The enigmas of Erskine Childers

Image: Gary Woods
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers a gifted novelist and nationalist contrarian

The era either side of the First World War was a golden age for the spy novel. Perhaps there’s nothing like a really cataclysmic global shock to get the creative juices flowing. In July 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle put Sherlock Holmes aside long enough to publish a story with the unambiguous title of ‘Danger!’, a cautionary tale of the British Isles being starved into submission by an enemy submarine blockade – and in at least some accounts one that proved spectacularly counter-productive, in that it spurred the Kaiser and his naval chiefs to do exactly what Doyle had warned of. The following year, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps mixed jingoism and Germanophobia in a topical yarn involving a sinister anarchist gang, a man with part of his finger missing, and an extended chase scene through the Scottish highlands.  Somerset Maugham went one further and actually became a wartime spy, an experience he later put to good use in his celebrated Ashenden series.

But perhaps the pick of the literary crop was 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, by the Anglo-Irish writer, soldier, politician and latterly radical nationalist Erskine Childers. It had the lot. If some destructive process were to mysteriously eliminate the world’s entire spy-thriller library, only The Riddle remaining, we could surely reconstruct from it every outline of the basic formula, every essential character and flavour contributing to the genre. In essence, the novel mixes some gentle satire about the graded snobberies of the Edwardian class system (at least a generation ahead of its time in that respect alone) with a lively seafaring adventure involving a couple of topping British chaps going after German spies in the Baltic. It’s not only a riveting tale in itself, but so cogent in its account of the decrepit state of Britain’s maritime defenses that it prompted the Admiralty to hurriedly install a series of new coastal gun batteries, and The Times to call the author ‘a hero’ as a result; an ironic and perhaps poignant tribute in the light of what ultimately happened. Childers’s book was an instant bestseller, and still ticks over today. No less a judge than Ken Follett has called it ‘the first modern thriller.’ If you want a really gripping read, with plenty of white-knuckle action, some energetically sustained period idiom, and the sort of mass of technical description and verifiable detail later found in the James Bond series, The Riddle is for you.

Jenny Agutter in the 1979 film of The Riddle of the Sands

Curiously enough, about the one person seemingly unmoved by the book’s success was Childers himself, something of an odd bird, by all accounts, even by literary standards. Aged 33 at the time of The Riddle’s publication, he never wrote another novel, instead concentrating on dry military manuals and increasingly strident political tracts. To call Childers a man of humanising contradictions is an understatement. On the one hand, he served the Crown as a wartime intelligence and aerial reconnaissance officer, greatly distinguishing himself in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. On the other, he was busy on the side smuggling German-bought guns to supply the Home Rule nationalists in Ireland, running the weapons onto a moonlit beach north of Dublin on his racing yacht Asgard, accompanied by his wife Molly and a small crew. It was almost like a scene out of The Riddle, with the critical distinction that instead of sounding the alarm about German ambitions, Childers was in the curious position of serving the King while transporting arms from the Kaiser intended for a revolution behind the lines.

The 1916 Easter Rising that saw the deaths of 485 men, women and children, among them a number of swiftly enacted judicial executions, in a week of rioting around Dublin seems to have finally clarified any remaining questions of allegiance in Childers’s mind. ‘I am daily witness to the prostitution of the British Army I served to fulfill the many aims I loathed and combated,’ he wrote. ‘I am Anglo-Irish by birth. Now I am identifying myself wholly with Ireland.’

Having cemented his establishment credentials by winning the Distinguished Service Cross for his work at Gallipoli, Childers settled down to live as a sort of proto-hippy on a farm in County Wicklow, extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, enjoying an occasional toot of cocaine and, it’s said, a degree of freedom from the traditional monogamous ideal, while sending his three young sons to a progressive school where they would be taught nothing about religion until they were old enough to decide for themselves.

