Wexford's War of Independence
Regarded as perhaps one of the most formative and vital periods in Irish History, we are currently in the midst of marking the centenary of the events of the War of Independence (1919-1921).
Local archaeologist Barry Lacey from Ferns has been looking at some of the key events in Co Wexford, in particular ambushes, raids, the burning of police barracks and other activities.
On this occasion, Barry looks at the burning of Ballyrankin House near Bunclody, the first 'big house' in Wexford to be destroyed during the War of Independence. For more stories like this one, visit wexfordwarofindependence.com
Throughout the War of Independence, numerous country mansions across Ireland were destroyed. Generally known locally as 'the big house', they would have been home to the aristocracy and landed gentry. While these buildings often evoke stories of famine and evictions, they form an important part of our heritage, each having a story to tell, which is worth preserving.
Co Wexford saw the destruction of a number of its big houses during the period, the first of which was Ballyrankin House, situated beside the River Slaney, three miles from the market town of Bunclody.
Built around 1840 and associated with the Devereux family, Ballyrankin house was described as a 'fine classical, late-Georgian, two-storey over basement house with three wide bays, and a lower, northern, two bay extension backing onto an enclosed yard'.
In 1912 it came into the possession of Walter Clarmount Skrine of Warleigh Manor, Somerset, husband of the poet Agnes Skrine, aka Marie O'Neill. Their daughter was the famous novelist Molly Keane, whom for a period used the name MJ Farrel. The house was situated a distance back from the Ferns to Clohamon road with two entrances, each having a gate lodge. On the grounds were many beautiful mature trees, a walled garden, stables and other farm outhouses.
Destruction of the house
According to newspaper reports from the time, on Thursday, July 8, 1921, a group of 20 armed and masked men entered the house. They ordered its occupiers into a room where they were kept under guard. Two maids who were also present were ordered to leave. At this point, the smell of petrol began to fill the air as all of the furniture was doused with petrol before being set alight.
Sally Phipps (Molly Keane's daughter) in writing a biography of her mother (Molly Keane: A life) gives an account of that night:
'Molly was in her last days at the French School when Ballyrankin was burned. The insurgents came on a summer night. Her mother told her that the air smelled of clover and smoke. At first Nesta thought they had come to assassinate her English husband and she pleaded for his life.
They were ordered into the study while furniture was piled up in the hall and petrol poured over it. Then they were taken outside by armed men. Walter defended his property so vigorously that one of the raiders said to him, 'please steady yourself, Captain, or we will have to shoot you'.
He replied: 'I would rather be shot in Ireland than live in England,' an answer that was much quoted afterwards. A dry east wind fanned the flames and the house burned fast. Armchairs were politely brought for them to absorb the shock sitting down, but they preferred to lean against the newly made haycocks as they watched their home blaze. The bravado, the courage, the politeness made no difference. A beautiful 18th century house went up in flames.'
Reportedly in attendance that night were the Kilmyshall, Ballycarney and part of the Marshalstown IRA companies. Some of those involved may have been familiar with Ballyrankin, as it was previously raided by the Kilmyshall company in 1919 searching for arms. After the burning of the house that night the Skrines walked the three miles into Bunclody town.
According to contemporary newspaper reports, Walter Skreen applied to the local district council for compensation of £40,000 for the loss of the house, furniture, wearing apparel, jewellery and other contents, together with the contents of the adjoining out offices. The Freemans Journal reports in October of 1921 that he was awarded the lesser sum of £14,250 for the burning of the house and £6000 for contents. No attempt was made to reconstruct Ballyrankin House and Walter and his wife purchased a neighbouring residence, naming it 'New Ballyrankin'.
The ruins of Ballyrankin House still stand to this day. Much of the plaster has fallen from the walls revealing the brick beneath. Fine ornamental work can be seen around the windows and cut stone at the front entrance.
One feature which was noticed upon visiting the house inside was the charred black remains of the timbers protruding from the walls, physical reminders of the destructive fire. Although the house is a ruin what remains is significant enough to give the impression of a what was once a fine mansion.
Reason for its destruction
Activity reports of the North Wexford Brigade IRA state that the burning of Ballyrankin House was done 'as a reprisal for the burning of Doyle's of Cromogue, which occurred shortly after the shooting of the spies, the Skelton Brothers'.
The burning of Doyle's is reported in the Irish Times on February 19, 1921. It tells how two days previously, a group of armed and masked raiders set alight the thatched home of Margaret Doyle, who lived there with her niece who ran an Irish language school from an adjoining building. Both women and three small children were ordered out of the house and it, together with the school and their contents, went up in flames. Cocks of Hay were also set alight. The raiders then proceeded to the neighbouring townland of Cloneybyrne, targeting the residence of a Mrs Murphy. There they broke windows and dragged furniture and other contents of the house outside before setting them alight. A haggard full with hay and straw was also torched.
Although not stated in the papers it is possible the burning of both Doyles and Murphys may have been undertaken by the 'Black and Tans' or people connected to the authorities. Thomas Meagher, who was a member of the North Wexford Flying Column, tells how after an attempted ambush on an enemy supply lorry, himself and other members of the flying column, 'retired to Cromogue and remained there for a few days'. This suggests there was a possible safe house (or houses) in the townland, perhaps Doyles or Murphys. Any such safe house or home lending support to the IRA would have been a target for the British authorities while the burning of an Irish Language school was probably an added bonus also.