Category Archives: Historical archaeology

Dutch Billys — the game is on!

These c.1720 buildings across from the office mightn't have had gables. But look at the massive chimney stack.

I remember well my father tossing the young anarchaeologist a new book he’d acquired with the prophetic words ‘have a look at that!’ Have a look I did and I’m still reading it almost 40 years later, with both of our spines demonstrating similar levels of attrition. It was Elgy Gillespie’s book on the Liberties of Dublin (published by Michael O’Brien, a survivor of the XV International Brigade) and within was an illustrated essay by Peter Walsh on the Dutch Billy tradition in that particular quarter of the city generally located within the older parts of Dublin 8.
Peter’s essay, for the first time perhaps since the publication of the Georgian Society Records (1909-1913), focused on these gable-fronted houses, an ubiquitous feature of the city’s streetscapes until well into the nineteenth century, an architectural form that saw significant levels of survival into the 1950s. Of course, they haven’t gone away and the fantastic work undertaken by the contributors to the Dutch Billy thread on Archiseek – started with an innocent question posed back  in 2003 – has charted their survival behind Georgianised facades all over the city and indeed in many of the towns throughout the country. If you have a few hours, look at this

Perhaps the best known Billys on Sweeney's LaneA surviving Dutch Billy on Montpellier Hill

The Billy form has continued to intrigue me over the years and as my political consciousness developed I began to see these buildings as ciphers for the hidden built history of the city’s working-class, a narrative dominated by an undue concentration on the Georgian town houses of the elite.
The very term ‘Dutch Billy’, attributed to the late Maurice Craig, is itself loaded with a political nuance, the assumption being that these were the houses of Dutch settlers brought in to the Liberties, protestant followers of King William who imported their own domestic architecture on the early modern town along with their confessional dissent. The identification of the Liberties with the textile industry has led to the misapprehension that the expanded attic spaces housed handlooms and workshops, an idea which seems preposterous today and one that says a lot about common impressions of working class experience in the past.
Elgy’s book was published back in 1973 and a lot has happened in the city since then. Indeed, a lot has happened within the past six months with the demolition of five of these structures in Dublin, a city that hopes to become World Design Capital in 2014. However, things are looking up on the Billy front and the Dublin Civic Trust are to be congratulated on a seminar held on 12 October celebrating this hidden building tradition.

Abi Cryerhall's Dutch Billys superimposed on Rocque (1756). The red bit in the middle is medieval

It was entirely appropriate that the first paper was given by Peter Walsh, who contextualised the form with many illustrations from his own collection. The term encyclopaedic doesn’t do justice to Peter’s knowledge of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Dublin and many archaeologists working in the Liberties (myself included) owe him a great debt for his unstinting generosity when it comes to discussing the sites and the people who lived and worked there. Peter highlighted the initial Quaker involvement in the evolution of the form, his paper informed by many years spent in the Registry of Deeds, an institution sadly underused by the city’s archaeologists (myself, again, included). The influence of the protestant dissenting tradition is one which is often ignored and it is perhaps apposite that the Liberties of today is a centre of mostly African evangelical worship. Yeah or Nay Street now enters my topographical lexicon along with the Lands of Tib and Tom.

Peter was followed by Niall McCullough, whose classic work on the city, Dublin, an Urban History, was republished in expanded form in 2007. McCullough spoke on the morphology of the capital and contextualised the gable-fronted tradition within a cityscape that was undergoing a fundamental change after the Restoration and beyond. And indeed, what are cities but constantly changing and evolving organisms?

Eastern side of Weaver's Square, looking towards Chambers Street

Peter Keenahan followed with more images culled from his ground-breaking analysis of the form, which perhaps modestly (for an architect), might have included more of his scholarly drawings of the gables that have disappeared from many of the buildings which still survive on the streetscapes of the city. His identification of the little known Clancarty House on Dame Street on Francis Place’s drawing of the Round Church was convincing and the better known lease map drawing of the structure was examined together with this ‘new’ evidence, along with what little of the house can be taken from Joseph Tudor’s depiction of Dame Street. But more on that later.

