by Terence Dooley
One hundred years ago, in the Spring of 1920, Irish country houses came under unprecedented attack as revolutionary and agrarian conflict swept across the country. Approximately 300 Big Houses were burned. This is the first in a number of short case studies that will be posted between now and the end of the decade of centenaries, which will examine various aspects of this phenomenon.
Castleshane House, in north County Monaghan, was a neo-Elizabethan extravaganza, built for the Lucas Scudamore family in 1836, to replace an original late-sixteenth castle.
The house was burned in the early hours of the morning of 15 February 1920. It is an unusual case as there is some controversy over whether it was an accident or malicious.
The house commanded a strategic position between Castleblayney and Monaghan town. At the time there was a good deal of IRA activity in the area; just a few days before a notice had been posted locally that ‘anyone helping to fill in the trenches would be shot by order of the IRA.’ There also was a local rumour that the house was to be commandeered by the crown forces and used as a billet, which would have made it a legitimate target in the eyes of the local IRA. However, houses used as billets were usually derelict, whereas Castleshane was still very much occupied by the family. Thus, the other possibility that the fire was not malicious, but instead caused by a cinder falling onto the unprotected carpet in the dining room, has also been given credence.
There were compensation considerations. If it was an accident, compensation could be claimed through the family’s insurance policy. If it was malicious, compensation would have to be sought under the existing Compensation for Damages to Property Act (1898), raised on the county at large, and determined by the county council, which, of course, was dominated by Catholic nationalists.
Lady Sybil Lucas Scudamore, a widow, and her eight female servants escaped safely. The steward, George Morgan organised the estate workers, and with the help of farm neighbours, attempted to quench the dining room blaze with a hose. They were ‘finally driven from the door of the room by the intense heat and smoke fumes.’
When it was realised that their efforts were futile, the men began to salvage as much of the valuable contents as they could. The family silver, some furniture, and valuable china was saved. Amongst the treasures lost were an important collection of paintings and prints, the family portraits, Lady Sybil’s personal jewellery, an incunabulum, a James I bible, copies of the Nuremberg Chronicles, and tragically, from the historian’s perspective, the correspondence between Robert Peel, chief secretary of Ireland, and Edward Lucas, his under-secretary, covering the period 1841-46, which included important Famine material.
On the following day, crowds of townspeople from nearby Monaghan walked out to witness the destruction. The local newspaper reported that ‘The beautiful lawns around the house were sadly tramped and mutilated by the feet of men and wheels of carts brought to bring the salvaged furniture to a place of safety.’ Over time, shrubs were uprooted and looted, demesne gates stolen, and the wall broken down and the stones used by local farmers for their own purposes.
The county gentry wrote in sympathy to Sybil. Miss Murray-Ker of Newbliss House said that she was ‘just heart sorry’ to hear the news. Lady Dartrey felt ‘absolutely ill to hear of the terrible calamity’. The wider Protestant community also sympathised: the Monaghan War Pensions Committee lamented that such a tragedy should befall ‘a lady who has always manifested a remarkable interest in the welfare of the people in general, and of the soldiers in particular.’ There is no evidence of any declarations of sympathy coming from nationalist Monaghan.
The burning of a country house meant the destruction of a family home and all that was precious to a family. The children were all greatly saddened by the loss of the only surviving portrait of their father. Jack was also ‘sick about the library going’ and the loss of his gramophone and record collection. Gill was even more distraught: ‘I can’t believe it…. it seems everything we love goes…. is everything we love gone forever. I did so love Castleshane, I don’t seem to think we have any real “home” any more.’ She poignantly captured the mood of a post-First World War generation: ‘What a perfectly beastly world this is. Whenever we try to be happy something seems to spoil it all…. I don’t feel as though I ever want to do anything ever anymore.’
And, of course, the loss of the archive also meant the destruction of a family’s history and the history of a whole community.
Lady Sybil migrated to her family ancestral home at Kentchurch Court in Wales, never to return to Castleshane. Her departure had several consequences. The house staff (at least eight maids) and most of the demesne labourers were made redundant, with obvious financial repercussions for a number of families, and the local economy including the post office, and the small village shops. One employee, Poppy Geddes, lamented that ‘this neighbourhood cannot be the same again without Castleshane.’
There were two wings of the house that survived in a reasonable state. However, now that the house was abandoned it was taken over by an anti-Treatyite flying column at the beginning of the Civil War in May 1922. Further damage was inevitable. In January 1924 it was reported that a miniature distillery was operating out of the ruins. The following month the newly-established Garda Siochána raided the yards again and this time found a dance in progress. In the emerging Ireland, the ruins of a Big House were now providing a playground for a class that in the past would not have been allowed inside the demesne gates. One of the demesne fields was being used by the local GAA club, much to the disgust of former unionist employees.
The hunger for land that characterised the period meant that the untenanted and demesne lands were much coveted. In 1922, Lady Sybil took the decision to sell the untenanted lands. In 1932, the demesne was compulsorily acquired by the Irish Land Commission for £3,715 payable in 4.5 per cent land bonds. This was less than ten years after the Free State government had given itself the power to compulsorily acquire and redistribute lands for the relief of local congestion under the 1923 Land Act.
The Land Commission planted the demesne with pine trees. The house was simply allowed to deteriorate further to become a ghostly reminder of another era. In 1961, Sir Shane Leslie of nearby Glaslough House (now Castle Leslie) wrote to Jack Lucas Scudamore: ‘Castleshane is like a Norwegian pine forest.’ The following year he sent Jack a photo of his own mother, Leonie Leslie, ‘carousing with the duke of Connaught’, and summed up the decline of the Big House in Monaghan in his own idiosyncratic way: ‘The county Monaghan gentry were grand in those days entertaining royalty! Today they couldn’t even get Lord Snowdon to take tea with them.’
Further reading: Terence Dooley, The Irish Revolution, 1912-23: Monaghan (Dublin, 2017) ISBN: 978-1-84682-616-0