The following is a continuation of “Tales of the Irish Civil War- 1922” by
Dick Hornidge of Tulfarris.
“I was walking with Betsy on the brow of the hill that arose steeply behind Tinode. To the east, under a scattering of white clouds, the heather covered peak of Mullaghcleevaun reached through the mist that shrouded Ballyknockan Bog.
Suddenly, a small rabbit with a white tipped tail darted from behind a bush and scampered down the path in a series of zigzags. Then came Betsy, nose to the ground, her long ears dragging in the dew laden grass.
“Betsy! You’ll never catch it. Come on back before you have a heart attack,” I cried.
She flopped down on the path, gasping for breath as I hugged her. Betsy was my faithful companion when I visited my grandparents. Together we explored the wildflower-covered hillsides and the shadowy paths that wound through the dense woods. At night she slept on my bed and at mealtime sat hopefully by my chair.
We ran down the hill, my wellingtons making sucking noises as I pulled them out of the mud. The tall chimneys and gray slate roofs of Tinode appeared when we rounded the next bend. My grandparents’ home was a stately, three-storied Victorian building nestled into the hillside with a sweeping view of the valley below. The carefully tended lawns and gardens and reforested hillsides gave me a comforting sense of order and permanence. I could not imagine a world without Tinode. I enjoyed exploring the many rooms and passageways of the house. When I walked down the long
corridor that led to the library the ancestors gazed down on me from their portraits. Their eyes followed me all the way to the library door. My reading was elementary, but I did enjoy looking at pictures in the English periodicals, many of steeplechases with horses sailing over jumps. The drawings in “Punch” were also fun to look at, but I didn’t understand many of the jokes. My favorite book was the three-volume history of the Indian Mutiny with blood curdling pictures of Sepoys attacking English soldiers. Racing trophies, won by grandfather’s horse Dainty, lined a side table. He was currently on duty with his regiment in Ceylon. When I snuggled into the deep upholstered chair
Betsy climbed onto my bony lap but quickly slid sideways onto the softness of the seat. There was plenty of room for both of us. When I looked up at the shelves of leather bound volumes and the oak paneled walls I felt content and safe.
We continued down the path where the morning sun shone through the overhanging trees and the shadows ran before us. At the end we entered a lane bordered on each side by hedges of blackberry bushes. It led into the yard where a beaten up old lorry stood near the kitchen entrance. A bored IRA trooper, a bandoleer crammed full of bullets across his chest, stood guard. He waved his hand and grinned at me in a friendly fashion.
My grandparents regarded the IRA as lawless rebels who belonged in prison, but there was little they could do to prevent these visitations. I looked upon the IRA as my friends. Most of them were good-natured farm boys who laughed and joked with me. When they came to Tinode it meant fun and excitement. I was careful to hide these feelings from my grandparents.
As I entered the back door, on my way to the kitchen, I saw my grandmother coming from the opposite direction. She strode into the kitchen just ahead of me.
Grandmother’s life revolved around horses and she spent much of her time riding at hunts or exhibiting horses in show rings. This life style contributed to her ruddy out-of-doors complexion, strong but sensitive hands and erect carriage. She had a quick temper that could erupt suddenly with people, but she had unlimited gentleness and patience with horses. The family had learned the warning signs and knew when to stay out of her way. During baby talk when I was very young, I must have called her something that sounded like Donna. The name stuck, so now all the family called her
In the kitchen Donna stood at one side of the table scanning the faces of the six or seven IRA men nursing their mugs of strong black tea.
“Who’s in charge?”, she demanded. “It’s usually Plunket, but I don’t see him.”
A tall man with piercing blue eyes, sitting at the far end of the table, stood up. “Plunket was unwell, so the commandment put me in charge,” he explained. By his accent he plainly came from another county.
“And where are you from? Donna enquired.
“Sure I’am from Donegal,”
I was standing beside Donna and saw her tenseness when the blue eyed man said he was from the north. Her eyes narrowed and I heard her sudden intake of breath. The news had disturbed her deeply, but I didn’t understand why.
“Well, enjoy your tea. Then I trust you’ll be on your way.”
“That we will mam. And thank ye kindly for the tay.” The blue eyed man smiled as he thanked Donna.
He sounded polite and appreciative. During the afternoon walk with Betsy I was puzzled over Donna’s alarm when she heard the blue eyed man came from out of the county.
The food for dinner, in covered dishes, was already on the sideboard when we sat down at the large dinner table which could seat the entire hunt club at their annual banquet. Molly served the roast lamb, potatoes and peas. As we were finishing the first course I decided to question Donna.
“Why were you so upset this morning, Donna, when the blue eyed man said he was from County Donegal?”
She did not answer immediately. Her fingers drummed nervously on the table as she peered at the flickering candles. Finally she turned to me.
“The IRA often bring in a man from the outside when they’re planning something, and I got involved in some local politics,” she said abruptly. “Molly you can bring on the sweet now.”
Her brief and vague reply only puzzled me more and explained nothing. Molly removed the first course dishes and served the sweet. We retired to the drawing room where Donna drank her coffee.
She briefly became more animated as we discussed my upcoming first term at prep school in the autumn. But again drew within herself and gazed absently at the ceiling when it neared bedtime.
