Sean Hallinan reflects on the burning of the famous Moorehall House, which occurred a century ago this week.
The burning of the once magnificent Moorehall House took place on the night of January 31, 1923 – exactly 100 years ago this week.
The deed has been rooted in controversy and deeply regretted by many people, both locally and nationally over the past century. Above all other houses of the gentry in Ireland, Moorehall did not deserve to be torched and burned. It was the former home of John Moore, United Irishman and first president of Connacht in 1798; George Moore, MP, who was famous for his Famine relief and tenant rights political campaigns; George Moore, the novelist and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, and Maurice Moore, patriot and first inspector-general of the Irish Volunteers,
Regarding the burning of the house on the night of January 31, 1923, there is presently a lot of misinformation on various websites, on Facebook and in some recent print media which contain spurious claims that George Moore (writer) was present in Moorehall the night of the fire. Also, some contributors, based on their own political bias and perspective, seem to be starkly disparaging on the anti-Treaty Republicans who burned the house without giving due consideration to the horrific political and military circumstances and background during a time of bitter Civil War, where often brother was pitted against brother amidst the utter carnage of the times.
Firstly, Colonel Maurice Moore of Moorehall was appointed by Eoin Mac Neil and Patrick Pearse as inspector-general of the newly-formed Irish Volunteers in 1913. This was due to his service with the Connaught Rangers in the Kaffir and Zulu campaigns for which he received a bravery award during the Boer War.
Training for Volunteers by General Headquarters (later IRB/IRA men) from South and West Mayo took place frequently in Moorehall with the consent and involvement of Col Maurice Moore for a decade (1913 to 1923) and even intensified at the time of the truce. Moorehall was the headquarters for the South Mayo Brigade and headquarters for the 2nd Western Division. The South Mayo Brigade of the IRA under General Tom Maguire was pictured at Moorehall in the summer of 1921.
Col Maurice Moore was instrumental in organising training for the volunteers in Mayo and around Ireland. Even after the Truce on July 11, 1921, Maurice Moore requested a meeting with a prominent Republican leader Comdt. Tom Lally, of Srah.
Colonel Moore stated:
“I am convinced that the English Government will break the Truce and that our Volunteers will not be fit to resume the war. We need every volunteer in Mayo to be fully trained and I am handing over Moorehall and the grounds for that purpose. I have made arrangements with General Headquarters to send down the very best instructors.”
WHY WAS IT BURNED?
Some historians say the house was burned because de Valera had issued orders and a directive to burn all big houses of gentry, aristocracy, and Senators who were in favour of the Treaty. Others maintain that de Valera had very little influence over the IRB/IRA military men at the time. Further commentators have stated it was burned through ignorance and envy and a general loathing against the landlord class through a deep-rooted agrarian grievance which was a hangover from the Land Wars some decades earlier.
Undoubtedly, folklore and memories of the Famine abounded and stories of cruel evictions by the landlord class were still vivid. From the IRA’s perspective, country houses were regarded as highly politicised targets because of the ‘loyalism’ of their owners who often openly proclaimed the same. Moorehall could not be categorised in that manner as the direct opposite was the case. The Moores of Moorehall always stood firmly with the people in their struggles.
Another plausible explanation I have learned from local sources was that it was an IRA tactical decision to burn Moorehall House. At that time there were no surrounding pine trees and the great house on Muckloon Hill stood majestic over the countryside for miles around. Westport, Castlebar, Claremorris and Ballinrobe, and all the Partry Mountain range, as far as Connemara, were clearly visible from that vantage point.
By the end of 1922, successful military operations by the Free State forces had led to the cessation of conventional operations of the anti-Treaty side, and they had resorted in the main to guerrilla warfare. Supposedly, on the evening of January 31, 1923, word that Free State forces were coming from Claremorris to take control of the house reached the Republican forces in the area. The score or so active IRA men on the run in the region received orders to burn the house, rather than surrender and have the pro-Treaty Free State soldiers take it over.
While the practice of the burning of family homes is viewed with abhorrence today in the context of the troubled times, it was commonplace in Ireland from 1919 to 1923. It stemmed from drunken rampages by Black and Tans who frequently torched the homes of Republican families and their supporters during the War of Independence in revenge for the killing of colleagues. The IRA replied in kind and at least 275 of Ireland’s ‘Big Houses’ were destroyed by fire from 1919 to 1923. The majority of these properties were owned by Anglo-Irish families but a number like Moorehall were in Irish Catholic ownership.