Graham Hickey highlighted the work of the Dublin Civic Trust in bringing these buildings to a wider audience. Established 19 years ago, the Civic Trust has been to the forefront ‘recognising, promoting and protecting the city’s architectural heritage’ and the survival and reuse of Barnwell’s on Castle Street (now the Trust’s HQ and exhibition space), Nos. 10 and 11 South Frederick Street and 21 Aungier Street attest to the practical work undertaken by the organisation in this regard. Graham has been running the on-going research undertaken by the Trust (along with the Peters Keenahan and Walsh) on the gabled house and I was particularly taken with the images of survivals in Drogheda. Graham is to be thanked along with Geraldine Walsh, the CEO of the Civic Trust for organising the seminar.

And what's to become of this Billy on North King Street?

My own contribution ostensibly looked at the industrial aspect of the development of the Liberties and Smithfield, however it was difficult to resist throwing in a few slides of excavated house plans, the earliest of which did not sport the classic corner fireplace and heavy chimney stack which more often than not had a structural function effectively tying in conjoined houses. I tried to get the message across that archaeological sites must be considered in a similar fashion to the way we look at the Dutch Billy: excavations chart the occupation of sites that are constantly in a state of flux; it is rarely possible to state categorically that you are digging a specific moment in time. I hope I got across the importance of stratigraphy and material culture (especially that of the humble clay pipe), when dating structures of the seventeenth century and later.

James Kelly, a Smithfield-based architect took up on this point by examining material culture through the eyes of the Dutch Masters. His point regarding the depiction of kitchen spaces was a well-made one: there is a world of difference between the kitchens of the 1660s and those of the 1740s; time certainly does not stand still. I was taken by his comparison of Malton’s depiction of the old Custom House with that of Tudor’s and it must at this point be accepted, while mixing my metaphors, that the latter’s vision cannot be taken as gospel. Indeed, as pointed out by another speaker, the sketch drawing that Tudor based his Perspective of Dame Street on (the image used to publicise the seminar) is well worth a closer look.

Ok, which of these structures on Thomas Street is a Dutch Billy?

Rolf Loeber needs no introduction from me. On several occasions when I’ve thought I’ve come across something significant (the Jesuit noviciate under Mother Redcap’s in Back Lane and the fine castle of Maghernacloy in Monaghan spring to mind and hell, anything to do with plantation studies at all), I’ve found that Rolf’s been there first. I’m waiting for him to emerge from the buddleia with a well-crafted article when I finally start digging the garden. His contribution to settlement studies and indeed his work with his wife Magda on architectural historiography and literary studies is overwhelming, as a Loeber bibliography will attest. Rolf posed the not unreasonable question ‘how Dutch were the Dutch Billys?’ and examined the form in its wider European context, referring to the medieval development of the gable and, to my mind at least, the inescapable conclusion that it’s fundamentally the continuation of a medieval form.

John Montague looked in some detail at John Rocque’s map of the city and its several antecedents. The accuracy of the plan on a city-wide basis was established on a grid related to the Ordnance Survey and again, one is always amazed that such a detailed impression of the city was put together in such a short period of time. The curmudgeon in me remembers however the large L-shaped structure Rocque depicts under the Iveagh Markets in Francis Street, one which didn’t appear on the archaeological record. Maybe he was detained by a passing Anabaptist?

Freddie O’Dwyer closed the seminar with some personal impressions of the form taken from his work with the various manifestations of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht over the years. His images of No. 9 Aungier Street were instructive as were his impressions of the work undertaken by archaeologists (not this one) on the site of Speaker Conolly’s house Capel Street (a building depicted on Rocque in 1756, itself demolished by the Georgians several years later). It would seem the diggers were under the impression they were looking for the remains of St. Mary’s Abbey and ignored the evidence on the site for something perhaps as significant, though undeniably later. Yeah right, blame the archaeologists! Freddie ended his talk with a sketch he’d made the night before of Francis Place sketching his view of the city (published previously by Rolf) from a balcony roof in Drumcondra.  It’s taken until now to figure out where he was positioned when he made the drawing and it seems a bunch of architecture students in UCD worked it out. They should’ve asked an archaeologist…

So, where do we go from here? The seminar did something to clarify the conflation of the simple gabled structures that existed on Chamber Street with the more elaborate gables which surmounted the houses of the ‘middling sort’ throughout the Liberties and through the city. The gables of the more elaborate houses of the period were also discussed but I was left with Peter Walsh’s image of functional houses built for functional people, standing within busy cosmopolitan streetscapes populated by Quakers, Anabaptists and indeed the odd Catholic, with small industries incubating in the back plots: breweries, tanneries and conspiratorial combinations of clothworkers.

