The burning of Moydrum Castle

It was one of the most infamous incidents of the War of Independence and it has long since become part of Athlone's history.Researcher RICHARD COPLEN has spent some time recalling the burning of Moydrum Castle in 1921 and here he recounts the background and build-up to the fire. This article was first published in the Westmeath Independent in January 2006 I.R.A. activities in the winter of 1919 and spring of 1920 were somewhat small-scale, concerned only with the acquisition of arms and the disruption of regulated services. By mid-April 1920, the Troubles escalated with the burning of four big houses during February and March. By December four of the seven R.I.C. outposts in the Athlone district had been destroyed. I.R.A. veteran, Thomas Costello recalls: 'In our area, Creggan and Brawny barracks were evacuated, and we burned both of these on Easter Saturday night, 1920, in conformation with the rest of the country. This was a countrywide operation, and it was gratifying to read in the daily papers of the period about the destruction of these enemy posts. It indicated that the Irish people were up and thinking again on the right lines. The R.I.C. were always looked upon as the No.1 enemy of the people. They were of the people - being all Irishmen - and it was understood by all that they were the chief weapon by which the British government maintained a hold on the country. This evacuation, though only a limited withdrawal, was the beginning of the end, and was a great blessing to us as it allowed us greater freedom of movement. The R.I.C. were the eyes and ears of the British government through their hirelings in Dublin Castle.' During June 1920 sixteen big houses were burnt. In late June, the local I.R.A. again targeted and destroyed three nearby R.I.C. barracks - Glasson, Littleton and the recently restored Brawny. After spending the winter in France the family of Lord Castlemaine returned to his seat at Moydrum castle in the late spring of 1921. Between January and May 1921 saw thirteen more houses burnt, mainly in Co. Cork. With this in mind, Lord Castlemaine set off firstly to London and then onto Scotland for an extended fishing-trip in mid-June. He left Lady Castlemaine and their daughter behind at Moydrum, along with the large staff of servants guaranteeing the Castle's security, or so they thought. Local I.R.A. volunteers were recently informed that an officer from the military garrison in Athlone, Major-General Thomas Stanton Lambert, commanding officer of the 13th Brigade in Athlone and G.O.C. of the Dublin Brigade, was in the habit of going to a house near Coosan named Midges to play tennis. They set-up an ambush to kidnap Lambert, hold him hostage, and use him to barter with the British forces for the captured Longford I.R.A. leader, Seán MacEoin. On the 20 June 1921, Lambert, his friend Colonel Challenor and their wives were travelling by motorcar towards Coosan to play tennis. Near Benown they found their path was suddenly blocked by a dozen armed men, led by Captain Elliott of the Tubberclair Volunteers. Seeing the ambush ahead, but no roadblock, Lambert, who was driving, accelerated instead of stopping. The ambushers opened fire with their weapons then immediately fled the scene. Both Major-General Lambert and Mrs. Challenor had been critically wounded. All four were rushed to Athlone hospital, where Lambert died of his injuries. Lambert's assassination met with outrage and bitter indignation among the British forces and there was an immediate cry for revenge. Lambert was a highly decorated veteran and hero of the First World War. According to I.R.A. veteran Thomas Costello, 'Military activity now became intense and they combed the countryside, including the Islands on the Shannon.' The majority of I.R.A. Volunteers in the Westmeath of 1921 came from farming backgrounds. This saw the Black and Tans focusing their search for arms in many rural farmsteads around south Westmeath. In the early curfew hours of Saturday, 2 July, at about 2 a.m., a 'number of masked men [estimated at twelve] who carried revolvers and wore trench coats and tweed caps' burned five farmhouses in the Coosan district, belonging to a Mr. Thomas Duffy, Mr. Thomas Wansboro, Mr. Thomas Farrell, Mrs. Coghlan and a Mr. Patrick Moore. The Black and Tans passed on to Mount Temple where they burned another farmhouse belonging to a Mrs. Hanevy. These families were described by the Westmeath Independent as: 'all hard-working, industrious people' that 'took no part in politics. It was decided by the I.R.A that a similar attack should be made on the homes of local British sympathisers. Why was Moydrum Castle targeted? I discovered the answer to this in the eyewitness accounts left by those I.R.A. volunteers who actually burned Moydrum. These were: Thomas Costello, O/C