Queen’s County 1919 – 1923: Attacks on Big Houses and Protestant Landowners

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Queen’s County 1919 – 1923:

Attacks on Big Houses and Protestant Landowners


Terence Dooley, in his book ‘The Decline of the Big House in Ireland’, wrote that between 1919 and 1923 ‘landlords, largely because of their socio-political, economic and religious backgrounds, were to suffer outrage and intimidation on a scale the like of which their class had not experienced in living memory.’

What of other Irish Protestants in the rural community? Did they suffer such attacks? Why did attacks on Protestants occur? House burnings, harassment, assault, threatening letters, the carrying off of livestock and other property, boycotts, land grabbing, and murder, why were Protestants sometimes subjected to this kind of treatment? Was it always motivated by sectarian hatred? No. There were also sometimes strategic military reasons for it, it was often reprisal for acts carried out by crown forces or land-grabbing. This article will attempt to throw some light on the motivation, paying particular attention to events in Queen’s County, particularly the Luggacurran Eviction of Protestants landowners.
Because of its unique history, Laois had the fourth highest percentage of Protestants in the 26 counties at the time of the ‘Troubles’. Yet, only one big house was burned in Queen’s County during the War of Independence. No house was burned during the Civil War, justifying Laois’ reputation for being a ‘Quiet County’. Nationwide 300 big houses were burned, 76 during the war of independence and the rest during the civil war. In August 1920, the RIC county inspector described Queen’s County as a ‘usually quiet county’. As late as 1922, a RIC report says ‘Queen’s County has a reputation for freedom from crime and lawlessness, such as has not been equaled by any county’. Yet, in March 1922, armed men near the village of Luggacurran attacked the property of William Stanley, ransacked his house, drove off his cattle and ordered him and his family to quit the property, permanently. This began an organized campaign of harassment to drive the Protestant farmers from the land at Luggacurran.
The Luggacurran Protestants were not landlords. They did not live in country mansions. They did not have the ‘socio-political, or economic backgrounds’ of the landlords. Apart from Protestantism, they had little in common with the landlord. Does this mean that this attack was motivated by sectarianism? Before attempting to unravel what happened at Luggacurran, perhaps it is advisable to outline the situation nationally, allowing for the fact that there are broad and striking variations across the country.

Protestant landlords were vulnerable members of Irish society during the War of Independence. They were a minority. They had a distinctive identity and were culturally alien from the population in general. To many nationalists, the Protestant landowners were the loyalist backbone of British rule in Ireland; they had stolen the land from the rightful native Irish Catholic people. It might seem as if the troubles simply provided an opportunity at last to attack the hated usurper. However, the attacks on landlords during these years is not as simple as it might seem
The landlord class lost its protection when the War of Independence began. The RIC, who had always protected them, was totally overwhelmed and the big houses became soft targets (In 1920 500 RIC barracks were evacuated and 424 burned) Furthermore, according to Dooley, 1/3 of the houses burned were burned because either the crown forces were about to billet there or had occupied the building and left.

The fact that the burning of big houses is very uneven throws some light on motivation. Places where the Black and Tans were carrying out an arson campaign, is where the vast majority of Big Houses were burned. Munster, therefore, accounts for the vast majority of house burnings. Tipperary, Cork, Kerry, Clare, and Limerick, during the war of independence, are the counties where the Black and Tan carried out many reprisal attacks. 1/3 of the big houses burned were burned in Cork. Tom Barry who led the West Cork IRA- ordered that for every Republican home destroyed, 2 homes of British loyalists would be destroyed. This didn’t happen in Queen’s County.
The landlord may have been regarded as anti-Irish because of who they were, however IRA headquarters issue an order that the landlord was not to be viewed as a legitimate target because he was a loyalist or Orangeman, but only if he was ‘actively anti-Irish in his actions.’

A lot of what can be said about the War of Independence and Civil War has to be prefaced with the words ‘in some areas’. In some areas, house burning was a tactic to put pressure on the landlord to quit the property, forcing re-distribution of land. The perpetrators were nicknamed ‘paraffin patriots.’ Tubberdaly House (King’s County) is a case in point. IRA man Christopher Jones seized the land. He remained in possession of that land. The rest of the land was redistributed among local people by the Land Commission in 1925.

Ironically, the landlords may have had more protection from Sinn Fein and the IRA during the War of Independence that they believed at the time. They were much more vulnerable during the civil war, and there was an escalation of burnings. Between January 1922 and April 1923, 199 big houses were burned in the 26 counties. The country was much more lawless. Queen’s County is the only county in the 26 counties where no big house was burned during the civil war. The burnings during the civil war were reprisals for government executions, to prevent the enemy billeting within, and land grabbing. 1/3 of the burnings of the civil war can be explained by the anti-treaty policy of burning the homes of senators.