I've no idea where these are. I should've asked at the seminar

The next step is to get as many as these buildings as possible included on the RPS, a task which has been ongoing for several years without, it must be said, much success.

Where Eddie McParland took humorous umbrage at one speaker’s dismissal of the Georgian hegemony, it is undeniable that the architecture of the eighteenth-century continues to be prized above all else. It surely has to be recognised that the gable-fronted house (irrespective of the survival of its gable), must now be given due recognition by the statutory authorities before any more are lost? In this regard it was instructive to note that one speaker was completely off-message when presenting the governments’ (I’m including the previous lot here) policy on architecture. Maybe he was attending the wrong seminar? As one person said to me afterwards under the portico of the Bank of Ireland, ‘where’s the love?’…

The whole thing was filmed although I’m unsure if it will be available on the web. If it ever is, I apologise in advance for conflating keratin with ketamine: it was a long day. You’ll find more information on the Dublin Civic Trust at their website here:

Commemorating the Battle of the Ebro in the Terra Alta, Catalunya

There’s something of a feel of the backwoods in the northern hills of the Terra Alta, that part of Catalunya tucked into the mountains west of the Ebro. Here, the high ground to the north of the main valley is scored with crooked lines of olive and almond trees, stone-terraced into the hillsides between patches of parched scrubland and isolated wooded summits. An occasional ruin breaks the skyline or nudges into the side of a barranca but by Irish standards, the landscape is depopulated and abandoned. The area is, perhaps as a consequence of this, extraordinarily beautiful and unspoilt. Most people from around here live in the small towns of la Fatarella, Vilalba dels Arcs or further west in Batea. Isolated farmhouses do hang on in decreasing numbers, some offering rough wine-tasting during the day, others a rustic bed and breakfast to souls needful of a particular quality of isolation. For here ruins remain ruins. There are no dilapidated fincas receiving the attentions of well-intentioned ex-pats, there are few enough Es Ven signs fixed to broken walls. Here the crumpled sun-dried placards advertising properties notionally marketable in an earlier economy, lie forgotten alongside the road, littered among rusting sherds of shrapnel and fragments of human bone.

Historic landscapes
The valley below carries the main road from coastal Tarragonna west into Aragón. The ruined hilltop village of Corbera d’Ebre, its hardly-conserved church spire proud and intact, dominates the eastern end of the valley and overshadows the new town straddling the main road below.

Windmills today mark the line of the Great Retreats

Corbera was heavily bombed by the Nationalists over the course of the great Ebro offensive launched by the Republic in July 1938. Like Belchite to the west, it has been left to the elements and to the tourists, discomforting reminders of an unresolved conflict, the memory of which so-far has been successfully managed by the Catalan state.

The main road continues west to the town of Gandesa, the military focus of the offensive, which though lasting just 115 days took over 130,000 lives. South of here are the Serra Cavalls which rise up into the serrated peaks of the Serra de Pàndols, their heights delineated by the pine tree line which occasionally obscures the ridge. Go further west through Calaceite and here the high ground recedes at either side. Beyond Alcañiz and further into Aragón the landscape opens onto a wide upland plateau ringed by distant mountains, with massive fields of winter wheat carpeting a rolling steppe extending onwards to a point just beyond eyeshot. On the road to Belchite, an compound of several square kilometres accommodates a sun farm, manifesting on the landscape as an army of flat-headed alien warriors arranged in tilted ranks, dwarfing a surprisingly flimsy fence.