Athlone Brigade; Henry O'Brien, Captain of Coosan Company, 1st Battalion, Athlone Brigade and Frank O'Connor, Captain of Coosan Company, 2nd Battalion, Athlone Brigade. Thomas Costello decided on the targets and his account explains why he opted for Moydrum Castle: 'After the Tans had done their burnings, an order was received from G.H.Q. that we were to burn an equal number of houses belonging to supporters of the British regime as a counter reprisal. There were a number of small places owned by Protestants in the area, but I did not consider it would be fair to burn those people's houses for something, which was not their fault. Lord Castlemaine lived in Moydrum Castle and was a member of the British House of Lords. Lady Castlemaine was in continuous residence in the Castle. I decided to burn this in preference to the small houses of the other Loyalist residents, as it would be more effective…We had to go prepared to fight, as officers of the Athlone garrison were regular visitors to the Castle.' Henry O'Brien adds further insight to Moydrum's selection: 'An order was received from headquarters that a similar number of houses belonging to Loyalists or British supporters were to be burned by us as a counter-reprisal. Brigade headquarters, however, decided to burn Moydrum Castle instead of a number of smaller houses. Moydrum Castle was the residence of Lord and Lady Castlemaine. Lord Castlemaine was a member of the British House of Lords and was always an opponent of Irish National aspirations. 'Lady Castlemaine and her daughter were in residence in the Castle at this time. There was also a large staff of servants employed there. British officers from the garrison in Athlone and the neighbouring towns were regular visitors to the Castle and, as we might encounter a party of them there, we had to be prepared to fight when undertaking this operation.' Frank O'Connor had a similar story to tell: 'On considering the matter that it would not be equitable to burn the houses of people who had no part in either affair, it was decided instead to burn Moydrum Castle. Moydrum Castle was the residence of Lord Castlemaine who was a member of the British House of Lords and who always opposed anything which was patriotic and was really an enemy of Ireland. He had dismissed men from his employment because they would not join the British Army. British officers often stayed at the Castle and the officers from the garrison in Athlone were regular visitors there, so we might meet with a hostile reception when we got there.' So there we have it - clear and definitive proof that Moydrum's burning was not a random case of reprisal as local historians have for years claimed. In the early curfew hours of Sunday, 3 July 1921 a crowd of local I.R.A. Volunteers assembled and marched on Moydrum Castle. The only occupants of the castle were Lady Castlemaine, her daughter and eight servants. The Volunteers were heavily armed. They also carried several two-gallon tins of petrol and sledgehammers with which to break in if admission was refused. Entering the darkened demesne, they dispersed for 'security purposes', before meeting at the castle's front door at 3.30 a.m. Loud knocking at the front door awakened the occupants. Lady Castlemaine, getting up and looking out of her bedroom window, saw 'about sixty young men in civilian attire' and carrying weapons. Panicking, she ordered the servants not to open the door but barricade it.. Receiving no answer, the raiders used their sledgehammers to smash the lower windows and the door panels and began to force their way in. Before entry was gained, Costello ordered the men to stop. What happened next is in his words: 'The butler and Lady Castlemaine now came to the door and the lady asked for whoever was in charge. I told her I was in charge and told her the object of our visit. She asked me if I would allow her some time to pack some valuables and so forth, such as silverware. I pointed out to her that the Black and Tans did not give the people they burned out time even to dress, but I said we did not follow their example. I gave her the time she required and also ten men to help her with the task and they took out about ten boxes of materials. Meanwhile, we had rounded up all the staff and placed them under guard at the rear of the premises. Two armchairs were taken out of the Castle and put down for the Lady and her daughter to sit on.' This account is very much different to those reported in the newspapers following the burning which said for example that Lady Castlemaine was gruffly told: 'We will give you five minutes to clear out. We are burning your house as a reprisal of the recent burnings at Coosan and Mount Temple.' Dividing into groups they spent the next half an hour going into each of the thirty-four rooms in the castle, collecting all the furniture