During a visit to Mitchelstown in 1995, to open a Famine exhibition that included photos of the now long-gone Mitchelstown Castle, former taoiseach Charles J Haughey observed that he knew all about the castle and its fate from talking to old republicans.
“When I used to go to the Fianna Fáil functions in Mitchelstown in the 50s and 60s, all the old diehard republicans used to go on about that place. To listen to them, you’d think that if they hadn’t burned it down, we’d never have gotten our independence.”
“What a pity,” Haughey said, in conversation with historian Bill Power, who has now written Doomed Inheritance on the castle’s burning. The book’s publication is set to be marked by a conference in the north Cork town next weekend.
Even a century on, the burning of the castle in August 1922 ignites local tempers. In Power’s eyes, it was the greatest loss of all the 300 big houses burned during the War of Independence and the Civil War, and the worst own goal ever inflicted on Mitchelstown.
Power has spent more than 40 years researching its history, and he does not pull his punches when discussing what happened to the historic home of the Kingston family in his native town on the night of August 12th, 1922.
“Its destruction diminished Mitchelstown beyond recovery, depriving it not just of a castle but also of a landscaped demesne of exceptional historical and natural beauty,” he wrote in the foreword of the book.
The burning was one thing. However, it is the looting that took place that ensured the tale of its destruction never died, with stories of pianos, paintings and other valuable items holding pride of place in farmhouses for decades afterwards.
The castle was built on a full acre on the site of a 14th century fortress by James, the Fourth Baron Kingston, in the early 1700s, modernizing and extending the existing structure into an impressive castellated neo-Gothic house.
Today, the castle is gone, but nearby Kingston College, built for retired Protestant tenants, still exists, with some of its houses soon to become homes for Ukrainian refugees who have fled the Russian invasion.
Remarkably, the castle emerged unscathed from the War of Independence given the number of big houses that had been burned out by the Cork No 2 Brigade IRA under Liam Lynch, the leading military figure on the republican side in the Civil War.
Power chronicles what happens to Mitchelstown Castle and its owner, Willie Webber, who was in his late 80s, and his cousins Edith and Arthur, when an armed party of republicans, under Commandant PJ Luddy, arrived at about 6.30pm on June 29th, 1922 , ordering everyone to leave.
The IRA told Webber that rooms had been arranged for his family in a local hotel but Webber refused to go, saying it was too late to leave. They were allowed to stay the night, which the Webbers spent locking up silver and other valuables in the castle strong room.
The IRA said they would be staying for only a few days but they barred the Webbers from taking anything more than their clothes when they left the following day. Valuables, such as paintings and jewellery, could not be taken.
One witness, a Miss Hare, later traveled to Castletownshend in west Cork to stay with her friend, Edith Somerville, of Somerville and Ross fame, telling her of the Webber family’s efforts to save their belongings.
She and everyone else in the castle had spent the night taking up carpets, putting away valuable china, pictures, and furniture into two rooms which were then locked only for them to be smashed open and the contents taken.
“Photograph frames were smashed and bits of glass… [were] used as darts to throw at the valuable Rembrandt that they had not been able to get down in time. Lavatories were considered useless institutions, the walls of the corridors were used instead,” wrote Somerville later
Somerville was mistaken about there being a Rembrandt in the castle but there were paintings by Gainsborough, Beechey, de Champaigne, Leech and Conrad; all of them disappeared in looting that took place over subsequent weeks.
Among those garrisoning the castle was local IRA man Michael Casey, who told Power in 1989 that several hundred republicans began arriving in Mitchelstown after Limerick, Tipperary and Clonmel fell to the National Army and that a “world of stuff was taken from the castle”.
Reports of the looting reached IRA leader Lynch, who had set up his headquarters in Fermoy Barracks, and he told the OC of the Cork No 2 Brigade George Power that he wanted it stopped because it was damaging the reputation of republicans and their cause.
“Regarding silver looted from Mitchelstown Castle,” wrote Lynch, “if the persons who purchased this are known, you should have it recovered and returned to the castle. Every effort should be made to have this affair, which is likely to discredit our forces, thoroughly investigated.”
