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Irish Civil War – The burning of Palmerstown House, 29 January 1923

Leinster Leader 12 December 1925

Fascinating article in the Leinster Leader 12 December 1925 on the compensation tribunal investigating the burning of Palmerstown House during the Irish Civil War. Lord Mayo’s testimony revealed a rather telling if unusual remark considering he knew the assailants, ‘It is only right to say, declared his lordship, that the raiders were excessively polite.’

spellings and grammar retained as in original e.g. standstone = sandstone; htose = those; withness = witness; witness aid = witness said


At the Naas Circuit Court on Saturday before Judge Doyle K. C. the claim was heard of Senator The Right Hon. The Earl of Mayo for compensation for the burning of Palmerstown House on January 29th, 1923.

On the date in question it will be remembered a party of men entered Palmerstown House and proceeded to sprinkle petrol on the furniture. In a few minutes the entire building was in flames and was completely gutted before any attempt at extinction could prove effective. Lord May who with Lady Mayo were staying at Palmerstown House at the time was, together with members of his staff, held up at the point of the revolver while the work of destruction was carried out. In the course of his evidence Lord Mayo paid a high tribute to the services of his groom and members of the Free State Army on the occasion.

Mr. Phelps, K.C., and Mr. Meyers, B.L. (instructed by Messrs. White and White) for applicant ; Mr. Lupton, K. C., and Mr. Sheehy, B.L., (instructed by Mr. R. Brown, State solr.) for the State.

Counsel for the applicant having described in detail the dimensions and architectural style of Palmerstown House as it existed before the burning, said that an agreement had been reached with the State that the amount of compensation for furniture be fixed at £15,000. If, he went on, they were going to make a proper reconstruction it would be necessary to use Rosenallis standstone and that would involve extra expense by reason of the fact that they would have to go to the quarry where the stone was originally got. What they aimed at was the restoration of a house worthy of the occupants, and not more extravagant or better than the one which was destroyed. Mr. Orpen had prepared plans of the necessary reconstruction and had submitted these plans to Mr. Clayton and Mr. Clayton had submitted the bill of quantities. Messrs. Harvey and McLoughlin had the quantities priced and had duly forwarded an estimate for reconstruction and their actual figure was £35,128 4s 6d. Over and above that, of course, there were other items which would amount to about £3,000. There were, firstly, the architects’ fees of 5 per cent. and travelling expenses, fees of building and quantity surveyors and clerk of works. There should also be added a sum of £300 which Lord Mayo had expended in removal of debris and which in the ordinary course of events would go into the bill for reconstruction. The total cost, therefore, of reconstruction would be £38,378 6s 2d.

Lord Mayo giving evidence said-I am the owner of Palmerstown House. I have lived my life there since I became entitled to it. The original building was finished in 1877. The house was lived in by my mother before that in order to superintend the finishing of the interior. I and my family have always used it as a residence and were using it on January 29th as a residence.

Mr. Phelps: Is it your wish to have it reconstructed on the lines I have explained to his Lordship?

Lord Mayo: Yes.

Mr. Phelps: Would you describe to the court exactly in your own words what occurred about 10.20 on the night of the 29th January, 1923?