and placing it in piles in the centre of each room. They saturated these piles with the petrol they had brought along with them as well as petrol and paraffin, which they had commandeered from the Castlemaine's chauffeur. Windows were thrown open as well as 'holes being made in the floors ceilings and roof with sledgehammers in order to 'give ventilation to fan the flames'. According to O'Connor: 'When the place was ready to set alight, the O/C [Costello] fell-in our party and made a check to see that everyone was accounted for.' Following this the leader, Thomas Costello, then approached Lady Castlemaine: 'I informed Lady Castlemaine that we were not criminals and were acting on the orders of G.H.Q. of the I.R.A. and that the burning of her home was a reprisal for the burning done by England's Black and Tans. She was very dignified under the circumstances and never winced. She thanked me for my co-operation in saving her treasures and assured me that she quite understood. The place was now set alight and, having assured ourselves that it would be totally destroyed, we saluted Lady Castlemaine and withdrew.' The raiders then quickly dispersed and disappeared into the darkness, leaving behind Moydrum Castle a raging inferno. The likes of Frank O'Connor were glad that 'there were none of the British officers there that night and we had no fight.' All got away safely. Of the once highly acclaimed architectural masterpiece that was Moydrum Castle, only the front façade remained by the time dawn broke. Of much of the castle's contents - including priceless heirlooms, antiques, paintings, furniture and jewellery (with the exception of some saved personal possessions and the family silver plate), nothing remained. By the time the news had reached the authorities and a large party of the police and military had arrived on the scene: "the Castle and its contents were beyond salvage." Later, at six o'clock on the evening of Sunday, 3 July, nearby Creggan House was also burnt in the exact same way by the same Volunteers. The police and military investigations, which followed, are described to us by Thomas Costello: 'Three of our men named Costello and relatives of mine were actually working in the place [Moydrum]. Yet, when the military interviewed Lady Castlemaine after the fire, she refused to disclose the identity of any of them and said she was not in a position to recognise any of our party. She informed the military that the men who burned the Castle were gentlemen and behaved as such. This was told to me afterwards by her doctor.' Shortly after six local men in the Mount Temple area were arrested 'by enemy forces' in connection with the burnings. An informant was discovered, a local Protestant named Johnston. When it was learned that he was in hiding in a neighbour's house some local Volunteers went straight around and shot him dead 'in full view of the family in the house.' Reports of these incidents appeared in newspapers across Britain and Ireland. With so many chaotic scenes being played out across the country, the burnings didn't receive too much press coverage, even more so from the local newspaper the Westmeath Independent, whose printing works and offices were burnt by the Black and Tans shortly beforehand owing to its supposedly anti-British stance. The 5th Baron raced back to Moydrum as soon as he had been informed of the attack. Following the clean-up process most of the estate workers and servants were 'laid off'. July 1921 saw the highest number of big house burnings so far - twenty-one in total. Between January 1920 and July 1921, Co. Westmeath, had proven, geographically, to be the Leinster county with the highest number of big house burnings and the third highest county in Ireland with Cork and Clare ranked in first and second place respectively Castlemaine set about re-locating to the southeast of England where he owned two residences. Of the £120,000 estimated damages to Moydrum, £101,000 was ultimately paid out in compensation. Castlemaine never returned to Moydrum itself although he did return to Ireland on visits. He sold the 525 acre estate to the Irish Land Commission in 1924, and it was soon divided amongst the local people. Albert Edward Handcock, 5th Baron Castlemaine and the last resident lord of Moydrum Castle, died suddenly at his London home on Tuesday, 7 July 1937. His obituary, published in the Irish papers sung the praises of 'a good landlord, one who was respected and honoured by all classes and creeds.' Was this man, considered 'over-kind and generous to all', the same man who, as a 'traitor' and 'unwelcome invader', had his castle burnt to the ground only sixteen years before? There seems to be a serious discrepancy between the collective memories of 1921 and 1937. This article and others on other big houses in the Westmeath area can be viewed at