Last weekend marked the centenary of the final burning of a big house in County Kerry during the War of Independence/Civil War period, the property in question being Ballycarty, which lay to the south-west of Tralee and had been occupied by the Nash family since the third quarter of the 18th century. In total, 15 such houses in the county were destroyed during the period 1920-23, a list of these appearing in the recently published The Big House in Kerry: A Social History edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe. Amid the 18 properties examined in individual chapters by different authors, four of them are among those lost at the time: Kilmorna (burnt April 1921 and its occupant Sir Arthur Vicars killed), Ballyheigue Castle (burnt May 1921, see Particularly Commodious « The Irish Aesthete), Ardfert Abbey (burnt August 1922) and Derryquin (burnt August 1922).
In a fascinating chapter at the start of The Big House in Kerry, historian John Knightly looks at ‘The Destruction of the Big House in Kerry 1920-23’ and the various reasons for these properties being burnt. He proposes that the destruction of two houses was due to suspicions that they might be used by British forces, seven were burnt as a result of land agitation, and six the consequence of looting. It is clear that in the aftermath of the First World War and the economic depression that followed, a large number of agricultural workers found themselves in dire circumstances, leading to agrarian unrest. Initially much of this took place in north Kerry with attacks made on large farms, popularly known as ‘ranches.’ The persons involved sought for these land holdings to be broken up and divided into small parcels for distribution among the local populace. By this time, taking advantage of schemes such as the 1903 Wyndham Act, many estate owners had sold the greater part of their land and only held onto the immediate demesne. Some owners, in the face of threatened or actual attacks on their property, sought to sell up and leave, although given the real or incipient violence, purchasers were not easy to find. A number of owners simply decided to leave. In north Kerry, Rose Trent-Stoughton, last owner of Ballyhorgan, who had already sold much of the estate under the terms of the Wyndham Act, organised for the house’s contents to be auctioned in April 1919. Since she, by then an elderly woman, was living in England, the building was vulnerable to theft: in March 1920 two men were charged at Listowel District Court for removing boards, door frames and a gate from Ballyhorgan. Two months later, the house, dating from the 1750s, was set alight and left a shell: the first of such arson attacks in Kerry. The remains were later demolished and nothing now remains. Glenbeigh Castle, otherwise known as Winn Towers, was next: like Ballyhorgan, it was unoccupied but in this case rumours had spread that the building was due to be taken over by a British regiment. Having stood empty for some time, the castle, designed by Edward Godwin in the 1860s, did not burn easily. The leader of those responsible for its destruction later wrote ‘after sprinkling twelve tins of petrol over the floors, it refused to light, and at dawn I was faced with a problem. It was damp, old and much of it stonework. I noted a lot of shrub nearby, and sent the men to collect and fill up one room with it…’ And so it went on, often in waves, with a series of attacks in spring 1920, another during the same period the following year, a third in summer/autumn 1922 and then, closing the sequence, Ballycarty in January 1923.
It is important to note that while their destruction should be lamented, only 15 Kerry country houses were burnt in the years 1920-23. In another, introductory chapter, John Knightly observes that at the start of the last century there were some 115 properties in the county. These varied in size and age, and the amount of land holdings differed considerably. Three families – the Petty-FitzMaurices, Brownes and de Moleyns – owned estates running to almost 100,000 each, but others might have a few hundred acres. Inevitably, most of them were members of the Church of Ireland but a few, not least the Earl of Kenmare, were Roman Catholic: interestingly in 1913/14 the local president of the Irish Unionist Alliance – formed to oppose home rule – was the aforementioned Lord Kenmare. Knightly estimates that out of a county population of 160,000 in 1911, perhaps between 700 and 1,000 were members of this landed elite. The situation soon began to change, the burnings of 1920-23 being just one factor in this transformation. As Knighty comments, ‘Ultimately, the Land Commission and the Irish State were responsible for more big houses than the War of Independence and Civil War combined. The process begun in 1879 at the start of the Land War was thus completed over 100 years later. High taxes, high rates and falling incomes did the rest.’ Typical in this respect is Flesk Castle, abandoned in the 1940s (although now happily being brought back to use). Knightly notes that today only four Kerry houses remain in the hands of the family responsible for their construction. But others happily survive, such as Beaufort (subject of a chapter by Donald Cameron), a picture of which can be seen below.
The Big House in Kerry: A Social History, edited by Jane O’Hea O’Keeffe is published by Irish Life and Lore (€39.00)