Every time I go back to Ireland, it feels like a homecoming. Each time I get that first glimpse of the Emerald Isle from the plane window, my heart skips a beat from excitement. This is not only because of my double Dutch/Irish identity. The main reason for this ‘heartbeat skipping’ is because I am seeing my Irish family again. Another part of this excitement stems from being back in the country I have partly grown up in. Along with the homely atmosphere I always love going on roadtrips and visiting different sights with my family and taking in the landscape, which is, to say the least, very different from the flat polders of The Netherlands. In comparison, the Irish landscape is mystically wild and untouched, mountainous. It gives you this daunting feeling of living in a Harry Potter story. It seems as if all the houses and roads have been built around the dramatic nature instead of the other way around. Apart from my general love for the land, I am intrigued by its history. Of course I was never taught Irish history in school due to my Dutch education. So I am setting out to become an autodidact on this subject.
One of my self- learning opportunities presented itself when my aunt and I went for a walk on what is called ‘The Golden Trail’ near where she lives and near the place I have been visiting for the past twenty two years. The Golden Trail is a pathway which takes you all the way around the grounds of a huge estate called Woodlawn House. This massive house immediately caught my interest. It stands grandly against a beautiful green hill in the middle of a large green field. Here it stands now as a personification for the Golden Era of English rule in Ireland, once a thriving place, has now become and has almost gone to ruins. The windows are boarded up, the walls are torn and grey and there is an impressive trail of ivy growing up and taking over the right wing. The state of this magnificent place stirs up my curiosity. It made me ask myself the question: what events led this beautiful house and its surroundings to take on such a dilapidated appearance?
It became clear to me when I tried to answer this question that just knowing the local history was not enough. I had to look into the broader context of Irish history, namely that of the political and religious, which were hugely intertwined. The reason was the influence of the English from the 17th century up until now. England and Ireland were united through the acts of Union in 1800, causing them to have a shared government. This later caused both a political and a religious division. The group who were supportive of the union between England and Ireland were called the Unionists while the group who wanted an independent Ireland were called the Nationalists. Unionist were of Protestant religion, like the overall English population. The Nationalists were Catholic.
How does this relate to Woodlawn House? The English located landlords all over Ireland, who collected rent from the general Irish public. One of them was Lord Ashtown, who built this magnificent Woodlawn House. Like all landlords, he was a fervid Protestant Unionist, and he passed these beliefs on to his successors. During the third generation of Lord Ashtown’s rule however, the Nationalists gained more and more followers and power. They were extremely radical, threatening the landlords and even burning down various estates in Ireland to drive them out. This caused most landlords to either compromise their beliefs by becoming Nationalists themselves, or by selling their land back to their Irish tenants. Nevertheless, Lord Ashtown did not back down. He was very vocal about his beliefs and even self-published a polemic magazine in which he wrote articles that depicted Nationalists as a threat to national security. He also kept on evicting tenants who didn’t comply with his rules. This made him very unpopular with the general public as well as the politicians who supported the Nationalists.
Eventually the popularity of and threat from the Nationalists became too serious to ignore. Ashtown migrated to England for a few weeks with his family, leaving the house unsupervised. Upon his return he found his mansion had been ransacked by squatters, which left him infuriated. His fury is ironic keeping in mind that he had been previously implored by Nationalists to give up his house for Protestant refugees from the North who had become homeless due to the political unrest. Eventually Ashtown was forced to sell his land in 1922 under one of the many land acts. Financially and morally shaken, he remained living in Woodlawn House with his family until he – ironically – died in a Catholic nursing home in Ballinasloe.
Now, a little over a hundred years later, the landlords have all moved out and the land has been sold back to the Irish tenants. Woodlawn house still sits against the beautiful green hill, reminding us of a period in Irish history long passed. The people who live in the area of Woodlawn no longer want to burn it to the ground, but would prefer to see new life blown into the estate. There I stood with my aunt, playing and fantasising with the idea of how wonderful it would be to transform it into a luxurious hotel, for the locals to wine and dine in. Transforming the estate will take a lot of time and money, but who knows… Perhaps it can take on a new role in the community.
Reading up and doing research on Woodlawn House has given me a deeper insight into my roots. For this reason, I loved learning about it. I would have never discovered so much about the House if I had only just read and depended on the information signs along the recreational path ‘The Golden Trail’. Do not get me wrong, the signs and information are brief but concise. I just needed to do more delving into the history of it to satisfy my own curiosity. Best of all, Woodlawn House is just around the corner from my aunt’s house. It was just waiting for me to get to the bottom of and discover its rich and rare history.
So my call to you, my dear reader is, take a look around you and your local area, think about the old buildings around you. Can they tell you something about your history? If you are new to the area, can they tell you something about the new location you have found yourself in? You can go online to do your research, head to your local library or maybe even ask the local community about them. Perhaps you will find out something amazingly interesting!
If you have become curious about Woodlawn here are some articles to further your research:
Curtis, L. Perry (Lewis Perry). “The Last Gasp of Southern Unionism: Lord Ashtown of Woodlawn.” Éire-Ireland, vol. 40 no. 2, 2005, pp. 140-188. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/eir.2005.0018