On the afternoon of Wednesday, 10 January 1923, Lulu Bagwell wroteÂ to her mother-in-law Harriet informing her the family house hadÂ been destroyed in a blaze earlier that morning. Lulu and the childrenÂ had been obliged to stand shivering at gunpoint on the lawn watchingÂ the conflagration, the raiders responsible for the fire only leavingÂ when it was too late to save Marlfield. Afterwards she discovered herÂ handbag and all the family’s overcoats had been stolen. ‘We hadn’tÂ even a handkerchief,’ she lamented, ‘everything has gone.’
The fate of Marlfield was not unique. It is estimated that between 250Â and 300 Irish country houses were burnt in the early 1920s during theÂ course of the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War. TheÂ reasons behind their destruction were various, but because of theirÂ scale and prominence on the Irish landscape, setting fire to themÂ was judged by perpetrators to be good propaganda. Relatively littleÂ investigation has been undertaken into this devastation – to bothÂ property and lives.
But how was it for the owners of these buildings? How did theyÂ feel when, in the course of just a few hours, they saw their worldsÂ overturned? Hitherto historians have concentrated on the actions andÂ motivation of those responsible for carrying out the burnings. LeftÂ Without a Handkerchief will tell the other side of the story, of historyÂ seen from the perspective of the losers, left homeless and strugglingÂ to cope, emotionally and financially.
A key source for this story will be under-explored material held byÂ the national archives of both Ireland and Britain. CorrespondenceÂ back and forth, between claimants and the relevant authorities, revealÂ the extent of suffering experienced by those whose houses had beenÂ burnt, often shock that the local community, of which they hadÂ thought themselves part, displayed little concern in the aftermath ofÂ their devastation. These official documents will be supplemented byÂ other material: letters, diaries, memoirs, some of it coming directlyÂ from descendants of the house owners and not previously shared inpublic.
Left Without a Handkerchief will fill a gap in the national narrative,Â featuring the stories of ten houses and their owners. From GalwayÂ to Wexford, Mayo to Cork, it will give a voice to the dispossessed, toÂ the people who thought they had a place in Ireland until, usually inÂ the course of a single night, they were disabused of this belief. As theÂ centenary of the onset of house burnings arrives, now is the time toÂ tell their story.