Elizabeth Bowen, the author of The Last September, spent her summers in her family’s country home, Bowens Court. It was built in the 1770s by Henry Cole Bowen and is located in Cork, Ireland. Bowen describes the life in this home (and other big houses) to be “independent” and “secretive” (Bowen 20). Families would be caught up in their own affairs and sometimes would be pent up in the house for days. This physical separateness wasn’t the only isolation though, something internal divided the Anglo-Irish from the rest of Ireland: “an affair of origin” (Bowen 20). Bowens Court had large, lofty rooms, and didn’t belong to any neighborhood, giving Bowen an immense sense of loneliness.
Elizabeth was born in Ireland but moved in with her Anglo-Irish relatives after the passing of her mother. For this very reason, Elizabeth felt torn between the two countries. The main character Lois, in her novel The Last September shares this liminality.
To combat this sense of loneliness and compensate for the feeling of liminality, the Anglo-Irish would build extravagant houses and throw frivolous parties. Around the district where Bowens Court lay, there were three towns: Mallow, Fermoy, and Mitchelstown. The Bowen’s would attend parties at Mitchelstown Castle often. On August 5th, 1914, the family was getting ready to go to a garden party at the castle when Elizabeth’s father had told them England had declared war on Germany. The family went to the castle where the words of the war were unspoken on everyone’s lips. The Anglo-Irish were inadvertently rallying together and renewing the Ascendency. This party would serve as a historic memory and final scene for the castle (in Elizabeth’s eyes) as it would be demolished a short time later.
] [Burning and Destruction
Both the history of Mitchelstown and Elizabeth Bowen’s representation of the fictional Danielstown represented the crumbling power of the Ascendency brought about by the rash decisions of the families who owned the castles. Our project goes past this superficiality as we found an underlying theme of fragility due to this sense of liminality of the Ascendency.
The White Knights, the first rulers of Mitchelstown Castle, soon fell out of favor with the Irish public, due to their self-righteous attitudes and irrational decisions. The attitudes of these rulers, and those long after, were partly due to their need to overcompensate by exerting power, whether it meant creating the biggest castle of all or Ireland or nearly bankrupting themselves to show their dominance. This was due to the sense of liminality so many of the upperclass families felt. The Irish though, did not care. They felt like these rulers had been in power for too long and wanted to reclaim their land.
Danielstown, albeit fictional, shows another side of the sense of liminality. The Anglo-Irish, metaphorically, had one foot in England, and one in Ireland. They built extravagant homes and threw gigantic parties to prove to others, and perhaps to themselves, that they truly belonged…in Ireland, and in power. However, this liminality helped pave the way for the decline of the Ascendency.
The wealthy had been in power for centuries and seemed to have a tight reign on their power. When events like the Irish Civil War and other unrest brewed against them, their immense power and control turned superficial and crumbled to dust around them.
] [Bowens Court
] [Burning and Destruction
Danielstown is the fictional Big House in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September where Sir Richard Naylor, Myra Naylor, and their niece Lois Farquar reside. Throughout the duration of the novel they receive various visitors. The older generations in this book do not appear to want to do anything about their current situation, choosing instead to continue pursuing the frivolous–hosting tennis parties, throwing lavish dinners, and never talking about the problem in a way that would lend itself to solutions. The younger generation however are not content with their current situation and constantly try to get to the heart of the problem. Lois’s cousin Laurence, brings up the inevitability of the burning of the Naylor household, and even says he would like to be there when it burns down. Lois does not feel anything in particular for this house as it only served as an empty attempt at being ‘home’.
In the novel, Bowen notes, “Sir Richard and Lady Naylor, their nephew, niece and old friends had a thin, over-bright look, seemed in the air of the room unconvincingly painted, startled, transitory” (Bowen 28). The whole gathering of guests and dining at these parties isn’t enough, for anyone really, and they all don’t feel permanent in this house–this lifestyle. The Ascendency is merely a facade trying to cover the liminality so many Anglo-Irish felt. This helped contribute to how easily the Ascendency crumbled with the threat of fire, even after so many years of being around.
This novel shows the inevitable decline of the Big House lifestyle, after Danielstown, and many other are burned down. The burning of these Big Houses symbolized an end to the Ascendency lifestyle that had been around since the 17th century. Landlords of these homes were isolated from the rest of the countrymen and owned large portions of the land. This did not sit well with the people who were not in the Anglo-Irish social class. They felt as though these Big Houses served as symbols of their oppression and poverty so began destroying them in earnest. Others still, burned these houses down with military precision, allowing them to be casualties of the war going on around them. Fire was a means of an end, the end of the houses, and the end of the rule of the oppressive English on the land.
Although Danielstown is fictional, the events that occurred in the novel weren’t that far from reality. Danielstown was an actualization of the fears so many people had about the decline of their lifestyle, and further served as a symbol of the ultimate downfall of the Big Houses.
] [Bowns Court]
[Burning and Destruction]
Welcome to our site on the burning of Irish Ascendency Houses (or Big Houses). We are focusing on two Big Houses: Mitchelstown Castle and the fictional Danielstown. Throughout the semester we have been learning about Irish landscape and history and we have decided to focus specifically on how our individual big houses can be seen as a microcosm of the changing Irish landscape leading to the decline of the Ascendancy.
I am Nick Widman and I came up with my individual project after taking many suggestions from the professors and realizing that if I focused on one house in Ireland I could use it as a representation of the whole of Ireland. I chose Mitchelstown castle because it was the biggest big house of them all and later I realized that the castle had a surprisingly ridiculous history of tension and instability as well. This worked together greatly with the idea of tying one big house to Ireland as Ireland had a far from mundane history which could be tied well with the exploits of Mitchelstown Castle. Our project came together through realizing that our individual projects could be focused on the idea of a crumbling Ascendency hold on Ireland due to the Ascendency’s own actions.
I’m Hannah Fuller and I chose to write my individual project on the burning of big houses with a more narrowed look into The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen. I felt that the novel’s portrayal of how the Ascendency handled the potential threat of the decline of their power was very interesting, and as I did further research (along with suggestions from my professors) that this fear was based on a feeling of liminality. This sense of in-between-ness can be seen not only through the characters in the novel, but was the reality for many Anglo-Irish.
Map Of Site:
]- Here we draw connections about the underlying themes of our separate projects, pulling threads from our individual topics and tying them together to form one cohesive project about the fragility and liminality of the Ascendency that would lead to their decline.
]- Mitchelstown Castle was infamous for its massive size, but the real focus should be put on its various owners who ultimately contributed to their own downfall. The owners felt the need to dominate the Irish landscape due to their liminality. The castle therefore stands as a symbol of the Irish Ascendency and their overconfidence that would be their demise.
]- Elizabeth Bowen spent some of her time in Cork, Ireland, in the Big House, Bowens Court. While this home was never actually burned, it was abandoned and later torn down. Bowen herself felt an immense sense of liminality that would serve as inspiration for her novel, The Last September.
]- Author Elizabeth Bowen writes of a fictional town named Danielstown, the site of the Naylors Ascendency home, in her novel The Last September.
Although fictional, this Big House represents the fears many land owners had about the decline of the Ascendency lifestyle and was the site of one of the many burnings during this time. Due to the character’s inaction, and an already crumbling Ascendency, the house was burnt down and served as a reminder that this sense of liminality had no place in Ireland.
[Burning and Destruction
]- The burning and eventual destruction of Mitchelstown Castle and the fictional Danielstown home symbolized the end to centuries of power, torment, and isolation of the Ascendency from the rest of Ireland. The use of fire physically cleansed the landscape of these homes but the real destruction took place by the hands of the owners.