The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
Terence Dooley in his Burning the Big House: the story of the Irish country house in a time of War and Revolution (Yale, 2022) devoted fourteen pages to a case study of the burning of Tubberdaly, Rhode. He concluded that the house was burned as a result of labour disputes, local agrarian issues and the demand to have the demesne and untenanted lands distributed to local people as the main reasons.
Beaumont Nesbitt had inherited an 8,000-acre estate from his cousin Catherine Downing Nesbitt of Leixlip House in Kildare in 1886. Most of this estate was at Rhode in King’s County. Nesbitt sold all of this land (save 1200 acres) under the Wyndham Land Acts. The First World War has been said to mark the last phase of unionism in ‘Southern Ireland’ and to that can be added personal tragedies with the death of one of Nesbitt’s son in the war and Nesbitt’s wife in 1918. The same was to happen with the Digbys of Geashill Castle and the Rait Kerrs of Rathmoyle. Prices rose substantially in the latter years of the war and with that came the agrarian disturbances among the labourers who had not benefited in the way that farmers had from high prices. The labour dispute at Tubberdaly in 1919 went on for four months and when resolved saw three of the ringleaders dismissed. That would prove to be a running sore, just as with Thomas Dunne and the Geashill Cattle Drive of 1914. Land disputes, personal animosities and IRA membership all provided the ingredients in the ongoing struggle, which in the case of some of those concerned was not resolved until de Valera and Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932.
As with Rathrobin, nearby Greenhills and Durrow Abbey, it was the Republican IRA who burnt Tubberdaly on 15 April 1923 under its local commander Sean McGuinness. He was operating to instructions from overall commander Liam Lynch to burn and destroy infrastructure in the new Free State. Lynch’s death like that of Collins marked a decisive turning point.
Tubberdaly/Toberdaly house, tower house and folly about 1910.
McGuinness recorded in his pension application that it was by way of ‘Reprisals for executions’, ‘destroying of mansions’ in March and April 1923’ but we can add to that specific local factors.
The houses destroyed in Offaly in the last phase of burning included
Wakely’s, Ballyburly, Rhode
Dames’s, Greenhills, Rhode
Tubberdaly/Toberdaly, Nesbitt’s, Rhode
Durrow Castle (recte Abbey) – Toler’s
Asking why certain houses were burnt is probably like asking why did people volunteer for service in the First World War. There were many factors including economic and in the case of house burnings personal resentments.
As with Rathrobin the destruction of Tubberdaly did nothing for the local economy and resulted in a major capital outflow and loss of a prize herd. The 1920s to the 1960s were difficult for Ireland much of which was due to poor economic policies including the working of uneconomic small holdings and the loss of capital that could have supported employment and innovation. That said the primeval demand was for land – a place of one’s own – and that had been the cry for the previous forty years, and who knows perhaps 300 years.
When Beaumont Nesbitt approached the London-based Irish Grants Committee in the mid-1920s he was obliged to argue that the burning was political. Interestingly he did not succeed and his claim for compensation was rejected. His evidence was honest and he clearly did not need the money. In his case it was easy to say no to financial assistance whereas with Rathrobin there were more compelling arguments including the desperate attack on Violet Magan of 1924.
The evidence as recorded by the Grants Committee was as follows:
E J Beaumont Nesbitt, High Sheriff, King’s County, 1892. He succeeded the fifth earl of Rosse (d. 1918), as County Lieutenant. He was an early motorist with 1R 80 to his name.
IRISH GRANTS COMMITTEE
Name (in full, and no block letters) Edward John Bradshaw Downing Beaumont-Nesbitt
Age 66 on November 20th, 1926
Address (for correspondence) 56 Rutland Gate, London, S.7.7.
State here the nature of the loss in respect of which application is made, giving material dates. Detailed particulars need not be furnished at this stage.
On April 15, 1923 my house in Ireland, Tubberdaly, Edenderry, King’s County was maliciously destroyed. Men came over and demanded the keys of the house from my Manager and set fire to it. The house and its contents, except the basement, and the concrete of the basement were destroyed.