The war over, Childers was a victim of the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic, and barely survived. This was apparently another significant, or decisive, turning-point in his evolution from popular middlebrow author to radical activist. At least one of his biographers has speculated that he suffered a psychological breakdown during the winter of 1919-20 as a result, with a subsequent ‘addiction to danger that amounted almost to a death-wish.’ The following May, Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a stinging attack on British policy, and followed it by a series of articles in the weekly Irish Bulletin tearing the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George to shreds. Childers was secretary to the delegation that negotiated a treaty with Westminster in December 1921, providing for effective Home Rule a year later. Following that, the proposal went, the Dublin government would act as a self-sufficient dominion of the British Empire, much like Canada or Australia. Lloyd George wrote in his diary of a ‘sullen’ Childers, seething with ‘compressed wrath’ that his attempts to bring about total and immediate Irish independence had failed. Winston Churchill went one further, calling him a ‘murderous renegade’, and a ‘strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth.’

The Anglo-Irish Treaty spurred Childers, and others of his persuasion, to take direct action in the face of what they saw as a sellout to London. After a further series of articles in the perhaps provocatively titled War News, one morning in early November 1922 the now middle-aged and frail Childers set off by bicycle from his current home in County Kerry on the 200-mile journey to confer with Eamon De Valera and his fellow rebels in Dublin. There might almost be a certain wry comedy to the scene, which you could imagine, say, Alec Guinness later portraying on film, but for its consequences. Childers was soon arrested by British troops along the way, and found to be in possession of a small .32 calibre pistol, which may or may not have been in working order, in violation of the recently passed Emergency Powers Resolution.

The subsequent judicial proceedings were swift. Childers was indeed taken to Dublin, if under radically different circumstances than he would have wished, where he was put on trial a week later. The proceedings ended on 18 November 1922, after the defendant had refused to recognise the legitimacy of the British Military Tribunal convened for the event. The possession of the pistol was enough to condemn him to death. Childers lodged an appeal against the sentence, and this was heard the next day by a civil magistrate who said he lacked jurisdiction because of the ongoing paramilitary disturbances in the area. ‘The prisoner disputes the authority of the Tribunal and comes to this Court for protection,’ the judge wrote, ‘but its answer must be that its jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war that he himself has helped to produce.’

Early on the morning of 24 November 1922, Childers, now a stooped, gaunt-looking man of 52, was led into a tin-roofed shed used as a firing range on the Beggars Bush barracks in Dublin, where a row of twelve soldiers was waiting for him in front of an open coffin. Perhaps nothing in the life of this brilliant, troubled and sometimes perverse figure became him like the leaving it. After shaking the hand of each member of the firing squad, his final words were: ‘Take a step or two forwards, lads, it will be easier that way.’ A few hours earlier, Childers’s 16-year-old son – also named Erskine, and a future President of Ireland – had been allowed to briefly visit his father in his cell. The condemned man made him promise two things: that he would forgive every minister in the provisional government who was responsible for his death, and that if he ever went into politics he was never to seek to capitalise on his execution. The younger Childers did as he was asked, and in later years sometimes produced a scrap of paper on which his father had written his last testament: ‘I die loving England, and passionately pray that she may change completely and passionately towards Ireland.’

Rathfarnham – ‘Big House’ borderlands

“Bottle Tower, Rathfarnham”, by Harry Kernoff, RHA (1940) – built 1742 as a famine relief scheme after 1740/1741’s “Year of the Slaughter”
DERMOT O’SULLIVAN shows the secret history of a Dublin suburb

In university I did a module on Irish Literature which included ‘Big House’ novels. When I first heard the term, I thought it was a generic description of all novels connected to big country houses, whether they be set in Ireland or not. I mistakenly assumed that Castle Rackrent and The Last September were only Irish examples of a genre that included Jane Eyre, some of Austen’s works, perhaps Portrait of a Lady too.

I quickly discovered that this was not the case, that Big House novels are uniquely Irish works of literature concerned with the big houses of the Irish landlords and (usually) their relationship with the surrounding peasantry and politics of the time. In Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, we follow the declining fortunes of an incompetent and abusive Anglo-Irish landowning family, the not-so-subtly named Rackrents. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen focuses on the cultural ambiguity and divided loyalties of an Anglo-Irish family during the Irish War of Independence, as they both hobnob with the members of the British army and demonstrate their sympathy for and connection with the local Irish, including those who are fighting for independence.

