The Burning of Woodstock House


From the Irish Times, Jan 27, 1999 by Rosita Boland.

The impeccably-dressed elderly man sitting in an armchair in his Dublin home is a living link with one of the more bitter periods of Irish history.

Tom Whyte's father was the IRA officer who received and carried out the order to burn Woodstock House in Co Kilkenny in the tangled aftermath of the Civil War in 1922.

"When I was 14 years old, my father showed me the letter of command from the IRA about burning the house. I had never seen it before. When he told me the story of what happened that night, I promised him that I would put the record straight in years to come; that I would tell his story."

Father and son burned the letter together on the day Tom Whyte saw it for the first and last time. When Paddy White was on his deathbed, he asked his son not to forget "about the Woodstock thing". He died 21 years ago, aged 90.

At the age of 70, Tom Whyte, who changed the spelling of his name a long time ago for reasons unconnected with his father's history, feels it is now time to fulfil a promise made over a half-century ago.

With that in mind he contacted The Irish Times shortly after this newspaper published a page on Woodstock last December outlining how its famous Victorian gardens are about to be restored this year with funding from Kilkenny County Council and the Great Gardens of Ireland, much of the money coming via the EU.

Paddy White was an officer with the local Flying Column, which was set up after the Rising, and which comprised men from Inistioge, a mile from Woodstock, and Callan. During this time, the empty house at Woodstock was occupied by a sizeable number of Black and Tans. At the time, locals put their number at close to a hundred.

Whatever the exact numbers, Woodstock was undisputably their headquarters for the southeast: Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford, and Tipperary. Cllr Andy Cotterell, of Kilkenny County Council, points out that "the only significant footage of the Tans operating down the country is a piece taken of them marching up the hill from Inistioge to Woodstock". This footage was incorporated into the film Michael Collins.

When Paddy White had been some eight months on the run with the Flying Column, he returned home to Kilkieran for a couple of days' respite. "Someone local informed on him to the Tans," Tom Whyte says. "They even knew that he was sleeping in the barn, rather than the house."

Because the area was so rural and the Crossley Tender trucks used by the Tans so noisy, the ambush was made on foot.

"Ten of them came. They handcuffed him and frog-marched him to Woodstock. They threw him down the cellar stairs, where he was held for two weeks. Then they brought him upstairs to one of the big rooms and interrogated him. They tried to get him to inform on the other members of the Flying Column. They broke all his fingers by hitting them with rifle butts. He was formally tried there and sentenced to death on the grounds of being a well-known fugitive."

Fearing local retaliation, the Tans did not want an execution at Woodstock. Instead, they smuggled Paddy White off the estate and imprisoned him at Spike Island. He was held there until the Truce, when he returned to Kilkenny and was given a hero's welcome.

Once Civil War started, the internal divisions that poisoned families and communities were inevitable. Andy Cotterell's father, who was also in the IRA, and had also been held in Woodstock before being sent to Wormwood Scrubs, joined Collins's side. Paddy White went with de Valera and the Anti-Treaty side.

"My grandmother threw down the gauntlet. She said she would cut my father's inheritance off and his share in the farm if he went with de Valera." He did and she did. Mother and son never spoke to each other again. He married and moved away from the area. Paddy White attended his mother's funeral only at the behest of his wife, Mary. It was not until Mary's own death in 1943 that relations were again established with his long-estranged siblings.

When the Civil War ended, many of the Big Houses subsequently went up in flames. Woodstock, having been both unoccupied by its owners, the Tighe family, for several years, and also having been used as a headquarters for the Black and Tans, was more vulnerable than most. "The order was passed to my father that Woodstock was to be burned," Tom Whyte says. "But it was sent to his home address in Kilkieran and he didn't get it for some weeks, because, of course, he wasn't living there any more, since the split with the family."

It was this delay in receiving the order that Tom Whyte believes led to the plunder of what remained of the house's contents.

"Word got out that the house was to be burned," he says. When Paddy White arrived with his men on the steps of Woodstock, the doors and windows were wide open and the place looked as if it had only recently been deserted. There was evidence of what he told his son was "considerable disarray inside".

Some, but not all, of the Tighe furniture and belongings had been moved to London. The library had remained intact throughout the residency of the Black and Tans. Any remaining furniture had been moved to the three large downstairs reception rooms. The men were left undisturbed. "It wasn't just a question of setting a match to the front door. They went systematically through the house, dousing the various flashpoints with petrol. It was a very thorough job."

When the flames started spreading, the fire grew to such a size that it could be seen for miles around the surrounding countryside. People from the nearby parishes congregated on the lawns of Woodstock to watch. The house burned for two days.

On the night that the fire started, the contents of the library were moved out, and carted away. Other stray fragments of domestic life at Woodstock ended up scattered on the lawns outside, to be picked up by those people who gathered from miles around.

Tom Whyte's uncle found a white linen tablecloth lying on the front lawn. He brought it home. "When he died in 1962, he left it to me." Tom Whyte still has that tablecloth; an exquisite example of Irish linen, with its hand-scalloped edges and embroidered flowers and shamrocks.

Anthony Tighe, spokesman for the Tighe family, is one of the people who has contacted The Irish Times in response to the December article on the Woodstock project.

He will be attending a meeting in Woodstock Estate this afternoon where details of Phase 1 of the restoration of the gardens will be formally announced by Kilkenny County Council, the Great Gardens of Ireland, and Coillte. He is to announce that his family will make a gift of the site of the house and its ruined remains, which is still in their possession, to the State.




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