In Review

Burning the Big House: an ‘impeccably researched’ book

Terence Dooley explores the history of Irish country houses in the early 20th century

In this thoughtful, “impeccably researched” book, Terence Dooley narrates the “tumultuous history” of Irish country houses in the early 20th century, said Gareth Russell in The Times. During the War of Independence (1919-21) and the civil war that followed it, the IRA burned down some 300 of the country’s biggest houses – a fifth of the total. Some were buildings of great architectural value – such as the vast Palladian mansion Summerhill House in Meath, known as the “wonder of Ireland” – while others were relatively small.

It’s usually assumed that the IRA targeted the “Big House” because it was a “symbol of foreign oppression and condescension”, said Andrew Gailey in Literary Review. Expelling their Anglo-Irish owners was “an act as much moral as political” that would “herald the birth of the new state”. Yet very often, Dooley contends, the motives for the burnings were less exalted. Many, he shows, were “impromptu responses to Black and Tans atrocities”, while others were driven largely by the “desire to take land”.

The question of land – and who owned it – was of course highly emotive in Ireland, said Adrian Tinniswood in The Daily Telegraph. After the Land War of the late 19th century, pitching tenant farmers against their aristocratic overlords, much of Ireland’s farmland had been redistributed to the former. Yet “vast swathes of untenanted lands” still surrounded most country houses – a red rag to the young and landless IRA volunteers.

His argument will enrage some in Ireland, who prefer to see the IRA as heroic freedom fighters, not “sordid land-grabbers”. But it’s typical of Dooley’s “nuanced” approach that he accepts “the two are not mutually exclusive”. In dismantling “the myths surrounding the burning of the Big House”, he has surely written the “definitive account”.

Yale University Press 368pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

Book cover
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To order this title or any other book in print, visit theweekbookshop.co.uk, or speak to a bookseller on 020-3176 3835. Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30pm and Sunday 10am-4pm.

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