The Land Hunger Behind the Destruction of Ireland’s ‘Big Houses’


A ‘land hunger’ among Ireland’s landless, poverty-stricken populace played a crucial role in the destruction of many of the country’s ‘big houses’, owned by the former Irish aristocracy, during both the War of Independence and the Civil War, a new book argues .

Aynooth University historian Professor Terence Dooley has estimated that between 1920 and 1923 76 mansions were burned, while twice that many were destroyed during the Civil War.

His new book Burning of the big house sheds light on the complex motivations behind the burns. It was not only military or political intentions that led to their destruction – local problems also played a role.

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

It is widely agreed that there were various motives behind the destruction of the “Big Houses”.

Motives such as the use of the buildings by Crown forces, the loyalty of their owners, or counter-reprisals for Black and Tan and Auxiliary actions, or a combination of all of these have been cited most frequently.

In his detailed examination of the subject, however, Dooley delves deeper into a more sinister and controversial subject, namely: local land movements.

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

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

“Land redistribution simultaneously promised farm viability, access to land for the landless and farm laborers, revenge against colonial usurpers or ranchers, and hope for a better way of life without having to leave Ireland,” says Dooley.

The burning of the great houses, apparently driven by the national struggle, may have also served local interests.

As Easter week begins, Dooley’s book will again raise the question of how we mark the more difficult and contentious 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 The Land Hunger Behind the Destruction of Ireland’s ‘Big Houses’

Fry Electronics Team

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