On the afternoon of Wednesday, 10 January 1923, Lulu Bagwell wrote to her mother-in-law Harriet informing her the family house had been destroyed in a blaze earlier that morning. Lulu and the children had been obliged to stand shivering at gunpoint on the lawn watching the conflagration, the raiders responsible for the fire only leaving when it was too late to save Marlfield. Afterwards she discovered her handbag and all the family’s overcoats had been stolen. ‘We hadn’t even a handkerchief,’ she lamented, ‘everything has gone.’
The fate of Marlfield was not unique. It is estimated that between 250 and 300 Irish country houses were burnt in the early 1920s during the course of the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. The reasons behind their destruction were various, but because of their scale and prominence on the Irish landscape, setting fire to them was judged by perpetrators to be good propaganda. Relatively little investigation has been undertaken into this devastation – to both property and lives.
But how was it for the owners of these buildings? How did they feel when, in the course of just a few hours, they saw their worlds overturned? Hitherto historians have concentrated on the actions and motivation of those responsible for carrying out the burnings. Left Without a Handkerchief will tell the other side of the story, of history seen from the perspective of the losers, left homeless and struggling to cope, emotionally and financially.
A key source for this story will be under-explored material held by the national archives of both Ireland and Britain. Correspondence back and forth, between claimants and the relevant authorities, reveal the extent of suffering experienced by those whose houses had been burnt, often shock that the local community, of which they had thought themselves part, displayed little concern in the aftermath of their devastation. These official documents will be supplemented by other material: letters, diaries, memoirs, some of it coming directly from descendants of the house owners and not previously shared inpublic.
Left Without a Handkerchief will fill a gap in the national narrative, featuring the stories of ten houses and their owners. From Galway to Wexford, Mayo to Cork, it will give a voice to the dispossessed, to the people who thought they had a place in Ireland until, usually in the course of a single night, they were disabused of this belief. As the centenary of the onset of house burnings arrives, now is the time to tell their story.
Robert O’Byrne, a trustee of the Apollo Foundation and the Artists’ Collecting Society, is author of more than a dozen books. These include The Last Knight: A Tribute to Desmond FitzGerald, 29th Knight of Glin (2013) and Hugh Lane 1875–1915 (2000, 2018). He writes an award-winning blog, ‘The Irish Aesthete’.