Sun farm close to a rearguard position outside Belchite

Belchite is a ruined town straddling the side of a hill, with two Baroque churches and several buildings just inside the medieval gate, roofless structures accessible through piles of masonry, bricks and roof tiles supporting charred roof timbers aligned at crazy angles. The town saw two major battles during the war: its initial assault by American troops in 1937 was followed by its abandonment the following March when it suffered heavy and sustained bombardment by Nationalist planes and artillery. Most of the upstanding ruins, which in 1989 perhaps represented as much as 40 percent of the surviving fabric of the streetscape, have now disappeared under an anonymous rolling terrain of demolition material.

The ruined town of Belchite

The ruined town of Belchite

The levelled town thus demarcated appears itself to diminish around the edges and is being recycled elsewhere as hardcore or landfill. Although over 300 people lived in the town in 1955, a family of seven or eight were the only inhabitants there in 1989 and the place is now abandoned each evening after the last visitor departs the gates an hour after sunset.

All of these landscapes are central to the history of the XV International Brigade, from the initial storming of Belchite and Quinto but more crucially to what become known as the Great Retreats of March and April 1938, where Republican forces were progressively routed back eastwards, back towards and across the Ebro. Many Internationals caught behind the lines were summarily executed with others surviving the remainder of the war in concentration camps such as San Pedro de Cardeña outside Burgos. When the Brigade advanced back across the Ebro the following July, local people showed them the mass graves into which their comrades had been thrown, often after the quick executions they themselves had been forced to witness. In any event, the Brigade never succeeded in taking Gandesa and was withdrawn in September after 60 days in the line. A huge and disproportionate causality list records the crucial positions held by the Brigade during the advance, along with the several key fortified hilltops they never succeeded in capturing.

Human bones at the edge of a forest outside la Fatarella

The Ebro offensive was the last throw of the dice for the Republican government and its initial success was something of an embarrassment for Franco, who was again forced to call upon his German and Italian allies just at the point where he was about to send them home. The nature of Franco’s defeat of the Republican government and the subsequent repression which lasted well into the 1970s was particularly felt in Catalunya, which apart from its separatist aspirations was the principal industrial base of the CNT, the main anarchist trade union. In the countryside, the repression was initially marked by the execution of anyone said to have actively opposed the coup, followed quickly by the banning of the Catalan language and a rationing system which was markedly more severe than in ostensibly ’loyal’ areas. Nationalist battlefield fatalities were recovered and buried in the combatants’ home localities. International causalities, with a few significant exceptions, were buried hurriedly in mass graves or, in more remote areas, piled into the barrancas and pine copses which bestow the hills their remarkable landscape. Only occasionally were they covered with cairns of stones.

Archaeology and the politics of wind power
The roads in the Terra Alta are dark and untravelled at nighttime. The older ones, tarred-over dusty tracks, snake over the hills in tight curves around stepped orchards and dry stream beds. The main roads into Gandesa and Ascó are now being straightened to facilitate the construction of a large wind farm enveloping the hilltops in seemingly arbitrary patterns covering perhaps some 80km. The 6km between la Fatarella and Vilalba accommodates some 22 windmills, with bulldozers clearing stretches of land for associated access roads and ancillary structures. Driving along at night, their gigantic spines rear up on all sides, frozen shadows projected in random sequence against the verges, caught in the pulsing strobes from the derrick lights high above. Local environmentalists opposed to this section of the wind farm were not slow to recognise its route across a massive graveyard in their campaign to halt their development. One such opponent, blogger Elies 115, graphically illustrated the human remains encountered on a walk through the hills near la Fatarella in July 2008 and the story was picked up all over Catalunya. Many subsequently voiced an opinion in the local media that had Roman remains been encountered, all works would have stopped to allow a thorough investigation.