Do you claim that the loss or injury described was occasioned in respect or on account of your allegiance to the Government of the United Kingdom? If so, give particulars on which you base your claim.
I was Lord Lieutenant of the County and well known as a Unionist, and the policy of the Republican Party in the Free State at the time was to select unionists for reprisal when they destroyed property. I am satisfied that it was the primary cause, and the houses and property actually destroyed in King’s County were almost entirely belonging to Unionists.
Can you define the actual financial loss directly attributable to the injuries described above? If so, give particulars.
My house after its destruction was valued by a very competent and fair-minded
Architect and civil engineer, Mr Bergin, of 36 Westmoreland Street, Dublin. He estimated that to restore Tubberdaly it would cost £15,565
With £250 for clerk of the works
£389 for surveyor’s fees
£776 for architect’s fees
For the furniture lost: Messrs Strahan, 135 Stephen’s Green, Dublin estimated the sum of £7592.3.6
The amount for which you now make application
From August 1923 to June 1926 I did not get a penny.
I ask for £6,600 on account of the building (£10,000 less award for the building £3,400). [and for costs £400). . . .
Was application for compensation made to any Court, Commission or Committee in respect of injuries described? If so, give particulars and sate with what result.
Application was made to the Courts, and after tedious delay I agreed to accept the decision, the highest figure it seemed I could from the Court of £3,400 for the building and £4,700 for the furniture. £100 in all but as the State Solicitor for the Minister of Finance under the Damage to Property (compensation) 1923 Act, refused to add costs to this amount, and this point was left for the decision of the Judge, who on October the 25th, 1925 allowed £381.17 for expense.
Give particulars of any moneys recovered by the way of compensation, insurance or ex gratia grant in respect of them injuries or loss described
As stated under 8 I was awarded £8158.17 in all, but of this only £2036.17 was paid in cash. £100 was settled by the allotment to me of 5x compensation stock, which I had to sell and it only realised £5777.8
Give names and addresses of two responsible persons to whom, if necessary, references may be made (e.g. Bank Managers, Solicitors, and Ministers of Religion).
Rev. R.E. Bodel, (formerly Rector of my Parish) now of Mount Hybis, Castleknock, County Dublin and my solicitor, Mr K. White of Edenderry who conducted my case.
State briefly your personal financial position
I am in quite comfortable circumstanced and have a sufficient income not to have been more than inconvenienced by what has occurred. I had before my house was burnt bought a house in London (my present address), and was living there at the date of the occurrence. I send in my present claim because I realise how hopelessly inadequate what I was granted by the Court in the Free State was to replace what I had lost. I have since purchased a property in Hampshire, for I decided not to rebuilt in the Free State. After the fire my manager, and several of my dependents were driven away and suffered great hardship before they left. If I had decided to rebuild I should have got a large award.
Date: December 13th 1926 Signed: Edward John Bradshaw Downing Beaumont-Nesbitt
Remains of Tubberdaly in the early 1980s
The letter below is of interest in seeing how the Big House owner viewed matters. It was written in 1925 and is reproduced from Buckland (ed,) Irish Unionism: 1995–1923.
Letter from E.J Beaumont-Nesbitt, writing from 56 Rutland Gate, London S.W.1, to his cousin, Mrs M. Savage-Armstrong, Strangford House, Strangford, Co. Down, 19 January 1925 explaining why he did not want to return to his former home Tubberdaly, King’s Co. or invest more money in his property there (D 618/172):
My dear Marie
I didn’t get time to answer your very kind letter of the 11th: before. It was good of you and Raymond to help to look after my interests and send the advice you did, but unfortunately there are difficulties in the way of doing anything in the way of reinstatement at Tubberdaly. I did know all that you tell me, and in many cases believe the policy has been adopted, but I do not think I can carry it out very well. To begin with I have raised difficulties myself by all the building of Labourers’ Cottages that I undertook, as, now that I have left, there is no employment and these people have joined the ranks of what is called the “landless men”, who clamour for a division of any land and would prevent anyone from outside coming to the place till they had received a block of land.
