The Irish War for Independence had been a final victory for the Irish people, as they were finally independent under the name “The Irish Free State” on July 11th 1921, but this compromise was only a stopgap for the coming conflict over the terms of the compromise. The Irish Civil War started on June 28th, 1922 and would spell the end of Mitchelstown Castle and several other Anglo-Irish Big Houses.
The Occupation of Big Houses by the I.R.A.
The signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty split Ireland into two sides, those who supported the treaty and those who did not, the signing also stranded the remaining Ascendency class that were loyal to Britain. The Anglo-Irish treaty had not been supported by the Irish people, as it seemed to be much more beneficial for Britain than Ireland. The remaining soldiers who were vehemently against the treaty found the burning of Big Houses as a useful method to display their disapproval and show that the longstanding symbols of English power would not last any longer.
The Burning and Destruction of Big Houses
Many of the I.R.A. soldiers had to resort to burning big houses as a way to make a statement against the treaty. Mitchelstown Castle was a sitting duck waiting to be capitalized upon by the I.R.A., as its rulers had gone through many troubles in recent years with the Irish Civil War and Irish War for Independence. The commandant of the Republican Army near Mitchelstown Castle, Pa Luddy, united his force under the hatred of what the castle had been a symbol of in Ireland. Pa Luddy, had had enough of Mitchelstown Castle, “In making the fateful decision Luddy believed that he was avenging centuries of Landlordism and English occupation, as well as erasing what little was left of the Kingston presence in Mitchelstown” (1) The Irish Landscape would be purified from Mitchelstown Castle’s grasp, weakening the little hold that England had left on Ireland. The castle was burned on August 12th, 1922 and would later be destroyed due to the extent of the fire damage. In burning this castle down, they were burning along with it the culture and history that had been a part of the Irish landscape for so long. The Irish people were fed up with the Anglo-Irish and their centuries of torment towards them.
The Bowen family heard of this destruction at the Castle and knew their home lay on the path of the IRA and would inevitably be laid siege upon. In the fictional Danielstown, the Naylors home was burned down in the end. The duality between the English and Irish had been going on for too long, and this burning, along with many others was one of the ways in which the people could reclaim their land and power. While Bowens Court was not burnt down (for reasons that were unknown to her), “where there had not been violence there has been abandonment” (Source). The burning of these Big Houses symbolized the end of a big part of history with physical destruction, yet the abandonment of these country homes and displacement of the Anglo-Irish landlords also served as a reminder of the end of the Ascendency.
(1) Power, Bill. White Knights, Dark Earls.Dublin: Collins Press, 2000
Throughout the semester we, as a class, have discovered an Irish landscape of constant change, whether forced or not. Mitchelstown Castle, known as the biggest castle in Ireland in its time, has long been embroiled in the constantly changing landscape and culture of Ireland. The castle, up until its burning and later destruction, was ruled by several different Irish protestant upper class families. It is through Mitchelstown Castle specifically, that we can see a smaller and confined history of Ascendency rulers, one that is eerily reminiscent of the changing landscape of Ireland over time and that of the Ascendency Class. Mitchelstown Castle offers a microcosm of Ireland rarely seen in other big houses, due to its extensive historical records, consistent standing in the public eye, and its long history of having rulers who sought to show their dominance at great cost to themselves.
TheEarly Instability and Tensions of Mitchelstown Castle
The first rulers of Mitchelstown Castle were the White Knights or Fitzgibbon family who gained control in the year 1340. The White Knights soon fell out of favor with the public, due mostly to their overconfidence and open belief in superiority over the Irish public. The castle would be lost and regained in 1576, but a rival of the Fitzgibbons who was fed up with their pompous attitude and rash decisions, would lay siege to the castle and bring an end to the rule of the White Knights. With the origins of the castle one can see an Ireland of instability and conflicting beliefs, one where the arrogance of the Ascendency class would only stand for so long.
The Ignorant Views of the King Family
The King family gained power in 1650 with the marriage of Sir John King and Catherine Fenton. Their son, John King, ignited the early scandals of the King family. John had differing ideas than the members of his family, to put it lightly, none more shocking to his family than his decision to marry an Irish and Catholic woman. The King family was not afraid to voice their opinion on the matter, “Few of the nobility of English extraction have ever contracted marriage with Irish papists, but none have married one who was at once an ordinary Servant Maid and an Irish Papist Bitch who had neither Charms of Beauty nor genteel behavior nor agreeableness of conversation” (1). The rulers of Mitchelstown Castle openly pitted themselves against the public and signaled the true thoughts of the Ascendency class on the Irish Catholic population. Through Mitchelstown Castle, one can see an Ireland split between a small class of extremely powerful protestant rulers and a massive Catholic population that was fed up with their situation.
The Cracks Began to Show
As the Irish rebellion of 1798 came into focus, the King family’s strong belief in their superiority over the Irish would be tested. The castle needed change too as two of its rulers, both named Robert King (father and son), were on trial for murder during the Irish rebellion. Within the castle itself was growing tension, as George King and Margaret King had differing support for the two sides of the Irish rebellion of 1798. Margaret King was a staunch supporter of the United Irishmen, while her brother formed an infamous terrorist group designed to kill and torture the United Irishmen. With the rebellion of 1798, Mitchelstown Castle seemed vulnerable, as the Ascendency class of the castle appeared to be growingly susceptible to the Irish people’s actions and to their own, signaling a shift in the tide of power to come in the future. Adding to this, was the fact that members of the King family openly voiced support for the United Irishmen, splitting their once united hatred of the Irish Catholic population into several different pieces and revealing the cracks within the once all-powerful Protestant upper class of Ireland.
The Ascendency’s Self-Implosion
The Great Famine brought Ireland into doom, half of the population was either dead or no longer in Ireland. In 1823 however, Big George Kingsborough, the new patriarch of the castle, felt it necessary to destroy Mitchelstown Castle and build the biggest castle of Ireland, “I am no judge of architecture; but it must be larger than any other house in Ireland” (1). The castle would go under at the hands of Edward Viscount Kingsborough, Big George’s son, who sought to further demonstrate the family’s influence with a massive accumulation of books for their library. His actions revealed an Ascendency class that had lost itself in dreams of luxury, “It is like that almost everywhere in Ireland. Witness the finger of God. The Irish aristocracy wanted to remain separate from the people and be still English. It has driven itself into imitating the English aristocracy without possessing either its skill or its resources, and its own sins is providing ruin” (1). With the destruction of the famine, Ireland had fallen into despair, but so too had the Irish upper class, as their own arrogance would ruin everything they touched, Mitchelstown Castle was far from an exception.
The Easter Rising was another failed attempt to gain independence from England and the oppressive Protestant ruling class. The new ruling family of Mitchelstown Castle, the Webbers, would follow in the footsteps of the illustrious former rulers of the castle by completely sullying the little reputation the castle had regained from their massive debt debacle. The Webbers would openly announce their disdain for the Irishmen who started the Easter Rising, even going as far as to advocate for the execution of every member of the uprising. Thus, painting a clear target on their own heads and making it eminently clear that the traditional view of hatred for the Irish population seen in Mitchelstown Castle and the Ascendency class had changed very little over the years. Their demise is summed up with this quote, “It is like that almost everywhere in Ireland. Witness the finger of God. The Irish aristocracy wanted to remain separate from the people and be still English. It has driven itself into imitating the English aristocracy without possessing either its skill or its resources, and its own sins is providing ruin.” (1)
(1) Power, Bill. White Knights, Dark Earls.Dublin: Collins Press, 2000