‘Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful
Have no enemy but time;’
‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz,’ William Butler Yeats
We left you on Friday as we set off on a drive down the west coast of Ireland.
We’re showing family around the island…and discovering it ourselves.
First stop was Lissadell House in County Sligo…in which we learned how a great family can ruin itself.
What goes around comes around
The English conquered Ireland in the early 17th century and then divided it up into vast plantations.
In 1622, Paul Gore, an English commander, was given a vast stretch of land in the north of the island in County Donegal, where your editor’s family is from.
And by 1900, Sir Henry William Gore-Booth, father of Eva and Constance, was one of the richest men in Ireland with 32,000 acres.
But what goes around comes around. And fortunes have a way of going as well as coming. In the early 20th century, the Anglo-Irish were losing their grip on Ireland…and Sir Henry’s family was losing its grip on reality.
We have been interested, of late, in the intersection between politics and money. It is a dangerous one…with frequent accidents.
Most often, paying attention to politics is a mistake. Politics is a win-lose business, while money is mostly win-win.
In the modern world, it is work that pays, not war. You make money by offering something to others. Your time, your attention, your savings, your inventions, or your innovations — generally, the more you give, the more you get.
Meddling in politics merely distracts and misleads you; the more you force others to give at the point of a gun, the less you have to give in return.
Politics creates no wealth. It merely ‘redistributes’ it — from those who earn it to those who end up with the stolen goods.
At the low end, social programs redistribute trivial amounts. The zombies get enough to live on…but not much more.
At the high end, a few cronies get rich from federal scams. But not many. It’s a tough game, because you’re competing with other cronies…who are often more ruthless than you are.
But occasionally, you need to take an interest in politics. Because, as civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael used to say, it may take an interest in you.
In 1917 Russia, for example, there was no use trying to pick the best stock or the best bond…or trying to get a good deal on an apartment on Nevsky Prospekt.
There were macro-trends afoot…hideous political movements…that made win-win deals a waste of time. Whatever gains you were able to make would soon be taken away.
Likewise, there was no use speculating on waterfront property in Pompeii in AD 79…or trying to find the right spot for your noodle stand in Hiroshima in August 1945.
If there was a ‘crime behind every fortune,’ as the French novelist Balzac claimed, the crime of the Anglo-Irish was obvious. Their fortunes came from war…win-lose deals of the worst sort — purchased with the blood of Catholic Ireland.
In the cathedral at Cashel (also on our route) in 1647, for example, Protestant forces butchered 1,000 soldiers and civilians. Altogether, as many as half the people in Ireland may have died in Cromwell’s campaigns — more than 600,000 dead from slaughter, disease, and hunger.
The Anglo-Irish stole their property fair and square, in other words. Three centuries later, they could hardly complain. They had enjoyed their Big Houses and great estates…and their status, prestige, and wealth…since the reign of Elizabeth I.
Crime paid. But it was time to pay attention to politics.
The Easter Rising in 1916 — in which Constance Markievicz, one of the women of Lissadell House, played an important role — was the beginning of the end.
Five years later, Ireland was independent of Britain and the tables were turned. Politics had created the big estates. Now, politics broke them up — with a combination of taxes, forced sales, and seizures.
Many, if not most, of the Big Houses were unable to support themselves on the little land that was left to them. Many were abandoned and left to rack and ruin.
Some were sold off and converted to housing, hotels, or golf clubs. Others were taken over by local and national governments.
And while politics doomed the Big House of Lissadell, so did it doom the family that had lived in it for so many years.
Henry Gore-Booth left behind a motley crew, including his daughter, Constance, who married a Pole and later joined the Irish rebels in the Easter Rising.
Thus, so dramatically engaged in politics, the whole family seemed to take its eye off the road. A few years later, it was in the ditch.
The Anglo-Irish — who had gained so much from conquest — felt they should fight for the English wherever they were engaged. St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, for example, is stocked with monuments to the soldiers who died in India, South Africa, and America.
Fighting for the English made no sense for the Irish…but for the Anglo-Irish, it was a matter of pride and habit. In World War II, Ireland remained neutral. But the Gore-Booths and other Anglo-Irish gentry sent their young men to war anyway.
Lissadell lost two of its scions in the war. Another came back unable to fully function. By then, the family was full of political activists, poets, eccentrics, world improvers, and artists. But it had no one who could hold the house and the family together.
In 2004, the family put the house up for sale; it ended up in the hands of a charming couple from Dublin, who’ve opened it to the public and spend their time fixing windows and planting vegetables.
The façade of Lissadell House in County Sligo, Ireland
And now, the plain people of Ireland, who used to tote wood and carry trays in the Big House, traipse through, at six euros a ticket, and gawk at how the ruling class used to live.