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The period leading up to the First World War was a time of intense Nationalism in all parts of Europe. Smaller nations were beginning to assert their right to freedom against old empires, and the larger and more powerful nations, such as Germany, were beginning to test their new found power. Ireland was a perfect example of this increasing Nationalism with the rise of The Gaelic Athletic Society, the Gaelic League and the National Literary Society of Ireland.[1] From the Rising of 1916 revolutionary violence was endemic in the country until the end of the Civil War on the 24th May 1923.[2]

The loss of life, and damaged inflicted on infrastructure, are costs which are easier to count than the loss of archives and records collected by families and institutions which documented the social and economic history of the country. But it is arguable that these losses are just as important as they give the country its historical identity and allow the country to be governed effectively. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not the landed Anglo-Irish aristocracy constituted an integral part of Irish history and the loss of their papers and archives meant a loss to Ireland as a whole.

There were several sources of valuable historical information lost during this period. The burning of ‘big houses’, the houses of the landed gentry of Ireland who had ruled the country for centuries, resulted in the loss of valuable historical information which was of both local and national importance. These records and archives recorded the social and economic history of a particular locality, the local gentry’s views on topics of national importance and also important historical events which the ancestors of the landlord class may have participated in such as the Napoleonic Wars, the English Civil Wars and others.

One of the first questions that must be asked is why was the I.R.A. so intent on destroying all vestiges of Anglo-Irish rule in the countryside to the point of burning centuries’ worth of irreplaceable historical documents? The answers are manifold and stretch from the broader social contexts of the time to the private reasons held by local I.R.A. officers. One of the consistent themes which reoccurs when reading the Bureau of Military History’s Witness Statements is the fact that many of the I.R.A.’s officers came from families with long histories of involvement in various rebellions and nationalist organisations. For instance James Brennan Captain of L Company of the 3rd Battalion of the Kilkenny Brigade had a Grandfather who was involved with the failed Fenian uprising.[3] John Walsh Adjutant of the Graiguenamanagh Company of the Irish Volunteers during 1916 and later O/C 5th Battalion Kilkenny Brigade came from an area with strong links to the 1798 Rebellion.[4]

Another theme which reoccurs is the ambition of many of the I.R.B. members to own land and, according to Patrick Calanan Brigade Chief of Scouts for the Craughwell Company of the Irish Volunteers from 1915-1916 and Brigade Chief of Police from 1919, until the Truce in 1921 stated that many of the older members of the Craughwell I.R.B. joined the organisation solely to obtain land.[5] This hunger for land seemed to be the case in Kerry as well as many of the men involved in the I.R.B there were of the artisan class such as bakers, blacksmiths, coopers and carpenters who did not own any land. The sons of these men acted as the main strength of the Volunteers and I.R.A. during the War until the conscription scare whereupon the sons of farmers began joining the organisation.[6]

Kennedy related that much of the land in Kerry was reserved for notables of the county to hunt and to fish. Kennedy discussed the fact that as the War progressed the I.R.A. received hundreds of claims from all over the county from people who claimed that they owned land that had been taken from their families.[7]

Thomas Ryan, Vice-Commandant and Acting Officer Commanding (O/C) 5th/6th Battalion of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade and also a member of No. 2 Flying Column, 3rd Tipperary Brigade discussed in his witness statement to the Bureau of Military History why personal reasons held by I.R.A. men must also be considered when studying I.R.A. attacks on the houses of local gentry. Ryan stated that he was caned for failing to tip his hat to a local member of the gentry in Tipperary when he passed him in the street when he was younger. This, and incidents like this, must have engendered hatred and resentment toward the landed aristocracy amongst I.R.A. men across the country. Ryan also wrote of learning of wrongs done to the Irish people by the landed gentry from the old men of the locality.[8] This type of radicalisation must have engendered a desire to strike back at those who for generations had oppressed his people and created a desire to destroy all symbols of such a repressive social structure.

The burning of big houses was also carried out in reprisal for the burning of Catholic and Nationalist houses by the crown forces. Usually these atrocities were carried out by the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries in retaliation for I.R.A. attacks and ambushes. Ryan related that it was decided by the Tipperary I.R.A. to burn the house of a landlord named Perry of Newcastle. Perry’s family, had for generations, a reputation for tyranny and brutality in the local area the burning of Perry’s house would also serve as retaliation for the Crown forces’ burning of the homes of local Catholics.[9]

Ryan’s company were detailed to attack and burn Perry’s house. Ryan was one of the six men who were detailed with entering the house itself. Ryan stated that the landlord Perry had a reputation as being a gunman himself and as a result the I.R.A. men were wary when knocking on the door of the house. Perry was understandably terrified at opening his door to a party of six armed men but was considerably relieved when he was told that they simply intended to burn down his house. Ryan and the other arsonists were offered a drink by Perry which Ryan claimed they declined, before requesting that his valuable library be removed from the house before it was burnt. Ryan ordered that a runner be sent to confer with his superior officer whereupon permission was given for the books to be removed by ten men of the I.R.A. Company. The I.R.A. proceeded to spread straw and petrol about the house which was lit on fire once it was ensured that all I.R.A. men were clear of the building.[10] The residents of the house went to another dwelling on the estate.[11]

When one reads the Witness Statements one can get a sense of the motivations of the men who led the campaign which won Ireland her independence. Their bravery and self-sacrifice must be praised but it is clear they were not capable of separating themselves from centuries of sectarian and class based hatreds which caused the loss of so much of Ireland’s written history.

[1] Kissane, B. The Politics of the Irish Civil War. p. 23

[2] Hopkinson, M. Green against Green: The Irish Civil War. p. 257

[3] Brennan, J. Bureau of Military History Witness Statement WS1102. p. 1

[4] Walsh, J. Bureau of Military History Witness Statement WS0966. p. 1

[5] Calanan, P. Bureau of Military History Witness Statement WS0347. p. 1

[6] Kennedy, T. Bureau of Military History Witness Statement WS1413 p. 2

[7] Kennedy, T. pp. 13-29

[8] Ryan, T. Bureau of Military History Witness Statement WS0783. pp. 2-3

[9] Ryan, T. Bureau of Military History Witness Statement WS0783. p. 100

[10] Ryan, T. Bureau of Military History Witness Statement WS0783. p. 101

[11] Ryan, T. Bureau of Military History Witness Statement WS0783. p. 101

Guest Writer: Paul Heffernan

I studied English and History in the National University of Ireland, Galway and got my M.A. in Military History and Strategic Studies in N.U.I. Maynooth. I also gained an M.A. in archival studies from U.C.D. and currently work as an archivist.

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