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The hunger for land behind the wrecking of Ireland’s ‘Big Houses’

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Land agitation as well as the national struggle sparked such attacks, a new book claims. Pictured, Tyrone House in Galway.

Land agitation as well as the national struggle sparked such attacks, a new book claims. Pictured, Tyrone House in Galway.

Land agitation as well as the national struggle sparked such attacks, a new book claims. Pictured, Tyrone House in Galway.

A ‘hunger for land’ among Ireland’s landless, poverty-stricken population played a vital role in the destruction of many of the country’s ‘Big Houses’ belonging to the former Irish aristocracy during both the War of Independence and Civil War, a new book has argued.

Maynooth University historian Professor Terence Dooley has estimated that 76 mansions were set ablaze between 1920-23 while twice that number were destroyed during the Civil War.

His new book Burning The Big House sheds light on the complex motivations behind the burnings. It was not just military or political intentions that led to their destruction – local issues were also at play.

Many have lamented the loss to Ireland’s architectural heritage of the magnificent buildings, while several of the burnings remain shrouded in controversy to this day.

It is widely agreed that a variety of motivations lay behind the destruction of the ‘Big Houses’.

Motives such as use of the buildings by crown forces, the loyalism of their owners, or counter-reprisals for Black and Tan and Auxiliary actions or a combination of all of these, have been, to date, the most commonly cited.

However, in his detailed study of the topic, Dooley delves deeper into a more murky and controversial motive, namely: local land agitation.

His analysis looks closely at the final years of a host of big houses and Anglo-Irish families and chronicles the upheaval of their world through the trauma of World War I, the political and social revolution of the early 1920s and finally, the loss of their homes and property.

The book also explores the bitterness, resentment and frustration that was rife in poverty-stricken rural Ireland during this period and highlights how ‘land redistribution’ was revived as a ‘political catch-cry’ for revolutionaries, and, for a time, played a role in transforming Sinn Féin into a mass popular movement.

“Land redistribution simultaneously promised farm viability, access to lands for the landless and agricultural labourers, revenge against the colonial usurpers or the graziers, and it held out hope of a better way of life without having to leave Ireland,” Dooley says.

The burning of the big houses that may have appeared to be driven by the national struggle may also have served local interests.

As we head into Easter week, Dooley’s book will again raise the question of how we mark the more difficult and controversial elements of the revolutionary period.

Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution, 1914–23, by Terence Dooley. Yale University Press, €32


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