In a famous passage in her book Bowen’s Court, Elizabeth Bowen described a gathering of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy on the lawns of Mitchelstown Castle in County Cork. It was 4 August 1914 and a brisk summer’s day, the company self-assured and full of the news of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. ‘Each isolated Big House had disgorged its talker,’ Bowen wrote, every one of them keen to join this great gathering of a tribe whose martial spirits were stirred by the prospect of European conflict. Eight years later, almost to the day, amid civil war in Ireland, anti-treaty republican troops evacuated the building and burned it to the ground. Never restored, its lands were compulsorily purchased when peace returned. Soon its demesne housed factories and the prized fish pond became the site of the local sewerage works. Elsewhere there was land for the local golf club to expand and plots for the building of bungalows. The new order had arrived.
The case of Mitchelstown was not a one-off. The Irish War of Independence (1919–21) and the Irish Civil War (1922–3) would see nearly three hundred ‘Big Houses’ in Ireland destroyed. Explaining this phenomenon is Terence Dooley’s objective in a book that fascinates at every turn. It explores a variety