In some areas of the country, there was a class conflict between landlords and tenants, or big graziers and small farmers. Sometimes the victim is Protestant, but many Catholic graziers and large farmers are targeted. Kevin O’Higgins, Minister for Home Affairs, said there were over 500 seizures of land by tenant farmers. Sinn Fein had been preaching land-redistribution way back in 1918. In that year, Sinn Fein had organized marches in Queen’s County against grazing farms, intimidating and robbing the owners.
Class conflict does not explain what happened at Luggacurran, however. The Protestant farmers are not large rich grazing farmers. There is no evidence that the Protestants attacked had given support to crown forces. Nor is there anything to suggest that the evictions were reprisals or were political in nature. In recent years, there has been intense debate about whether Irish nationalists who attacked Protestants did so for purely sectarian reasons. Is Luggacurran such a case?

The campaign against Luggacurran Protestants began at the same time as the Civil War. Notices for a meeting were posted in the area. At the meeting, a land committee was set up, and it set a date for the ‘forcible eviction’ of people who the organizers described as the ‘planters’. Letters were sent to the ‘planters’ informing them. On 31st March a group gathered in the village and proceeded to the home of William Stanley. He and his family were forced out of their home by armed men. They drove off his livestock. Two days later, Thomas Stone and one of his tenants was forced off his farm. Threatening notices were posted, promising that ‘there will be no more Orangemen left’. Two more evictions follow two weeks later. Local people were warned not to give any help to the planters. A petition signed by 28 men was sent to the Department of Home Affairs, appealing for assistance. Despite army intervention, three more evictions followed. A Republican Land Court was set up and all but two ‘planters’, Stone and Stanley immediately returned to their farms. They found their property vandalized and livestock killed or stolen. The Land Committee would not allow the other two men to return to the area. It was a year before they returned.
Prominent Protestants, British and Irish (and the British and Irish press) saw the conflict at Luggacurran as a sectarian one. The ‘planters’ applied to a British organization called the ‘Irish Grants Committee (IGC) who gave compensation to Irish refugees who had fled Ireland and loyalists in the free state. In their claims, the Luggacurran ‘planters’ all describe themselves as loyalists and say that the reason they were targeted was religion and loyalty to the British crown. They emphasized that if they had been good ‘Sinn Feiners’, rather than good loyalists, they would have been ‘left in peace’. Since these testimonies are part of an application process for compensation to loyalists, they may be misleading.

The instability brought about by civil war provided an opportunity for a number of individuals to act on their grievances without fear of punishment. The provisional government was committed to preventing land grabbing and agrarian violence; it was committed to showing that it could protect Protestants; it was in the words of a government minister, and Laois man, Kevin O Higgins time to treat Protestants ‘not as alien enemies, not as planters… but as part and parcel of the nation.’ However, in 1922, Ireland was difficult to govern.
As it turns out, to understand what happened in Lugacurran, you have to go back to the 1880s. Luggucurran had belonged to the Marquis of Landsdowne. The Protestant ‘planters’ had replaced 87 tenants evicted during the Plan of Campaign. In 1887, Landsdowne re-let the land to 26 Protestant ‘planters’, not for sectarian reasons, he said, but because they gave less trouble. By 1909, the planters had bought their land, but they were resented locally as Protestant land-grabbers and were a marginalized and close-knit community. (There had been violent confrontations, for instance in 1911, a planter called Robert Corcoran bought land at auction. A week later a rick of hay was burned. He was harassed until he gave up the farm. He needed police protection.
However, a government inspector investigating the links between the land committee and the 1921 evictions at Luggacurran, discovered that, while the committee claimed moral right on the grounds that the planters were on ‘eviction’ land, it did not represent the former tenants. Those involved in attacks were not former tenants or locals ‘but a set of young hooligans drawn from a district 5 miles away… farm labourers and miners from the adjacent Wolfhill Colleries’. The chairman and the secretary of the Land Committee were local farmers, as were several other prominent members, but they did not have widespread local support, and in fact, were opposed by Catholic landowners in the area.

At the time, Free State officials saw the conflict as agrarian in nature. Protestant commentators in Britain and Ireland, however, insisted it was sectarian. It was perhaps both. Or perhaps it was simply opportunistic.


Dooley Terrence ‘The Decline of the Big House in Ireland’
Donnelly S JR, ‘Big House Burnings in County Cork during the Irish Revolution, 1920 – 1921’, Eire Ireland 47: 3 & 4 Fall/Winter 2012

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Laois Heritage Society 2019