An Cosantóir

June 2022

An Cosantóir the official magazine of the Irish Defence Forces and Reserve Defence Forces.

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31 BOOKS In "The Big House of Ross-Drishane," written by Thomas Flanaghan in 1966, he spoke of how the Great House or Manor House was simply known as the Big House and how it encapsulated a wealth of cultural history, and of the relationships of social classes over the course of several centuries. He reminisced how Roxborough, the family house of that great muse of the Irish literary revival, Lady Gregory, was burned during the Civil War and how nothing remains, save the sombre view foretold in a W.B. Yeats poem of "nettles waving upon a shapeless mound and saplings rooting amongst the broken stone." Publication of the "The Burning of the Big House," by Professor Terence Dooley of Maynooth University, is particularly timely, given the series of celebrations, often contentious, coalescing around the centenary of the Irish War of Independence period and subsequent Civil War, and within which the fate of the Big House was to be determined. In this engrossing, rigorously researched, yet accessible work, Dooley has put in context the fate of the Big House, many of which were destroyed amidst the crucible of violence and counter-violence perpetrated by all sides during the revolutionary period. Dooley fulfils the role of narrator, whereby "If the walls could speak" we are brought back in time to the daily lives of these beautifully designed and constructed houses that were architectural gems in themselves, on a par with the Great Houses that have been built in England. These houses were intimately intertwined with the course of Irish history, built by the Ascendancy Class during a time of disturbances, land acts and strained loyalties. The author writes how the majority of Protestant households tended to hire solely Protestant staff, which meant that for the local Catholic population, they remained a place apart and in a sense, an alien entity whereby local people had little or no contact with the owners. Dooley argues that with the advent of the Land League in the 1880's, any bond that might have existed Provided by Dr Rory Finegan Burning the Big House: The Story of the Irish Country House in a Time of War and Revolution. Author: Terence Dooley Publisher: Yale University Press (2022) ISBN: 978-0-300-26074-8 Pages: 350 Price: $35 BOOKS was made even more tenuous. Equally important to understand, was that the series of Land Acts introduced by successive British and Irish governments that effectively unwound the Cromwellian Settlement, meant that without the vast acreage and associated income, many of the Big Houses would become financially untenable, irrespective of the burning of some 300 of these houses during the period of unrest, witnessed during the Revolutionary epoch. Some of these houses were architectural gems. Summerhill House in County Meath was known as the Versailles of Ireland, and Mitchelstown Castle was considered perhaps the finest house on the Island in both scale and design. Mitchelstown Castle had at least 60 principal and 20 minor rooms and where the entrance hall then swept into a 100ft gallery. Hence these houses which fell before the fire and storm of revolution, bared witness to the passing of a multi- generational social order, the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. Dooley has also exposed how the burning of the Big Houses during the revolutionary years was not always as straightforward as it might appear, and while ostensibly many of the burnings were associated with political upheaval, many of them equally coalesced around local agrarian disputes. There were mirrored in long standing local enmities and often petty hatreds, where the mantle of republicanism was a convenient cloak for many arsonists. After the creation of the Free State, the indifference of the Land Commission associated with exorbitant and illogical rates in the longer term, did even more damage to these houses than the deliberate burnings that were perpetrated. Bereft of income, many of the owners were forced to pull down the rooves of the house into irrevocable ruin and decay to avoid paying unsustainable penerous rates. This epoch in our cultural and architectural history, that was brought to life in the enormously popular works of Sommerville and Ross, such "The World of the Irish RM," which juxtaposed the comic and the serious, capturing the dialect of the servants who ministered in the vast drafty houses of their 'betters', is now consigned to the shadows of history.

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