Replying, George Power said he had received a report from Luddy that the door of the strong room was forced open and some items were missing. While there was no definite information on the culprits, four suspects had been dismissed.
By now, Lynch had burned military camps at Ballyvonare in Buttevant, Kilworth and Moore Park in Fermoy before abandoning Fermoy on August 9th, a day after National Army troops landed in Passage West and advanced on Cork city.
By then, Edith Webber was fearful that the castle would go too, following the burning of local barracks on the nights of August 10th and August 11th, only for her fears to be realized within just a day.
In a letter on August 15th to her cousin, Alec King-Harman in Dublin, she said the castle had been “well paraffined and burnt”, but the “way [the] place was looted and the behavior of a good many of the people” was worse.
Urged by his cousin to keep an eye out for looted silver or furniture, King-Harman said, “this cruel blow” must have been “most disgusting and painful and only shows the helpless state of degradation in which a large proportion of people seem to have sunk in these times.”
That same day, the National Army arrived in Fermoy. Having heard of the burning, their commander Gen Liam Tobin, a close associate of Michael Collins, sent men to Lismore after hearing republicans were planning to burn Lismore Castle.
But by the time the Free State troops arrived in Mitchelstown on August 17th, the once elegant stately home was a smouldering shell, with attempts by the Webbers’ cousin Alec King-Harman in the 1920s to rebuild on a smaller scale coming to nothing.
In 1928, the castle’s stones were bought by the Cistercians in Mount Melleray, who used some to build a new neo-Gothic abbey while others were used to build a new Cistercian Convent near Lismore. Still others are to be found today in the entrance gate to Rockwell College.
In 1941, Michael O’Dwyer, a local businessman who had bought the land around the castle from King-Harman, sold his 65-acre holding to Mitchelstown Co-op. Today, the towering buildings of Dairygold’s milk processing plants occupy the site where the castle once stood.
The burning, says Power, was overshadowed by the death of Arthur Griffith on August 12th and the killing of Michael Collins at Béal na Bláth on August 22nd, but there should be no underestimating how it changed the history of Mitchelstown.
“There was absolutely no military reason to burn Mitchelstown Castle, it had no military value. The Kingstons had been good landlords during the Famine but they had taken a hard line during the Land Wars of the 1880s so perhaps there was resentment towards them for that.”
However, republicans were unrepentant, with War of Independence hero Sean Moylan — a former Cork No 2 Brigade commander who took the anti-treaty side in the Civil War — having scant sympathy for the likes of the Webbers as Fianna Fáil minister for lands in the 1940s.
He said: “The majority of those big houses that I know, and I am very familiar with them, are not structurally sound, have no artistic value and no historic interest. From my unregenerate point of view, I choose to regard them as tombstones of a departed ascendancy and the sooner they go down the better.”
Today, there are many who agree. Former Cork East Fianna Fail TD Ned O’Keeffe, whose late father Tom was in the IRA, is critical of the decision to hold a conference and especially critical of Power’s claim that republicans engaged in looting, saying such a claim was “an absolute disgrace ”.
“I am firmly convinced that the people on the republican side were well-disciplined and were not interested in looting but were interested in fighting for a united Ireland,” he told local newspaper The Avondhu.
Next weekend’s conference, said the former minister of state, was “geared only one way and that is to discredit many decent and honest people who fought on the republican side in the Civil War because they believed in an ideal”.
Unsurprisingly, Power has a different view, arguing that the Bolshevists saved the Winter Palace after they stormed it, while Stalin ordered that no tsarist palace be destroyed because all of them had been built with the sweat of Russian workers.
For Power, the best description of the burning and looting remains the summing up by Judge Kenny in 1927 when awarding €42,000 compensation to King-Harman: “The burning of Mitchelstown Castle was an act of vandalism.
“There was no reason, from a military point of view, why they should have done so. There was no excuse and no justification for the act which they perpetrated. It was an act of wanton vandalism,” he said.
For further details on the Doomed Inheritance History Conference, which runs in Mitchelstown from August 12th to 14th, you can visit the website.