There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
Rathrobin House, Mountbolus was the most modern and one of the finest of the ‘Big Houses’ burnt by the anti-Treaty IRA during the Civil War of 1922-3. Its loss was a tragedy for the district and for its owner and builder Lt Col Middleton Biddulph. Today the house is a ruin and the intended tomb of the old colonel in Blacklion churchyard remains empty. Biddulph was a generous man of independent means and was not dependent on exacting high rents from his tenants and employees with whom he was on the best of terms. Much has been written of the trauma experienced by participants in the Civil War, of the needless killings and the executions (81). It was a shocking time for the two sides and many innocent people suffered also. Perhaps some of the post-Civil War trauma and the silence can be attributed to the consideration that the war may have been an unfortunate and costly mistake. It may have seemed so to some of the participants following the success of the Free State and Fianna Fáil governments in rolling back on the oath, dominion status and the ports in the 1930–38 period. Thus confirming the ‘stepping stone’ thesis. As with the Spanish Civil War (much more violent) there is, even now, a kind of Pact of Forgetting (Pacto del Olvido) with people wanting to move on and forget about something that should not have happened. Yet, it is important to record the events of that period and what brought about the shocking atrocities especially in Kerry. County Offaly had its share in these tragedies.
Middleton Biddulph of Rathrobin, Mountbolus celebrated his silver wedding anniversary in October 1916 and a presentation was made to him and his wife Vera by the women members of the war working party who were active throughout the war and mostly meeting at Rathrobin for the purpose of knitting articles for the soldiers at the front. At the time the Rev. J.T. Webster was the serving curate in Killoughy as the rector was in France. The curate said the working party was noted for the united and harmonious spirit that characterised it – meaning probably that it crossed class and religious boundaries. Biddulph had been taking photographs of the people of Rathrobin since 1902 and knew the history of the area through study and talking to some of the older men in the locality.
Rathrobin House, rebuilt 1898-1900, destroyed 18 April 1923
In May 1917 great concern was expressed for Biddulph due to a serious illness and it is likely that it was from then on that he spent most of the winters in Tunbridge Wells or other spas in England. He remained in Ireland until June 1921 when he was obliged to flee his house in fear of his life. He went to an apartment in 7 Cheyne Mansions, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. From there he corresponded with his solicitor Lewis Goodbody on 2 April 1923 advising of his bronchitis and the ‘horrid winter’. Lewis Goodbody, the Tullamore partner, in that firm had called to Rathrobin with his new motor in 1904 (see photograph) and Biddulph would have known James Perry Goodbody of Inchmore, Clara, who was vice-chairman of the county council until he lost his seat to a Sinn Féin active service man, Sean Robbins, in 1920. Biddulph wrote that he was hoping that Perry Goodbody was improving and remarked that the remainder of the lease on the apartment in Chelsea would see him out. It did, as he died there in 1926 and Perry Goodbody did not survive the month of April 1923. Neither did Biddulph’s dream home at Rathrobin. Both men had suffered severe trauma in the ‘Troubles’ of 1919–23. Biddulph’s wife, Vera, died in England in 1938 (aged 75). The old colonel was spared sight (if not knowledge) of the destruction of all that he had laboured for himself in the previous twenty-five years, and, in addition, the houses of his well-to-do neighbours laid waste.
Rathrobin in the 1980s
Rathrobin was destroyed by Republican IRA forces on 18 April 1923, supposedly in reprisal for Free State executions. The house was known to the Republican IRA because after the burning of the military barrack in Tullamore in July 1922 Rathrobin was occupied by up to fifty men who stayed that night and other times. The car of W.C. Graham, the Tullamore Methodist merchant (foreman of the Sergeant Cronin inquest jury in November 1920), was stolen to get to Rathrobin. After the burning threatening notices were sent in the name of ‘landless men’ which would tend to confirm that the quest for land by the labourer and small farmer was often a motive in these burnings, and was certainly the case with Toberdaly, Rhode burned on 15 April 1923. The Rathrobin steward was awoken by a number of armed men with rifles, revolvers and petrol. The IRA said the house was to be destroyed as a reprisal for the executions and to ask no more questions. The damage was estimated at £60,000.
