The Burning of the Big Houses, Wexford’s Civil War

castleboro
The ruins of Castleboro house

During the Civil war period, seven large estate houses and two gate lodges were destroyed by the anti-Treaty IRA in Co. Wexford. These attacks mirrored the country as a whole, where it is estimated that up to 199 ‘big houses’ were ruined during this fighting[i]. In Wexford, the attacks had their roots in the War of Independence (1919-21), a period when two mansions were also destroyed. These were Ballyrankin House, Kilrush[ii] and Ardmine House, Courtown[iii], both of which were attacked and burned by the IRA in early July 1921.

Wilton castle civil war
Old postcard of showing Wilton castle in its heyday

The subsequent national ceasefire/truce of July 1921 brought a halt to hostilities and no more Co. Wexford estates were attacked until January 1923, when the Civil War was already seven months underway. The impetus for this renewal in burnings was probably an order issued by the anti-Treaty IRA Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch, on the 8th of December 1922. Enraged by the execution of four republican prisoners, Lynch stated that all Free State supporters are traitors and deserve the latter’s stark fate, therefore their houses must be destroyed at once’[iv].

Coolbawn house, Wexford
The ruins of Coolbawn House (photo Mike Searle CC BY-SA 2.0)

Shortly afterwards there was a nationwide upsurge in attacks on the homes of the Protestant and Catholic establishment and this was paralleled in Wexford, where Bellevue was the first ‘big house’ to be destroyed in January 1923. This was followed shortly afterwards by the burning of Castleboro House, Clonroche, Artramon House, Castlebridge and Coolbawn House, Rathnure in February, and Wilton Castle, Bree, Ballynastragh House, Gorey and Upton House, Kilmuckridge in March.

These incidents were invariably carried out by armed and masked men, who used petrol to burn the properties down. In most cases the owners and their families were not at home when the attacks occurred, and instead the houses were being looked after by caretakers.

Bellevue church Ballyhogue
Bellevue church, all that survives of Bellevue House

Underlying land issues may also have played a role in some of these arson attacks. This is suggested by a series of agrarian incidents which occurred on the estates at Artramon, Wilton and Bellevue, which saw farm mangers intimidated[v], livestock stolen[vi] and calls for land redistribution[vii].

In contrast, the burning of Ballynastragh house, appears to have been a more overtly political act. This was the home of Thomas Esmonde, an Irish Senator and the attack followed an anti-Treaty IRA order that explicitly stated: Houses of members of the Free State Senate… will be destroyed[viii]A sectarian element to some of the attacks is also possible, though maybe less likely, especially considering two of the houses burned, Bellevue and Ballynastagh, belonged to Catholics.

28056426_185761742024978_674836993110425981_n
Ballynastragh house before it was destroyed (photo: National Library of Ireland collections)

After the Civil War both Artramon and Ballynstagh houses were rebuilt, while the ruins of Wilton Castle have recently been partially restored. Castlboro and Coolbawn, in contrast, survive as impressive ruins, while Bellevue and Upton House were demolished and are no longer extant.

Castleboro house ruins
Castleboro house

 

[i] Peter Martin, Unionism: The Irish Nobility and the Revolution 1919-23 in The Irish Revolution, Joost Augustein (ed), Palgrave, 2002. p. 157

[ii] The Irish Times, 9th of July 1921, p. 6

[iii] The Irish Times, 21st of July 1921, p. 6

[iv] Liam Lynch IRA General Orders 9/12/22 in Twomey Papers, UCD P67/2  (via “The Burning of the Big Houses Revisited 1920-23.” The Irish Story, 21 May 2016, http://www.theirishstory.com/2015/11/06/the-burning-of-the-big-houses-revisited-1920-23/#_edn12)

[v] The Echo, 13th of January & 3rd of February 1923

[vi] Murphy, W. (2010) ‘Enniscorthy’s Revolution’. In Tobin Colm (ed) Enniscorthy A History, Wexford County Council Library Service, p. 421

[vii] The People, 24th of February 1923, p. 5

[viii] Cormac O’Malley, Anne Dolan (eds) No Surrender Here! The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, p. 533 (via “The Burning of the Big Houses Revisited 1920-23.” The Irish Story, 21 May 2016, http://www.theirishstory.com/2015/11/06/the-burning-of-the-big-houses-revisited-1920-23/#_edn12)

 

 

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