Going to bed at Tinode was always an adventure. I selected a candle from the table in the hallway and started up the long curving stairway. The grotesque shadows cast upon the white wall by the flickering candlelight always spooked me. The chance of meeting Tinode’s poltergeist added to my apprehension. Actually he was a friendly little fellow who took the form of a white rabbit with a quaint sense of humor. He delighted in pulling blankets off people while they slept, so they woke up shivering. When only a few steps remained I made a dash for the bedroom door with Betsy running on ahead. The wind blew the candle flame over the back of my hand, which was slightly scorched.
When we settled down into the bed I felt Betsy’s warmth as she snuggled into the small of my back. She sighed contentedly and went to sleep. Prompted by Donna’s behavior, I felt a tinge of anxiety like a small cloud that lingered on the horizon. It was still there as I drifted off to sleep.
It must have been early morning because darkness had already surrendered to twilight. Although my senses were still dulled by sleep I felt the vibrations in the floor. Then I heard the loud thumps coming from the front of the house at regular intervals. I ran out to the landing, from where I could see down into the main hallway, just as the massive oak front door crashed inwards, the heavy iron hinges now a twisted mass of metal. Six men stood in the opening holding, between them, a long section of telephone pole suspended on rope slings. Donna had been awakened by the crash and she now
joined me on the landing. In the dim light of early morning I saw the determined thrust of her chin and alert eyes. She had fully expected something like this to happen, and now was grimly determined to deal with the catastrophe that threatened us.
The man with the blue eyes stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at us. “We’re going to burn the house. You’ve three minutes to get out,” he yelled. He was no longer the smiling, polite person who thanked Donna for the tea.
“Quick. Get dressed. Put on something warm. We’ll meet out on the lawn,” instructed Donna.
I dressed quickly, my mind a whirl of emotions. Were the people I considered my friends really going to burn Tinode? As I rushed down the stairs I met men with petrol cans going up to the bedrooms, their rifles hung over their shoulders. Their mud encrusted hobnailed boots sunk into the stairway carpet. I looked into the drawing room, before crossing the hallway, and saw men spilling petrol out of cans onto the curtains, chairs, cushions and sofas. The fumes were overpowering. The IRA went about their tasks with a quiet efficiency and showed little emotion. They must have had plenty of practice because every week, somewhere in Ireland, a fine old country house was looted and burned.
Donna and I joined the servants on the lawn where an IRA soldier stood guard over us. As I looked towards the house, watching the progress of the flames, I saw the blue eyed man clamber over the wreck of the front door and run down the porch steps with a small black box under his left arm. Donna saw him too.
“That devil has my jewelry case,” she cried.
She jumped to her feet and ran towards him. He stopped and drew his revolver from its holster.
“Stop or I’ll plug you,” he commanded when Donna was only a couple of feet away.
“I don’t care what you do. Those are my jewels.” She lurched forwards and snatched the box from beneath his arm; turned her back to him and walked slowly back to where we were waiting. The blue eyed man was dumbfounded. He replaced his revolver and joined his men who were loading looted articles of furniture onto the lorry.
Puffs of smoke were shooting from the top storey windows, followed by tongues of flame, which quickly grew in intensity. The heat in the upper stories sucked up a giant column of air that surged through the house with a roar. Then the roof collapsed, sending showers of sparks into the morning sky.
Suddenly I remembered : “Has anyone seen Betsy?” I cried, as I looked frantically around the lawn.
Molly replied. “I saw her run to the basement when the door fell in.” The upper floors of the main house were an inferno, but the laundry room part of the basement was not yet threatened. I ran towards the basement door, but only had gone a few yards when I was flung to the ground by a hand grasping the collar of my jacket. The blue eyed man stood over me.
“No one is going back into the house.” He commanded
“But my dog is in there. I’ve got to get her out.”
“No you’re not. Go back to your grandmother.”
I scrambled to my feet and again ran towards the basement door, but was once more flung to the ground. This time the blue eyed man had the revolver in his hand.
“Go back or you’ll be sorry.”
He had not shot Donna when she turned her back on him and walked away. But this time, the hard glint in his eyes persuaded me that he would carry out his threat.
I ran back to Donna, sobbing. It was my fault that Betsy would die in the flames. I blamed myself bitterly for not watching out for her and thinking only of myself.
I watched as flickers of flame, from smouldering pieces of wood, shot into the smoke filled air and the sun, by now well over the shoulder of Mullaghcleevaun, shone down upon the massive granite walls which rose proudly above the rubble.
You might ask where is Tinode House?
A house with a past and lots of character in Blessington, Co Wicklow. You get a sense of this even as you drive between trees and meadows up the long, long avenue to where Tinode House sits in 300 acres of parklands including gorse-edged fields and woods.
All this even though the original house, built around 1860 for a nationalist member of parliament for west Wicklow, was a casualty of the Civil War, burned down because its then owner W.H.F. Cogan, Esq., M.P. was an ex-British army major.
Just a few years before, in 1914, it was described as having “every accommodation for a gentleman’s or nobleman’s family”. Tinode’s architect, in the 1860s, was WF Calbeck.
It has been partially restored and now privately owned near June Blake’s Garden on the N81.