Much has been speculated about the disastrous burning of Moorehall and it is best to put the event in the context of the horrendous Civil War of the time. The burning of Moorehall cannot be analysed in isolation from the political events nationally at the time. In November 1922, Erskine Childers was captured and sentenced to death by a Free State military court for possessing a revolver gifted to him by Michael Collins. On December 8, 1922, four members of the IRA Army Executive, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett were executed by a Free State firing squad. On December 19, 1922, seven more young men in the Military Detention Barracks, now the Curragh Prison, were also executed by firing squad. January 1923 saw the execution of 34 IRA prisoners by the National Army and the Government of Saorstat Éireann (Irish Free State). This would be the greatest number of executions carried out in a single month during the Civil War.
The number for January 1923 alone surpassed the number executed by the British authorities during the War of Independence: 24. It was also not far short of the total (40) executed by the British in Ireland in the five years between the 1916 Rising and the end of the War of Independence.
These mass killings evoked huge hostility and deep bitterness among active Republican volunteers and undoubtedly led to revenge outrages of burning and counter-assassinations. On January 26, 1923, all OCs of the anti-Treaty Divisions were issued with ‘Operation No 16 Senators’ by GHQ in Dublin. It stipulated that houses of Free State Senators were to be destroyed as reprisals for the state executions of anti-Treaty prisoners.
Locally, the newly-founded National Army (pro-Treaty forces) were most anxious to establish the authority of the Free State government and root out Republican activists by defeating them militarily. They would have felt strongly that they had a democratic mandate from the people in the June 1922 election for the drastic actions they were taking to establish and solidify the new Free State. Also, the overall area, Balla, Mayo Abbey Ballyglass, Carnacon, Clogher, Castlecarra, Belcarra and nearby Robeen were perceived largely as staunch Republican strongholds. Many activists had participated in military action in the Kilfaul and Tourmakeady ambushes during the War of Independence. It is understandable that the Free State military and political leadership were determined to impose their legitimacy in a final sweep to flush out remaining Republican militants. Therefore, most unfortunately, the burning of Moorehall would have seemed a logical military move by the Republicans in order to prevent the National Army from using the house as a barracks in the district as had happened at Castlemacgarret in Claremorris.
While it is widely accepted that there was undoubtedly an anti-Treaty policy to burn down the houses of Senators and Anglo-Irish landlords deemed favourable to the Treaty, land ownership may also have been a contributing factor. Locally, the agrarian quest for land and the subsistence existence of the broad mass of tenants does not seem to have been an influence in the burning of Moorehall.
It is undeniable though that throughout large tracts of the country there was a strong anti-landlord bias. This stemmed from the fact that many tenant farmers and their families were very poor and impoverished. While those sentiments also undoubtedly pertained locally, other big local estates like Blake’s at nearby Towerhill remained untouched during this period. Some baseless rumours spread and received credence that furnishings and fittings had been stolen from Moorehall before the fire. There is no proof or verification for that but perhaps as no Moore family members were present, some pilfering may have taken place.
It is best to rely on the authentic evidence of the Moorehall estate caretaker James Reilly, a highly trustworthy member of an esteemed local family who undoubtedly cherished Moorehall:
“At 12.30 on Wednesday night armed men who were perfect strangers to me called at the Lodge and demanded the keys. I asked what for and was told a column was going to be put up there for the night. I wanted to go over but would not be allowed, the road from Annie’s Bridge to Murphy’s lodge was patrolled by armed men. There was nothing to take except some vestments and objects from the Altar in the priest’s chapel. These the burning party conveyed to the lawn before beginning their work.”
On February 1, 1923, Colonel Maurice Moore received a nine-word telegram from James Reilly, stating ‘Moorehall house burned down last night. Nothing saved. Reilly.’ A letter Reilly penned describing the fire has frequently been incorrectly attributed to George Moore, thereby creating the incorrect impression that the novelist was present on the night of the fire.
Moorehall had the finest library in all of Connacht which included many first editions, valuable historic and geographic manuscripts, histories of the French Revolution, rare artworks and paintings. The Proclamation pronouncing the Republic of Connacht in 1798 and the table it was signed on may also have perished in the fire. The house featured decorative oak panelling on its walls and amazing ornate Italian plasterwork.