Excavating the dead
What differentiates the remains recorded by Elies 115 from those emerging from other mass graves in the Spanish countryside is the fact that they most probably belong to members of the International Brigades. Although it is not suggested here that this has precluded a proper investigation of their remains, it is nonetheless of interest given the considerable body of literature associated with the Brigades when compared to their number relative to the republican army as a whole. For archaeological work engaging with Franco-era Spain has concentrated on civilian mass grave sites. These hold the remains of the many thousands of socialists, communists, anarchists, schoolteachers and even liberals, executed for their beliefs, their resistance to the victors or simply by hearsay. The excavations throughout Spain have now uncovered hundreds of burials, emphasising the oppression supposedly forgotten under the post-Franco pact of amnesia, where old wounds were let lie for the good of the fledgling democracy. Politically, this is to the advantage of the Socialist PSOE and the enacting of the Ley de Memoria Histórica (Law of Historical Memory) in 2007 has undeniably given the excavations a legislative basis, irrespective of feelings on the Nationalist side. Often undertaken in the media spotlight with relatives of the deceased present standing along the baulks, the excavations provide harrowing testimony of the extent of the Nationalist repression.

Other more contentious issues have emerged: the muted enthusiasm of some families for the closure provided by the recovery of physical remains of their loved ones contrasted with the discomfiture evident on the faces of the family of Federico García Lorca, as they awaited the excavation of his remains after refusing for many years to have disturbed what they thought had been his grave. In Galicia and León former huídos, partisans who remained behind to continue the war from the mountains, have argued that the remains of their comrades should stay in the ground as incontrovertible and enduring evidence against Franco and his regime.

An archaeological investigation undertaken prior to the construction of another wind farm elsewhere in the Terra Alta made little of the human bones and battlefield détruis scattered high along the terraces and in the scrub. The report made more of the trenches, the rude caves and refugios carved out of the sandy subsoil, lending thirsty shelter from the constant Nationalist bombardment; the physical manifestations of the Ebro offensive which today survive on the landscape. Yet, despite the plethora of recent work on the period, both academic and commemorative, there has been little attempt made to contextualise the human remains, which as likely date to the Great Retreats as they do to the offensive. Moreover, there has been little discussion as to what should now be done with the bones, whether they should lie there in perpetual memory of the war or whether they should be systematically collected and placed in the monument at los Camposines which acts as a ossuary for human remains recovered from the surrounding fields and hillsides.

Commemoration, conservation and construction
State-sponsored commemoration of the battle of the Ebro was prompted by the recent 70th anniversary and has taken the form of a series of panels located at significant points on the landscape, all anchored to an interpretative centre in Corbera and notionally to the monument in los Camposines.

Monument to the battle incorporating an ossuary at los Camposines

Under the auspices of Memorial Democràtic the Catalan government has certainly made an effort to commemorate both sides of the conflict, the rusty orange signage and an accompanying series of information leaflets brands its commemoration for modern, all-embracing consumption. The souvenirs and tee shirts available at the 115 Days centre in Corbera are based on the graphic of a military helmet, one curiously more Republican than Nationalist in its typology. The interpretation within is dispassionate and uncontroversial; the centre, an anodyne exercise in contemporary architecture, was deserted the afternoon we visited.

The ruins of the old town of Corbera

Just up the street from the interpretative centre is a private museum, Exposició La Trinxera, which trades in bullets, guns and (mostly) republican uniforms draped over ‘70s shop window mannequins. Here a very different experience is to be had: the exhibition is confined to one large cluttered room, old-fashioned display cases line the space containing a mesmerising quantity of personal equipment and assorted militaria;

Private museum at Corbera

the walls are covered with campaign maps, propaganda sheets and government proclamations. The floorspace is taken up with a full sized Republican command post along with various large weapons and a mule professionally fashioned from wire, carrying the obligatory ammunition boxes and medical stretchers. The owner/curator has a large shed to the rear crammed with similar booty and takes particular pride that his Maxim machine gun is an original artefact, unlike that one displayed in another semi-private museum down the road in Gandesa. One returns blinking into the October sunlight with thirsty lungs, persuaded that the patched, ragged costumes within have been taken from the dry bones lying out on the hillsides.

A different engagement with the memory of the battle in Corbera can be experienced in the ruined village on the hilltop, itself a protected historical site.

