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  • Big House Burnings in County Cork during the Irish Revolution, 1920–21
  • James S. Donnelly Jr. (bio)


The burning of Big Houses belonging to landed Protestants and the occasional Catholic was one of the most dramatic features of the Irish Revolution of 1919–23. Of course, the Protestant landed elite was only a shadow of its former self in the southern parts of Ireland by the time that revolution erupted in 1919. But even where land-owners had sold their estates to their tenants, they usually retained considerable demesnes that they farmed commercially, and they still held a variety of appointments under the British crown—as lieutenants or deputy lieutenants of counties and as justices of the peace. Symbols of an old regime in landownership that was not yet dead, and loyal to the British crown and empire, members of the traditional elite were objects of suspicion and sometimes outright hostility among IRA members and nationalists more generally. For many Southern Unionists or loyalists with Big Houses and some land, life became extremely uncomfortable and often dangerous after 1919.

Nowhere was this truer than in County Cork. In his important study The Decline of the Big House in Ireland, Terence Dooley put [End Page 141] the total number of Big Houses burned throughout Ireland at 76 between January 1920 and July 1921. Of that number, as many as 26—roughly a third of all burnings—reportedly occurred in County Cork. The county with the next highest total—Clare—had 7, and the average for all twenty-six counties in Dooley’s list (except Cork) was just 2.1 Dooley’s count, however, understates the real total, and the undercounting is most serious for County Cork. It appears from my research that close to 50 Big Houses and suburban villas were burned there before the Truce in July 1921.2 In the greater part of Ireland, then, the destruction of Big Houses happened very rarely during the War of Independence, whereas in County Cork such burnings were a common occurrence. (It must be stressed that the general situation was quite different during the Civil War of 1922–23, when some 200 Big Houses were destroyed all around the country.)3 The purpose of this article is to identify and analyze the reasons for the massively outsized dimensions of this phenomenon in County Cork in 1920–21.

Why is such an enterprise needed, and what might it contribute to larger questions of concern to historians of the Irish Revolution of 1919–23? This is a worthwhile exercise partly because it sheds much new light on the strikingly wide extent of IRA attacks on the heavily Protestant gentry of Cork during the guerrilla war against Britain, especially in its last few months. It raises in a different form the hotly contested question about the nature and scope of active hostility toward Protestants among members of the IRA in County Cork during the 1919–21 conflict and places in a wider context the extraordinary violence by republicans against Protestant civilians in West Cork in the spring of 1922. Though Peter Hart analyzed violence on both sides of the guerrilla war in Cork in great detail, he had strangely little to say about the fate of the Protestant gentry of the county during 1920–21 or 1922–23 in his landmark study The I.R.A. and Its Enemies.4 In his treatment of the experiences of Cork Protestants in [End Page 142] that work and other writings, Hart focused heavily on the “unprecedented massacre” of thirteen Protestant civilians in the Bandon valley in late April 1922—almost ten months after the Truce had ended armed conflict with Britain.5 He saw this extraordinary episode as a culmination of a strong sectarian current within the Cork IRA that had been evident since late 1920. He stressed that of more than two hundred civilians in the county killed by the IRA as “spies” or “informers,” as many as 36 percent were Protestants—five times the Protestant proportion of Cork’s population.6 Since in Hart’s reckoning “most of those shot (or denounced, expelled, or burned out of their homes) never informed...


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