The Corcoran family, Mountbolus, 22 Aug. 1904 from the Biddulph photographs in Offaly Archives.
The Republican IRA team was led by Sean McGuinness. His listing of his activities from 1917 to 1923 in his pension application was lengthy and impressive. It included a raid on Durrow Abbey for arms in March 1920, the attack on Clara barracks (June 1920), killing of Sergeant Cronin (31 October 1920), Ulster Bank raid, Tullamore (May 1921), killing of head RIC constable Kilbeggan (12 June 1921), killing of two spies, burning of three Tullamore IRA garrisons (gaol, courthouse and barracks, July 1922)),
‘Reprisals for executions’, ‘destroying of mansions’ in March and April 1923
Burning of Wakely’s, Ballyburly, Rhode
Dames’s, Greenhills, Rhode
Tubberdaly/Toberdaly, Nesbitt’s, Rhode
Durrow Castle (recte Abbey) – Toler’s
In supporting the Pension application William Bagnall of Cloneygowan also credited McGuinness with being in charge of the flying column that destroyed Screggan and Brookfield (Military Archives: MSP34REF4688 Sean McGuinness). McGuinness could not be accused of any lack of enthusiasm even with his pension application which he persevered with on numerous occasions and copied in Minister Frank Aiken on all of them. Ultimately, he was successful with an award and lands at Ardnaglew, Kilbeggan, a former home of the Lockes of Kilbeggan distilling family.McGuinness was elected a TD for Laois-Offaly in 1923 but as a Republican did not take his seat.
Mrs Mathews recalled her father, Paul Wallace (the colonel’s major domo) writing to the Biddulphs warning them that the destruction of Rathrobin House was becoming increasingly likely, but the colonel would not believe that such a thing could ever happen to him. He believed that he had treated everyone fairly and was well liked by all. In 1923 in a second spate of house burnings Rathrobin House was bombed and burned by the IRA as the hopeless Civil War was drawing to a close. Paul Wallace had the unenviable job of informing the colonel that his house was gone and told his daughter ‘It was the hardest letter I ever had to write.’
1.41 1.41b Reports of the burning of Rathrobin from the Midland Tribune and the Leinster Reporter
In reporting the fire Seamus Pike, a Roscore man who was editor of the Midland Tribune, said that the Biddulph family had been closely and popularly associated with the district for many years. ‘Colonel Biddulph has always been foremost in helping local interests. His kindness and generosity are well known. The people were very sorry to hear that his home had been destroyed.’
Biddulph’s nephew-in-law, Col. Shaen Magan (he had married Kathleen Biddulph of Moneyguyneen, Kinnitty) explained in making claims for compensation to the Irish and British governments, that Lt Col. Biddulph idealised Rathrobin. ‘He reclaimed it from a wilderness, built a beautiful mansion, planted ninety-four acres, and beautified the surroundings. He was popular with his tenants, and spent with lavish hand helping charities and everything else in every conceivable way. He was now living in England . .’ The Irish circuit court judge did not think that such savagery could exist anywhere. He awarded £10,000 for the house and £3,200 for the furniture. That award was appealed by the Department of Finance and was compromised. A second application was made to the Irish Grants Committee in London and here Shaen Magan was the applicant on behalf of the estate of Col. Biddulph who had died in 1926. The solicitors were A. & L. Goodbody, Dame Street, Dublin and Tullamore, whom old Biddulph had known since his return to Ireland in the 1890s. Now the British-based grants committee was a second venue for compensation and this time it was designed to assist ‘the suffering loyalists’. As to the lodging of claims and affidavits with the Grants Committee perhaps not so far removed from the depositions made by the same group (‘despoiled subjects) after the 1641 Rebellion and the awards of land that may have followed. The Biddulph-Magan applications to the Grants Committee fell into the wealthy landowner-agent category and were two of about 4,000, of which half the applicants were compensated. Clearly, existing wealth was not a barrier to a claim and neither was a solely personal injury as was the way in the case of the attack on Violet Magan (sister of Shaen Magan) who was attacked in 1924.