Also on one farm of about 40 acres a man whom I befriended when he was down has proved a thorn in the flesh, and has stood in my way ever since I had to leave Ireland by claiming that this farm is in some way his. I bought the “tenant right” years ago from the last occupier of the farm and house, and the occupier went to America. But he had in his house a lodger, one Jones who was then working for me as a carpenter, and a jolly bad carpenter at that. This man in 1919 went out with my agricultural labourers on strike, and I never took him back, so he laid out to give me all the trouble he could. At first he could do nothing but when the bad times came he put stock on my land, turned mine off, and later on when I was letting the grazing, he threatened to shoot anyone who disturbed him. I took him into Court, and he was bound over (after about two years of trouble) to keep the peace, but he still prevented anyone taking the farm till about a few months ago, and he with a good many of my ex-labourers have decided that if any dividing up takes place no one is to come on till they are satisfied.
You know the country and the impossibility at present of trying to do much, so I have offered the whole place to the Land Commission. And shall sell it to them, to do what they please with it, if they make me a reasonable offer. It is no use trying to fight out my corner, and isn’t worth while, as I am too old to hope to see it finished. There are several of my old labourers whom I want to help as much as I can, and if I do sell I think I can arrange that these get helped first, and thereby I can put a spoke in the wheels of some that I do not want to help. I am quite philosophic about it all, I’ve had my innings and am out now, and if I can help any decent men to get a living out of the wreck, that is all I care about. But in the face of all the opposition it isn’t worth while to try to build any other houses, and I have nobody there to look after my interests in the least, and if I started to rebuild or build anything new, I should just be robbed. You can I know understand the position and will, I think feel that I am right, though I agree it is a great pity.
I’m afraid it will be long before the rich Irish-American does very much in the way of buying up farms in the 26 counties, as till the country settles, and till taxes are reduced (and when can that be?) it will be hard to induce anybody to go live in Ireland. I don’t often agree with John Dillon, but he made a speech the other day with which I cordially agree, and he realises, what everyone here does, that the so called Free State is broke, and for that for generations there will be poverty and want far greater than ever occurred in the remembrance of anyone now living. It is the price of “Freedom”, but I don’t think the country is very happy at paying the price. As I hear it, all over the country they are asking “when the English will come back?” The English will never come back, they have washed their hands of the whole business and till it becomes a military or naval question, a return will never ever be considered.
I was so glad to hear your news about Raymond and am so glad he finds such a lot to do. He cannot be dull when he is always so occupied. I do hope you will soon have better news of Gwen, it is bad luck on her. All best wishes and good luck to you all. Ever yr, affec. Cousin E.J.B-N.
For more on the fate of Offaly’s ‘Big Houses’ see previous blogs in this series and also
Ciarán J. Reilly, ‘The burning of country houses in Co. Offaly, 1920–23’ in Terence Dooley and Christopher Ridgeway (eds), The Irish Country House: its past, present and future (Dublin, 2011).
Lisa Shortall, ‘Sources for the study of the revolutionary period in King’s County/ Offaly (1912–1923), Offaly Heritage 9 (2016), 281-319.
Michael Goodbody Michael Goodbody, ‘Uncertain times: Some experiences of the Goodbody family in Clara, 1919 – 1923’, Offaly Heritage 11 (2020), 63–7.
Michael Byrne, Rathrobin and the two Irelands (Offaly History, 2021).
See also Ciarán Reilly’s lecture on the burning of the Big Houses on Offaly County Libraries YouTube site.
The tower house and folly at Toberdaly/Tubberdaly
 Terence Dooley in his Burning the Big House: the story of the Irish country house in a time of War and Revolution (Yale, 2022), pp 258–72.
 (Military Archives: MSP34REF4688 Sean McGuinness)
 National Archives, Kew: Colonial Office, Irish Grants Committee, Compensation papers for King’s County, file 64/12. Application of E.J. Beaumont Nesbitt.
 From Irish Unionism, 1885–1923, a documentary history, edited by Patrick Buckland (HMSO, Belfast, 1973), letter no. 204, pp 382–3.