The house had 30 rooms, and its own sacristy and chapel which were all completely destroyed by the fire. James Reilly wrote in early February to Col Maurice Moore:
“There is nothing left but the walls, not a vestige of glass, timber or even plaster from the ground floor up; such wholesale destruction in a few hours is difficult to understand”.
Col Maurice Moore felt the loss deeply. However, the burning of Moorehall did not dilute his patriotism or his politics. The locality, he was persuaded, had no hand in the destruction. This was the one big house in Mayo that people had been brought up to love and respect. Many generations of the Moore family had stood with the people in their struggles. Indeed, the Moores were still remembered frequently by families in their rosaries and fireside prayers for their benevolence to so many during the Famine of the 1840s. Col Maurice Moore wrote to his son:
“…Reilly knows all the local people and hears conversations and comments and believes that none of them had anything to say to it. He says that though there is a feeling that it may bring them nearer to owning the land, even for that they would not have wished it done. When one knows the absorbing desire of land by the Irish peasant that means a good deal.”
On June 3, 1924, a report on compensation for the burnings announced that George Moore was awarded £16,289, 13 shillings and six pence for the destruction of Moorehall. A report the previous month showed a breakdown of the request for compensation across furniture, china, engravings, and books.
Thomas Hurst, Cloneen, stated that on the night of the fire:
“…armed men came to his shop and took away eleven gallons of paraffin and some candles.”
Had George Moore indicated he would rebuild the house he would have received better terms. Despondently, he confided in a friend: “Since the burning of my house I don’t think I shall ever be able to set foot in Ireland again.”
Following the fire, George Moore sold the remaining estate to the Congested District Board. A previous sale had taken place in 1912.
Col Maurice Moore, who had always been more attached to Moorehall than his brother, made one last desperate attempt to rebuild. He purchased the ruin and approximately 300 acres in the townland including islands on the lake for £1,300.351. The property was willed to his son but events conspired against him from being able to achieve his dream.
The American Depression and sustained drought in Wyoming ensured his son Rory could not return to Mayo during Maurice’s remaining lifetime.
Col Maurice Moore also lost his senate salary in 1936, although it was revived again in 1938 when de Valera appointed him to Seanad Éireann. Hopes of a reconstruction had to be abandoned and Moorehall was sold to a timber merchant.
The plaques erected at Killeen Hill and the gateways at Moorehall still arouse much comment. They were erected in the 1960s by C Company Ballyglass Old IRA Commemorative Committee. It was done with the support of Rory Moore (USA), son of Col Maurice Moore who chose the wording, including – “…the refusal to barter principals for English Gold.”
That is a reference to Saddler and Keogh who did precisely that in the George Henry Moore Irish Parliamentary Party era in Westminster Parliament.
Rory Moore was not embittered by the actions of the Republican forces in burning the ancestral home and he maintained strong local connections which he fostered by letter. He also visited many local families on his stopover trip from Wyoming, USA.
An elderly man from Moorehall informed me some years ago how his father recalled that local men were carting away loads of semi-charred books and artefacts to be buried in local quarries and bog holes for days after the fire. The undeserved destruction and burning of Moorehall is indeed one of the saddest legacies from the Civil War era.
The recent positive news is that the ancient home of the Moores of Moorehall, after 100 years of dormant slumber, is currently being re-established as a national park and visitor centre.
Through the co-operation of Mayo County Council, in association with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, a masterplan will shortly be unveiled for the project.
One feels rightly or wrongly that if Moorehall was in Leinster or close to ‘The Pale’ it would have been restored long ago. In recent years, the state has spent €52.2 million on Farmleigh House in Castleknock, Dublin. The merited preservation and restoration of Moorehall would only cost a fraction of that sum.
Some development works have already been carried out on the walled garden and on defined walks established on the grounds. Public interest has been huge – a recent online Facebook page on the history and heritage of Moorehall has had over 2,000 hits. Families and visitors drop by daily and especially at weekends to enjoy the serenity of the woods and grounds. The unique flowers and fauna are comparable to the Burren and the constant ever-lapping waters of Lough Carra keep ebbing to the shoreline.
Close by the ruins of the century’s old house, Moorehall stands silent and brooding over its numerous contrasting days of majestic splendour and great tragedy.
Burning the Big House by Terence Dooley; The Moores of Moorehall by Joseph Hone; A most public-spirited and unselfish man: The career and contribution of Colonel Maurice Moore 1854-1939 by Daithi O’ Corrain; The Tan War, Ballyovey, South Mayo by Michael Lally