Jesús Pedrola, curator of the Alphabet of Peace

Here local artist Jesús Pedrola has for several years curated the Alphabet of Freedom, a collaborative project comprising large letters arranged throughout the ruined streetscape by visiting artists in a variety of media and styles. More recently a more formal entity, the Patronage del Poble Vell, has been set up by members of the community backed by the local council with the clear objective of ‘preserving and restoring’ the site. According to their website

“A lot of people visit the site and it concerns our own history. A history testified in the stones which we wish to restore and preserve, to leave in better condition for the younger generation. We don’t wish the site to be lost or to deteriorate more.”

The inherent technical challenge of trying to preserve a site already in ruins has not however been addressed and it will be interesting to see how in the future Corbera will weigh up against Belchite, a less visited spot yet one which seems to disintegrate and diminish with each passing year.

One of the objectives of the Patronage is to create a photographic archive that will serve to preserve the memory of the village as it was, while at the same time providing an exhibition space for donated works from artists associated with the alphabet project. A semi-derelict house on the edge of the old village has been acquired and is about to undergo conservation works, funded by ANAV, the power company which operates the 40-year old nuclear plant on the Ebro at nearby Ascó. The house stands directly beside the building Pedrola has been reconstructing over several years at his own cost, which functions as an information point for those visiting the ruined village. He is now under pressure from the town hall to close up the building, which provides him with a meagre income to protect the alphabet through the sale of books and posters. He worries how Corbera’s story will be presented in the new building and is suspicious of the input from ANAV, where the power plant is still seen as a legacy of the dictatorship.

Those supporting the construction of the wind farms point to the nuclear plant and its abysmal safety record. The most recent incident relates to a serious leak which occurred in November 2007: although radioactive particles were still being detected outdoors on 14 March 2008, the Spanish Nuclear Energy Authority was not informed of the incident until 4 April. Local groups were incensed that staff at the plant had allowed a school trip to go ahead just a day before the leak was made public. In August the Energy Authority announced penalties against the plant of up to €22.5 million for a series of breaches, including their failure to immediately report the leak. The Zapatero government has pledged to make Spain nuclear-free, but has not proposed a meaningful time frame. Meanwhile it’s hoped that the sun and the wind can provide an ever-increasing proportion of the country’s needs into the future.

Graffito in la Fatarella opposing the windfarms

Back up in the hills, the construction of the wind farm continues apace. With most of the windmills already erected, those opposed to their construction are admitting defeat. But what of the human remains that have been disturbed in their construction? On 17 June 2009 the Catalan parliament passed legislation on the recovery and identification of those who disappeared during the Civil War and subsequent dictatorship. The new law places the onus on the Catalan state to locate the graves of missing persons, supporting the rights of their descendants to obtain information about their fate and, if appropriate, to exhume their remains. The law further supports the marking of such mass graves and their preservation as places of memory, to satisfy people’s right to know the truth of events during the period and the political circumstances in which the disappearances occurred.

In the light of recent revelations regarding the execution of Robert Hale Merriman (the American chief of staff of the XV Brigade), it is only a matter of time before the families of the International fallen will request the assistance of the Catalan government in identifying the burial sites of their own disappeared.

As García Lorca’s descendants were sadly not to discover, the science of DNA matching has advanced sufficiently to allow the identification (or otherwise) of remains from known burial sites. Attempting, however systematically, to recover individual lives and histories from disarticulated bones gathered from the hillsides is another story. Given that the remains are as likely to belong to volunteers from outside Spain renders the task all the more impossible. It thus perhaps serves a greater purpose that the bones should remain where they lie with their anonymity intact, a reminder for all of the sacrifices made in the attempt to defeat fascism in Spain. In an economy where ruined villages compete with private museums and interpretative centres, where international solidarity has been replaced by the globalised capital of the power companies, the sacrifice has become all the more undermined. Perhaps the only real experience left is to walk through the landscape on your own, your back to the windmills and your eyes to the ground against the sun.