Shaen Magan’s statement to the compensation tribunal was, not surprisingly, similar to that of his sister Violet Magan in regard to her personal injury claim:
Prior to or about the year 1920 a conspiracy was organised to drive the late Col. Biddulph who was a permanent loyalist out of Ireland. During 1920 and 1921 his home was raided about once a month, threats made, money demanded etc. He finally had to leave Ireland in June 1921, with his wife and resided in England. . . After he left, his mansion house was occupied almost continuously by members of the I.R.A. from July 1921 to April 1923. Special raids were made on 30th July 1921, 1st August 1922 and 19th September 1922 and articles looted on each occasion. The house was burnt down by armed men on 18th April 1923.
Col. Biddulph was then aged 74 years, his wife Mrs Biddulph was a permanent invalid and quite unable to walk, and Col. Biddulph was in frail health. Prior to his removal to England on 21st June 1921 [before the Truce] Col. Biddulph had been barricaded into his house for six weeks by the I.R.A. who felled neighbouring trees, trenched the avenue and barricaded all roads leading to and from the house, and the railway line from Tullamore was cut at the same time. The rescue of Col. Biddulph and his wife was effected by Miss Magan after a week’s incessant labour by means of relays of motor cars from one barricade to another. He had finally to be driven a distance of about 22 miles to Portarlington where he got a train to Dublin.
. . . the conspirators made every effort to seize the lands containing 703 acres . . . the Land Commission made an offer of £7,300 for the lands which in spite of negotiations Col. Biddulph failed to get increased and ultimately, as they had the power to acquire the lands compulsorily, he accepted, feeling he had no option in the matter.
Shaen Magan calculated the restoration value of the house at £27,054 and that it had cost £12,000 in 1898. Total losses were calculated at £42,346 and that until the shocking attack on Miss Magan in 1924 he had contemplated rebuilding Rathrobin. On this figure was to be deducted £13, 298 (noting that the sum of £10,000 for the house was still under appeal). In the meantime Col. Biddulph had died leaving considerable estate. The Grants Committee awarded a sum of £6,900. The total amount received by Col. Biddulph for his £11,000 house and 703 acres of land may have been close on £27,000. Besides the land and the house there was a substantial amount spent on agricultural improvements. These included the large farm sheds to be seen in some of the precious Magan photographs. Shaen Magan advised that Biddulph had spent £8,700 on farm buildings and £10,400 on plant, reclamation and drainage.
The ruins of Rathrobin House were drawn by John Nankivell and his collection published in Vain Transitory Splendours: The Irish Country House and the Art of John Nankivell (Dublin, 2018). His two originals drawings of Rathrobin are now in Offaly Archives as is a manuscript by Biddulph of family history and a catalogue of the silver in the house. NLI has also an important manuscript by Biddulph which provides a record of the house building in 1898–1900 and the trees planted since the 1860s. The all-important Biddulph photographs are in Offaly Archives and 300 of these were published in 2020. Out of so much misery some good has come.
The Nankivell drawing of the Rathrobin ruins now in Offaly Archives (left). A second drawing was lately donated by Fergal MacCabe for which much thanks.
Offaly Chronicle, 24 Apr. 1923.
 Kilbride and Lynally Parish Magazine, November 1916, May 1917, July 1917, July 1919. T.U. Sadlier noted the sickness of both Garstin and Biddulph in 1917 (RIA, Upton Papers, catalogue of, correspondence of Thomas Ulick Sadlier, 1915–17, 55–6.)
 Offaly Independent, 30 Sept. 1922, 21 Apr. 1923, 28 Apr. 1923; Offaly Chronicle, 5 Nov. 1925.
 Tubberdaly/Toberdaly was not rebuilt. A sum of £35,000 was claimed in the Irish courts, but only £8,100 awarded – see Dooley, Decline of the Big House, 175–77, 206–7.
 Killoughey Jubilee 2000 History Group, Killoughey: a pilgrimage to our past (Tullamore, 2000), 137.
 Midland Tribune, 28 Apr. 1923.
 Offaly Chronicle, 5 Nov. 1925.
 National Archives, Kew: Colonial Office, Irish Grants Committee, Compensation papers for King’s County, file 46/12. Application on behalf of the executors of Col. Biddulph.
Available from Offaly History and Midland Books (also Dan and Molly’s) and online at http://www.offalyhistory.com