Review of Burning the Big House

In this thoughtful, “impeccably researched” book, Terence Dooley tells the “tumultuous history” of Irish country houses in the early 20th century, according to Gareth Russell in The times. During the War of Independence (1919-21) and the civil war that followed, the IRA burned down about 300 of the country’s largest houses – a fifth of the total. Some were buildings of great architectural merit – like the vast Palladian mansion Summerhill House in Meath, known as the ‘Wonder of Ireland’ – while others were relatively small.

It is commonly believed that the IRA targeted the “Big House” because it was a “symbol of foreign oppression and condescension,” Andrew Gailey said in Literary review. The expulsion of their Anglo-Irish owners was “as much a moral as a political act” which would “herald the birth of the new state”. But very often, Dooley claims, the motives behind the burns were less lofty. Many, he shows, were “spontaneous reactions to the atrocities committed by the black and tans,” while others were largely driven by a “desire to conquer land.”

The question of land – and who owned it – was of course very emotional in Ireland, said Adrian Tinniswood in The Daily Telegraph. Much of Ireland’s farmland had been redistributed to the former following the Land War of the late 19th century, which saw tenant farmers pitted against their aristocratic overlords. Yet “large tracts of uninhabited land” still surrounded most cottages – a red rag for the young and landless IRA volunteers.

His argument will anger some in Ireland who prefer to see the IRA as heroic freedom fighters rather than “dirty land grabbers”. But typical of Dooley’s “nuanced” approach, he accepts “that the two are not mutually exclusive.” By dismantling “the myths surrounding the Great House fire,” he certainly wrote the “final balance sheet.”

Yale University Press 368 pages £25; The bookstore of the week £19.99

book cover

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