The tar on the wall and the bishop’s table

The investigation of graveyards and old churches sometimes leads to the recovery of hidden narratives, stories embedded not only in the architecture itself but also in the very legible nature of the surrounding historical evidence. Occasionally an exploration of the stories protected by the social memory of the local community leads one right back to the point of departure. Such a narrative was extracted from the roofless church of St Mochulla, built in 1702 on a hilltop overlooking the village of Tulla in east Clare. The church had served a mostly landed population until a new place of worship was constructed elsewhere in the village in 1816. The earlier structure was located on the site of a medieval parish church, surrounded by a graveyard within an early ecclesiastical enclosure, which most probably had an earlier foundation again. Since the disappearance in the 1960s of domestic goats from the Fair Green below the graveyard, ivy had flourished on the ruined church, endangering the integrity of the brick barrel vault high over the chancel and the several funerary memorials integral to the fabric.

The tar on the wall after ivy removal

Five substantial monuments within the walls commemorate the local gentry, among them the family of the antiquarian T. J. Westropp. The remains of the Molonys of Kiltannon rest in a large stone mausoleum outside the church, which, if Westropp is to be believed, lies directly on the site of its medieval antecedent. Unlike those families remembered within the church, the Molonys were of old Catholic stock; despite having turned to the established church for their spiritual needs, they realised an ambition—especially perhaps in death—to remain close to the old order. Kiltannon House, 3km to the north, would have been clearly visible from the vault, its demesne occupying the medieval tuath of Coiltenain, the ancestral lands of the O’Moloneys. Remarkably, the estate had been retained by the family owing to a clause in the Treaty of Limerick exempting from forfeiture the lands of officers serving within the city walls.

The burning of Kiltannon House on 15 September 1920 is generally accepted to have been carried out by republicans active in the hills to the north of the parish. A group of men, some armed with revolvers, rang the doorbell at 2a.m., claiming to be police. Their information was good: Colonel William Molony and his wife were in Dublin, leaving the house in the care of the butler, Philip McGrath. According to McGrath, the men locked the door and turned on all the taps before seizing the keys in the pantry. One key was helpfully labelled ‘Paraffin Store’; there was only petrol available, however, and this was poured over the oak staircase after the chair of the house had been stacked underneath. The raiders remained until the fire had taken hold. A photograph in the O’Callaghan Westropp Collection in Clare County Library shows the shell of the building, with most of the damage in the area of the staircase.

Kiltannon House

The compensation case brought by Molony was reported in the Clare Champion, and much was made of a card-table apparently given by Louis XIV to the colonel’s great-grand-uncle, Bishop John Molony. The table had been offered in restitution for a fit of pique displayed by the king over a game of cards at which the bishop was a guest. It had apparently perished in the fire, along with an extensive collection of shoes belonging to the colonel’s wife. The table was described as being of grey marble, inlaid with two hands of old French cards and a knave of diamonds torn in half as if they had just been thrown down. Beyond the knave was the ace of diamonds with several counters in red and white. On the top left-hand corner was a representation of a sheet of paper with an illegible or faded inscription beginning with a capital A followed by the word Man’s.

An interesting aside concerns a ring in the possession of Molony which entitled the owner to nominate a person for an education to the priesthood in the Jesuit College in Paris, founded by the bishop. Judge Bodkin KQ took a particular interest in the ring as he had a son in the order. One senses a moment of awkwardness in the proceedings that such largesse should be in the gift of a non-Catholic. The court awarded Molony £46,484 and his wife £1,910.16, with costs amounting to over £700, where £100,000 had been originally claimed.

Many reading the report in the Champion would have known that the house was being cleared of its contents for three days before its destruction and that the bishop’s table was now hidden a few miles away in the hills, where indeed it possibly remains. Some believe that the burning of the house and the misappropriation of its contents were organised by Molony’s steward, Charles Douglas, who had arrived on the scene later the following morning, as Kiltannon was still ablaze. Douglas related to the court how he had been able to save the family portraits from the fire and was to state further that he had found a note addressed to Capt. [sic] Molony on the lawn outside the house, claiming that the burning was a reprisal for his sheltering of soldiers and ’Tans. Significantly, the local RIC were not represented in court.

Nobody was prosecuted on account of the fire, although John Melody of nearby Clondorney was held in custody from July to December 1924 under the provisions of the Public Safety Act, ‘on strong suspicion of being concerned in outrages on the Moloney Estate’. Kiltannon was never rebuilt, although the servants’ quarters survived, and a modern house now occupies its footprint.