Lord Mayo: Two lads came to the front door and knocked. The door was opened by my butler. One of them made a snatch at his watch chain. The men were disguised. The butler shut the door and came and reported to me that there were two men outside looking for me. The postman arrived from Naas shortly afterwards and came to deliver the letters at the back door. I guessed what was up and I ordered the back door to be locked. That was not done. I then went upstairs for a moment and when I came down the butler informed me that the two men had entered the house and said they were going to burn it. As I had put out the light I asked to have it re-lit so that I could see these two men. One of them appeared to be disguised and I doubt if he were armed. The other man was fully armed with a service rifle. He covered him and me while this individual spoke to me. Lady Mayo then came out of the drawing room and this man was who was covered by the armed man said, “Lord Mayo, I believe is a Senator?” Her ladyship said, “Yes,” and then she went back to the drawing-room. The man then said, “We have come to burn the house.” I said, “Surely you would not burn this house full of beautiful things?” and he said, “We have our orders, my lord.” I then said, “Are you going to shoot me?” and he replied “No, my lord: we are not going to shoot you, but we have our orders to burn the building.” “I suppose at all events you will give me twenty minutes for the servants and ourselves to get some wearing apparel while the house is burning?” He said he would. At the end of twenty minutes the place was set on fire. I managed to save pictures that are mentioned in the details of the contents, including three Sir Joshua’s, two Titian’s and most of my hunting clothes. By that time the incendiaries had entered the dining-room and saturated the thick carpet with petrol and the room was in blazes in a moment. I went and opened the door of the dining-room and I found it a flaming furnace. Nobody has any conception of the fumes from that room-I shall never forget it. I didn’t get my throat right for 18 months afterwards. I shut the door and returned to the back hall. There was not a soul there, all had gone outside. Then we were ordered outside ourselves. We went to the garage where we were held up by two raiders. One of the men had an automatic which had the catch down-I asked him to put it up in case a shot would go off- the other had a revolver. The house was then beginning to blaze.

I went into the house again and attempted with a hand-pump to extinguish the fire in the hall but the raiders had done the job excessively well, because not only did they use petrol but also htose little pastiles which the Germans used during the war and which are impossible to put out with anything whatsoever. It is only right to say, declared his lordship, that the raiders were excessively polite.

By this time I thought it better to call some of my men up. My groom accompanied me to my study which contained important private papers as well as all the bills of the old house. Every scrap that was in the room was saved by myself and my groom, and also with the help of four very fine looking Free State soldiers who, when they saw the glare in the sky, motored as hard as they could from Newbridge barracks. Things were so bad that I was giving up hopes of saving a piece of furniture that was given to me as a wedding present when my groom said he would fetch it. The soldiers knocked the casement out of the window, which was a rather dangerous operation considering that the rifles were loaded and some of them had the catches down. I have been a soldier six years myself and I told them to put up the catches. The casing was knocked out and eight minutes afterwards my groom left the room having secured the article. A moment later the ceiling fell in and the room was in flames. That is the whole story of what occurred that night.

Replying to Counsel, withness said it was a very stormy and wet night. A South-westerly gale was blowing. The old house was very exposed, situated almost like a lighthouse on top of a hill. One could imagine the extreme heat that came from it when the fire was at its height: “That is all I have to say in the matter,” declared the witness.” I know perfectly well who was engaged locally in burning my house.’

Mr. Phelps: Did you employ Mr. Orpen to come down? Yes.

He had been your guest before? Yes.

All the servants’ accommodation was contained overhead? Yes. The house also contained rooms for my brothers and sisters before I was married and before they went away into the world.

By taking away the old roof and substituting therefore a flat roof you are depriving yourself of all this accommodation? Yes.

Richard Orpen deposed in reply to Counsel, that he knew Palmerstown house very well. He prepared the plans for the new building, and they were in every way satisfactory and economical. He took into consideration the fact that they would be using the old walls. The red marks on his plans indicated those walls that would have to be newly constructed. Most damage had been sustained by windows, cornices and stonework. The interior walls which were lined with brick, had not suffered as much. He had provided for a reinforced concrete roof for the whole building and had submitted detailed plans to the Quantity Surveyor.

Cross-examined: Witness said his plans provided for a house of the most up-to-date character, embodying all the most recent improvements in building. The house would be exactly on the lines of the old building except for the roof. The concrete roof was based on the most modern pattern, and its upkeep would be much less than the original one built in 1877.

Judge: I am always in doubt in these cases on one point. Will the new building as planned be less valuable than the original building?

Witness said the building would be less valuable in so much as it would contain less accommodation.

Judge: I cannot attach a full reinstatement condition to a building less valuable than the original building.

