The burning of Castlehackett House, near Tuam, was carried out one hundred years ago tonight, by anti-treaty IRA. Historian Terence Dooley has noted that there was a dramatic increase in the numbers of ‘Big Houses’ burned by anti-treaty militants between January and April 1923, ostensibly to prevent their occupation by the Free State Army. Castlehackett House was one of the estimated 117 burnings that took place during this period.
On the night of 4 December 1923, members of the anti-treaty IRA burned Castlehackett House, situated at the foot of Knockma Hill, southwest of Tuam. John Kirwan – a wealthy merchant who served as Mayor of Galway between 1686 and 1688 and who purchased the Castlehackett Estate in the late seventeenth century – built Castlehackett House in 1703.
The ‘Connacht Tribune’ (13 January 1923) reported: ‘Castlehackett House, an historic mansion the building of which dates from the seventeenth century, was completely destroyed by fire on Thursday night, 4th inst., by armed men. About ten o’clock on that evening the caretaker and his wife were sitting in the kitchen having a chat prior to retiring for the night. The kitchen was situated on the ground floor at a side wing of the house. A knock came to the window, and a voice asked that the front door be opened. Thinking it was one of the usual raids which were common to the locality for some time, the caretaker’s wife and the steward went to open the door, whilst her husband went to safeguard some of the property by stowing it away. A number of men entered by the front door. One of them wore a uniform with a peaked cap. There would, it be thought, be about thirty armed men altogether in and around the house, and they are described as being members of the Republican army, most of whom wore leggings, and trench-coats. Some of them stood on guard at different points near the building whilst the burning operations were in process. One of those who took part in directing the operations expressed regret for the disturbance caused to the occupants, whom he told to go to the steward’s house for shelter. He added that they were carrying out orders given to them, and the reason for the orders was that the Free State army would come out and take possession of the house. There was no ill-feeling against the owner, Colonel P. Bernard who was a good man to the tenantry and the people about, but they had to carry out orders.’
The article continued: ‘Some articles or clothing, bedding and a little furniture were saved, as well as a few of the oil paintings, but the operations were begun with speed that did not allow of much salvage. The men had any amount of inflammable material for their work, and spared nothing in the making of a good bonfire of this magnificent residence and the invaluable property it contained. They started the fire at the top of the house, and prepared the descending portion with oil saturated all through. At twelve o’clock the place was one mass of flame and fire, causing terror and consternation to people in the countryside around for miles. The night was stormy, with a strong blustering wind, which caught the tongues of flame and played on the outhouses and haggardsm, burning, corn and farming articles in its destructive and devouring train. The splendid library, magnificent ballroom, drawingroom with polished oak floor and beautiful plastered panel ceiling, billiard-room, and all the antique furniture of pricelss value; familiy reliques centuries old and historic articles, all were consumed to dust.’
The ‘Tuam Herald’ (20 January 1923) reported on the burning of Castlehackett House as follows: ‘The malicious, wanton scandalous destruction of the fine old early Georgian county house at Castlehackett, built by one of the Kirwans of Galway, and for five generations occupied by his respected and popular descendants, is one of the many black spots in recent history. It is the last of Castle Hackett house. To think of the vile vandalism of the act if deliberately burning such old places with their rare and priceless old furniture, pictures and books, and memories of social life, is a kind of savagery that no people in their cool moments could really be guilty of. The men who did and do such acts must be out of their minds.’
In July 1924, British Army Colonel Denis Charles Kirwan Bernard (1882–1956) of Castlehackett House was awarded £23,370 compensation (‘Derry Journal’, 16 July 1924). In 1880, his father, Percy Bernard (1844–1912), married Mary Lissey Kirwan, who inherited the 8,000-plus-acre Castlehackett Estate. The house was reconstructed in the late 1920s. Colonel Bernard died at Castlehackett House in 1956 and was buried atop Knockma Hill.