Recent removal of the ivy from the church exposed a memorial of a different sort that connects back to the period immediately after the Troubles. Patrick Houlihan hailed from the neighbouring parish of Feakle and was a prominent member of the local IRA during the War of Independence, operating in the hills along the Clare/Galway border, from where he had led an ambush at Ballyturin House in May 1921. Houlihan took the anti-Treaty side and in 1927 was returned for Fianna Fáil in both general elections. While not from the immediate locality, his defeat in the 1932 election, at the very time his party finally held the reigns of power, had an effect on his supporters in Tulla, a minority in a village considered a Cumann na nGael stronghold. Houlihan’s re-election in January ’33 certainly left a distinctive trace on the archaeological record of the church, for on the night of his victory his supporters placed two barrels of tar on the wall plates at the western end of the nave directly overlooking the village and set them alight. Here they burned for several days, sending the molten tar down the walls, where it remains to this day. This act of
reclaiming the church in a politically inspired action can also be seen as being highly symbolic when one considers the historical baggage associated with the structure, with its physical links to the Ascendancy and to the old authority.

There is no direct evidence connecting Houlihan with the burning of Kiltannon; it would appear likely that Douglas himself concocted the note pointing the finger at republicans, some of whom certainly assisted in the removal of the contents of the house prior to its destruction. The fire, however, is unlikely to have happened without Houlihan’s knowledge, as he was billeted in the area prior to an attack on Scariff barracks three days later. A recently published history of the IRA in Clare makes no reference to Kiltannon and there is little biographical information available on Houlihan, apart from local lore which attests to his running mate Eamonn de Valera’s displeasure at his use of strong language and his enduring association with physical-force republicanism. Perhaps of more significance, however, was Houlihan’s involvement in legal proceedings over the summer and autumn of 1933, when it was alleged that he had promised to marry a neighbour’s daughter, then a minor, after having first seduced her. He was deselected in 1937 and failed to take the seat as an
independent. He died in 1963, three years after William Molony.

The recovery of the tar on the wall and the hidden history of the burning of Kiltannon has prompted an examination of the received homogeneity of political and social factions in east Clare during both the War of Independence and the period immediately after. In Houlihan’s case, an election rally for his candidacy in 1937 united old IRA comrades who had taken an opposing stance during the Civil War. His county council seat went to John Melody, who held it until 1950. Molony, for his part, was never to see his table again, and his estate was eventually subdivided by the Land Commission. He was awarded £27,500 in August 1922 by the Property Compensation Commission (with 350 guineas costs), and his wife was awarded £500. If, as has been suggested, Molony had conspired with persons unknown to have Kiltannon destroyed, then his was a poor return.

Molony’s situation can be compared to that of his contemporary and neighbour George O’Callaghan Westropp, whose family memorial was also exposed with the removal of the ivy from the church walls. Despite his Unionist politics, he played a major role in the organisation and political representation of the farming community of Clare, and Maryfort, his house, had survived the conflict. When considered alongside the destruction of Kiltannon, the irony of the circumstances of Maryfort’s demolition at the hands of his eccentric son still rings true.

The tar on the cornice

The monument linking Molony and Houlihan has been conserved by the parish as a ruin. The replacement of missing quoins and cornice fragments with newly cut local limestone has had its critics, but the stone will weather in a number of years, becoming less incongruous, retaining nonetheless a sharpness to differentiate it as repair. The removal of the ivy has also altered the church visually; nevertheless, the works undertaken on the chancel vault and window opes have at least made the structure safe and accessible again to the community and its visitors. The preservation of the tar as a cultural artefact has, however, become entwined with this ongoing dialogue regarding the church’s eventual presentation. For the time being, lack of funding has delayed a decision over whether or not the walls should be rendered and the tar obscured, and it remains today on the church as physical testament to a half-remembered past. While the church and its monuments have been reclaimed and conserved, the bishop’s table remains the great lost relic of the parish. If its location is preserved in the social memory of the rural community in the hills above Tulla, there seems little indication that it will ever be divulged to a wider public below.

A mason's mark of an angel, recovered from under the ivy