Mr. J Clayton stated he had been acting as a Quantity Surveyor in connection with a number of claims in Sackville St., on behalf of the State. He had prepared the Bill of Quantities for the work of reconstructing this house. His quantities were prepared in accordance with the plans submitted. He had provided, inter alia, for the particular limestone from Rosenallis. He had calculated that the extra cost of putting up the old roof would be £8,500. That roof contained 13 bedrooms and had suitable accommodation for guests.

Judge: Will the concrete roof set off against this £8,500?

Witness: No.

Continuing witness  aid he got instruction from Messrs Orpen to draw up the Bill of Quantities and he submitted them to Messrs. Harvey and McLoughlin.

Mr. Phelps: Can you form any opinion of the prices? Yes, I am quite sure Messrs. McLoughlin and Harvey have priced them.

Cross-examined by Mr. Lupton: I expect you have no doubt the new building is of a character suitable to the neighbourhood? Yes.

And the market value would be as good as the old house? I don’t go into market values.

Do you think the new building will be less valuable than the old? Yes.

John Cleary deposed he was employed by the firm of Messrs, Harvey and O’Loughlin. This Bill of Quantities drawn up by Mr. Clayton came to him for pricing. He submitted that these prices were fair, reasonable and proper and as far as he could estimate they were the current prices put upon them by builders in his position. The total to complete the house would be £35, 128.

Mr. Lupton, cross-examining: When you prepared the plans you were not told they were on a competitive basis? They were not prepared on a competitive basis, but they were prepared on the basis of current prices.

Mr. Judd, Valuer, said he thought the old house was more valuable than what the new would be.

For the state, Mr. John Good swore that he was instructed to make an estimate for the building of Palmerstown House and received for that purpose a copy of the Bill of Quantities with no prices. He was not aware of the individual items on the tender of Messrs. Mcloughlin and Harvey. Witness visited Palmerstown House on Friday and made an estimate of the prices on the basis of the present day prices and was prepared to carry out the building under Mr. Orpen’s directions on the basis of that tender. His gross total which would include Architects’ Litographers, Quantity Surveyors’ and Clerk of Works fees would be £39,902.

Mr. Frederick Hayes gave evidence that on behalf of the Government he made an assessment as to what he thought the proper prices for the reconstruction of the house would be. He made two assessments, his original being £29,600, and subsequent one, £31,401. He said certain items in the estimate of McLoughlin and Harvey’s were not contained in the original building.

Mr. T. Byrne said he was principal architect for the Board of Works. He thought a 2 ½ per cent deduction from the Assessments made by the Board of Works, was reasonable in the case of a new building because the outlav with the upkeep and maintenance with the building as restored would be less for a period of years than was the case before the reconstruction.

This concluded the evidence of value.

His Lordship said he would adjourn the further hearing of the claim until Tuesday, when he would make his award.

Giving judgment on Tuesday, his Lordship said:-The circumstances out of which this claim arises are briefly stated in the declaration made by the applicant on 8th Mary, 1923, and were briefly detailed in this court on Saturday last. The declaration runs as follows-“On Monday, the 29th January, 1923, a number of armed persons surrounded the house and premises, ordered out the inhabitants and maliciously set fire to the building which was completely gutted and the contents destroyed. The evidence shows that the reason assigned for this destruction by those who carried it out was the fact that the applicant held the office of Senator in the Constitution of the Irish Free State.

The claim naturally falls into two parts-(1) for the buildings, and (2) for the contents.

The claim for the contents has been arranged between the representatives of the State and of the applicant at the sum of £15,000 which will form portion of this decree.

Before dealing with the figures of the claim arising out of the destruction of the building, it is right to draw attention to the fact that the applicant is not claiming as he might have claimed, the restoration of his former house. He has limited his claims to the cost of the erection of a substituted and much less expensive house. A house which will still be as is plain from Mr. Orpen’s plans, a stately residence, but one the erection of which will cost less by many thousands than the reinstatement of the original would have cost. By this patriotic action the applicant has relieved the State from a very large sum of money.

