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Updated: Feb 17

In the early hours of Wednesday, 26 May 1920, ‘villagers, tenants and estate workers witnessed the sensational picture of’ Kilbrittain Castle ablaze.[1] Once the seat of the McCarthy Reaghs, the historic building was gutted, ‘only the walls of the castle and debris’ remaining.[2] The cost of the damage varied widely, from £30,000 to £100,000. The estimate of £30,000 reported by the Skibbereen Eagle, was the most prudent. Several months after the castle’s destruction, owners Messrs O’Riordan and Doyle, claimed £40,000 in compensation for the destruction. The Cork based timber merchants, Daniel O’Riordan and Denis F. Doyle had purchased the castle ‘in the Land Judges Court’ the previous year.[3] The lot had comprised the castle and almost 500 acres of mixed farm and woodland, consideration given amounting to £137,000. The two men were primarily focused on recouping the purchase price and failed to realise by doing so they were going to incur the wrath of the local population.

Heavily wooded, the Kilbrittain Castle estate was ripe for exploitation. O’Riordan and Doyle upset the local equilibrium when they employed methods which ‘appeared very like the old style of land grabbing’.[4] The timber merchants failed to renew the leases of local families who had farmed portions of the land, instead renting it to a land owner, John O’Brien, who had offered higher rent. The fact that the ejected families were supporters of Sinn Fein and had close ties with the local company of Volunteers generated large degrees of animosity. An attempt was made to solve the issue peacefully but following the breakdown in negotiations, violent conflict was inevitable. The Kilbrittain Company of Volunteers issued an ultimatum to O’Riordan and Doyle to cease and desist from all work on the estate. The timber merchants did not heed this warning, however.

Following orders from Brigade Headquarters, local Volunteers engaged in several acts of agitation. During Spring 1919, approximately fifteen Volunteers ‘took part in armed cattle-drive from Kilbrittain Castle and the sabotage of a cargo of timer [sic] awaiting shipment at Burrin Pier.’[5] A few months later, on 6 June 1919, a convoy of lorries carrying timber from the castle to Bandon station was fired upon. ‘At Barleyfield six or eight shots were discharged,’ two men receiving lacerations from pellets.[6] Doyle and O’Riordan had taken steps to protect their interests by applying for police protection and applying for compensation for the malicious damage. This was viewed as invoking the assistance of British Forces and the award of compensation, skimming money from the district.

The timber merchants had attempted to sell the castle and were close to completing the transaction. However, the prospective buyers, a Belgian religious order were warned not to do so. Subsequently, IRA intelligence received information from a sympathetic Bandon based policeman of the imminent occupation of the castle by British military. The Brigade Officer Commanding gave the order to burn Kilbrittain Castle. Local Volunteers made their way to the building, evacuated workers and their families who were living on the premises and set fire to the building. Days later the intelligence received by the IRA was confirmed when the Irish Examiner reported that the castle was to a military base ‘according to an official report from Dublin Castle.’[7]

Kilbrittain Castle became the IRA’s very first burning of a Cork Big House, ‘and the same motive prompted Volunteers in ….northwest Cork to engage in a spate of burnings’.[8] Outnumbered and outgunned, guerrilla warfare was the only method available to the IRA if they were to achieve Irish Independence. This objective would be severely hampered if British Military were based locally, thereby ensuring that many historical buildings were lost, a trend that continued in the Irish Civil War that followed.

Figure 2: Kilbrittain Castle in more recent photos (from Lori Hilden).


[1] Irish Examiner, 27 May 1920. [2] Skibbereen Eagle, 29 May 1920. [3] Southern Star, 16 October 1920. It was reported that the sales transaction took place on the 9th May 1919, however this date is unlikely. Tensions were rife at this stage and damage had already been inflicted on goods owned by Doyle and O’Riordan., [4] Denis Lordan, BMH Witness Statement No. 470, 18 December 1950. [5] James O’Mahony, Denis Crowley, John Fitzgerald, BMH Witness Statement No. 560, 10 May 1951. [6] Irish Examiner, 7 June 1920. The news article also confirms Denis Lordan’s testimony by reporting that a strike had occurred prior to the shooting. The strike being as a result of the dismissal of several men, [7] Irish Examiner, 31 May 1920 [8] James S. Donnelly, Jr., ‘Big House Burnings in County Cork During the Revolution, 1920-21’, Éire-Ireland, 47 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 2012, p. 149.

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