of the republican cause or symbolically important as the homes of members of the British army or representatives of the state; there might be the anticipation of personal gain from the attack of the attached land, or folk-memory of landlord indifference or hardness during the Famine years, not to mention the military importance of a large stone building (which might be used as a garrison or billet) in areas where they were few and far between.

Many of these reasons were interrogated by Dooley, Donnelly Jr. and Hanley, and their work demonstrates the difficulty of deciphering one single reason for many burnings.

Ruins of Tyrone House, Kilcolgan, Co. Galway. It was burned by the IRA during the War of Independence on the suspicion that Crown forces would be billeted there. Palladian in design and dominating the surrounding landscape, it was built by Christopher French St George in 1779.

By the 1870s the St George family owned over 15,500 acres in Co. Galway. Tyrone House was unoccupied at the time it was burned as the St George family had left in 1905. The house reportedly inspired Edith Somerville's novel The Big House of Inver, published in 1925. Photo: Frank Coyne

Image -

The burning of Castle Bernard

The burning of Castle Bernard in June 1921, the home of the Earl of Bandon and his wife Georgiana (who were close friends of the Castletowns) was personal. The owner, rather than the building, was the primary target. Lord Bandon was president of the Cork city and county branch of the Irish Unionist Alliance.

According to Donnelly Jr., 'his eminence gave him the potential to be the ideal hostage against the execution of any more IRA prisoners'. The fire was a 'spur of the moment' decision, as initially the nine-man band could not find the owners in the sprawling house and so decided to burn it down. Eventually they found the Earl and kidnapped him.

This particular burning/kidnapping appears to have sent shockwaves through the County Cork ascendancy. The news was recorded with anger in the diary of Stephen Grehan, a Catholic landlord based on Cork. Grehan soon received threatening notices too, not for his own relatively modest house, but because of his friendship with William Leader, whose nearby property of Dromagh Castle was burned on 10th of March 1921.

Image - The ruins of Castle Bernard, burned in June 1921

The ruins of Castle Bernard, burned in June 1921


Leader was the subject of an extended campaign of intimidation, partly inspired by agricultural avarice, rather than strictly military concerns. An anonymous note given to Grehan, and kept in his diary which is preserved in the Boole Archives in UCC, showed that the campaign against Leader extended beyond burning his property to attempting to isolate him from his support network:


The burning of Macroom Castle

Macroom Castle, on the other hand, was primarily burned for military purposes in 1922. It was owned by Lady Ardilaun (as tenant for life), who was a daughter of the Earl of Bantry. Two decades later, Olivia's cousin, Katherine Everett, explained the importance of the castle:

When people have been born and have grown up in a house on their own land, where their forebears have lived and died for generations, they may feel not only love for it, but a bond which ties them to every stone and tree and sod of the place.

It was seized by the British army and housed Auxiliaries in 1921, before being taken over by the Irish Republican Army. It was then held by Anti-Treatyites during the Civil War, but losing ground, they burned it to the ground. The Irish Times reported that as they left, they destroyed the town hose to prevent any efforts to salvage the castle by townspeople, if any effort would have been made.

Ardilaun's bitterness at the burning of Macroom Castle was recorded in her will. The loss was a blow to Lady Ardilaun, but it did not make her homeless (unlike those families who were burned out by official reprisals). It was just one of several Ardilaun properties, and the only one burned.

Ardilaun made it clear that there was no intention to rebuild the house as it had already been the site of much violence (executions had taken place from the castle). She reduced her original compensation claim of £30,000 to £5,630, but she was awarded only £4,700.

Image - The ruins of Macroom Castle in County Cork, in an image taken on May 23rd 1935 (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

The ruins of Macroom Castle in County Cork, in an image taken on May 23rd 1935 (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)


Other families did not have the luxury of so many properties. The burning of their house, and the difficulties in securing adequate compensation, meant that the money provided could not rebuild a house of the same size, and certainly not replace the centuries' worth of contents contained within.

Some rebuilt more modest and modern houses which were fitting to their position in the new State. For many, it was the final push to cement a decision to leave Ireland altogether for an existing property in Britain, or a new London suburb.

The 275 houses burned were not the only worthy military targets in the country, or the only houses that were home to those who inspired animosity (Leader had another house which was left standing). Memoirs and recent studies reveal apocryphal reasons why certain houses survived. Lady Fingall believed that it was a pure fluke that her home in Meath, Dunsaney, survived.

Philip Bull has found that Monksgrange in Wexford survived because the heir, who had served in the British army, moved to England for the duration, making his service easier to overlook when choosing a local target. His parents and sister were raided in search of fuel and arms instead.

Lord Castletown, in his 1923 memoir Ego, recalled how he was held up and robbed by Republicans while driving near Doneraile. An IRA man also came to Granston to commandeer guns and was invited 'to take a hand at bridge'. Many members of the ascendancy commented on the manners and behaviour of raiders to their home, displaying a sense of class superiority even in the face of shifting power structures.

Surviving the revolution

Unlike their friends the Bandons, the Castletowns' houses survived both the War of Independence and the Civil War, despite being large houses that were home to a retired army officer (but also a friend of Douglas Hyde), a knight of the Order of St Patrick, and landlords who were not always resident. Their houses were of the ninety per cent left standing.

Still, when one thinks how small in number, and how closely connected by marriage, friendship and outlook this class was, it is easy to see how traumatic an attack on any one member might be, and how some might be tempted to 'never set foot in Ireland again'.

This article is part of the War of Independence project coordinated by UCC and based on The Atlas of the Irish Revolution edited by John Crowley, Donal Ó Drisceoil and Mike Murphy and John Borgonovo. Its contents do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.