In return for this relief given to the State the applicant is entitled to be met as he has been met, with every consideration by the representatives of the State. The evidence which has been submitted to me shows at once the care and the fairness with which the experts on behalf of the State have examined the claim, and shows too the moderation with which the claim itself has been prepared.

In these circumstances I hold that it is the duty of the State and of the tribunal to which the State entrusts the decision of the claim, to accord to the applicant the following rights:-He must be allowed to choose his own architect, surveyors and contractors; he must be allowed to exercise, at the expense of the State, the same discretion in respect of accepting or rejecting their suggestions as to prices and otherwise, which he, acting as a reasonable and prudent man, might be expected to have exercised in that respect, if he was dealing with his own private moneys; he must not be required to accept the lowest tenders or to run any serious risk by adopting, as of necessity, the cheaper of two competing methods of working-this last observation has special reference to the “bottening” which was so fully observed on during the hearing of the claim.

Applying these principles to the figures put before me and bearing in mind that the figures of Mr. Hayes’ original and revised assessments are not the figures of a tender at all, that Mr. Hayes in fact holds, in a sense, the position of Advocatus Diaboli in regard to all contractors, both applicant and respondent, I have come to the conclusion that there are two respects and two respects only in which I should reduce the amount of the claim made for “total building costs” which stands in Mr. Cleary’s revised figures at the sum of £33,928. The first reduction will be by a sum of £600 which is 50 per cent in excess of Mr. Cleary’s reduction from his firm’s original figure of £35,128, and is intended to meet as fairly as I can meet by anticipation, the continued drop in the price of materials, which I gather to be still proceeding; the second reduction of which I have spoken will not be a formal lessening of the figures at all; it will take the form of a note or addendum to the decree which will make it clear that there are, as there always are, items and groups of items expressed in “provisional” figures, and that, while these provisional figures are included in the decree, the balance or balances not required shall fall back into the coffers of the State; it is of course impossible to forecast the amount of such “provisional” savings; they will in all probability be of considerable amount.

This £600 reduction in the “total building cost” necessitates some minor changes in the dependent percentage figures which will now stand at the sum of £2,803.  The total on this head of claim worked out at £36,331 to which must be added the agreed sum of £15,500 for the contents of the building, making a combined total of £51,831 which will be the figure of the compensation decree. To the sum of £36,131 I add the “partial reinstatement condition” which Mr. Phelps asked for and which is clearly the proper condition, having regard to the substitution of a building of a different nature from, though of the same character as, the former building. The remaining sum of £200 is in the nature of a repayment to the applicant and is not affected by the condition.

I have fully considered the suggestion of the State expert that a sum of about £600 to £800 should be deducted from the decree by reason of the fact that the new building will tend to effect a saving in upkeep on account of its newness and of its being of a more manageable nature than the former building. I am satisfied that the provisions of section 10 (6) (a) of the Damage to Property (Compensation) Act, 1923, make any such deduction impossible; that sub-section directs that the compensation in the present case shall be “not less than the probable cost of the erection of the substituted building;” the object of the proceedings has been to ascertain the amount of that probable cost; the same sub-section excludes any deduction for increased value or appreciation such as would apply if the case fell under sub-section (4).

The decree is made of course with costs and expenses. I allow the sum of £147 claimed for expenses and I certify for 24 guineas Counsels’ fees and for an additional special allowance of £20 for the applicant’s solicitor.

The note to appear on the face of the decree will be as follows:-“This decree is to stand reduced by such portions (if any) of the contract charges, for “provisional” items or group items, as are found by the applicant’s architect, in the exercise of his discretion as such, not to be necessary for the completion of the work.”

To meet the requirements of Section 10 (1) the building now to be erected will be described in the decree as “of the same residential character as the injured building but of a less costly nature.”

[compiled and edited by Mario Corrigan; typed and edited by Breid on behalf of Cill Dara Historical Society – Kildare Town]

Taken from:

A Leinster Leader article on the actual burning of the house during the Civil War is also on E History, entitled Lord Mayo’s Beautiful Mansion in Ruins.