Elizabeth Bowen, who wrote of the ambiguities of Anglo-Irishness

These books made me suddenly curious − not about the literary genre itself − but about the social and historical reality that lay behind these works. I became intensely aware of the fact that people had actually lived in big houses, and – more importantly to my mind – around them, ordinary people existing in relation to these houses and what they represented. This may seem mind-numbingly obvious: after all, Irish history and popular culture is chock-full of stories about landlords and their tenants. However, there is a difference between knowing something and knowing something in italics, as the saying goes. And in thinking about the Big House novel and the world it sprang from, I was knowing in italics, for the first time, this strange, strange corner of Irish history.

This excited me, but left me a little disheartened, feeling I’d missed out on something important. It seemed strange and inappropriate for an Irish person not to know anything about a uniquely Irish reality that had given rise to a whole genre of literature. I was not a 18th or 19th Century peasant, nor ever would be. Neither was I the scion of some blue blood family that still spent summers in their crumbling mansion somewhere in rural Offaly or Meath. It was not that I wanted to be either of these people – not at all – but I was hungry to know this part of my country’s history.

I do not know how long this feeling lasted, a number of weeks perhaps. And then one day, while strolling by the enormous chestnut tree in the shadow of the castle, I realised how ridiculous this sense of historical deprivation was. After all, I had actually grown up in the grounds of a Big House!

Rathfarnham Castle (Photo:

Remarkably this had completely slipped my mind as I mulled over the Big House novel. Rathfarnham Castle was of course a landlord’s Big House – arguably from its construction by Adam Loftus in the late 1500s and definitely from its refurbishment in the 18th Century – and the house in which I grew up in Rathfarnham Wood estate had been built on an old patch of the demesne gardens. I had spent my childhood playing in the woodlands of this Big House, climbing the exotic trees, sitting on the ornamental stone lions that flank its main entrance, hearing stories about its ghosts (including that of a girl bricked up in its walls), driving past its former entry gates, one by the village and the other down by the Dodder some distance away. Our “village” – with its newsagents, charity shops, pubs and takeaways − was the village that grew up around and serviced this house and castle.

How exciting and bizarre to think that a once powerful family’s garden was now occupied by dozens and dozens of individual families, squatting commoners far below the social and economic status of the historic Loftuses, but who nonetheless lived in a state of technological sophistication that the Loftuses could only have dreamed of. I briefly imagined I caught a glimpse of how Henry – the 18th century owner − may have viewed the sleepy (soporifically so) middle class housing estate where I grew up: a strange cyberpunk colony of unlanded plebeians who lacked even a simple chambermaid and yet, as a matter of course, rode mechanical horses fed by internal fires, ate for breakfast the foreign fruits that only he could afford or access in his time, and flew across and between continents in a matter of hours while casually watching probe footage from nearby planets on their handheld library-cum-galleries.   

I’d not only grown up on a former landlord estate (which is obviously extremely common anywhere in Ireland or indeed Europe), but within a stone’s throw of the house itself (which is also quite common, if less so). And, to top it all off, this was so unremarkable to me that I’d completely forgotten about it to the point of feeling sorry for myself, when it should have been the first thing I thought of on reading Edgeworth or Bowen. This now seemed to me far more interesting than any Big House reality from centuries ago.    

This realisation of course made history alive and immediate for me. It was not the first time I’d taken an interest in local history, or in history in general, topics that I’d always felt drawn to. But it certainly added more texture and impetus to this curiosity.

I had always adored – and still do – the nature of Rathfarnham Wood. And it was curious to know that where I had picked up my love of the natural world had been in the decadent and overgrown gardens of some long-departed landowning family. There was (and to a lesser extent still is) a sort of natural gothic to Rathfarnham Wood, with its shattered ruins and superabundance of ivy. It’s no doubt a common aesthetic taste, but I am sure that my obsession with ruins and overgrowth, and – the jackpot – overgrown ruins, was influenced by growing up in an environment that abounded in them.

Archbishop Loftus, constructor (or reconstructor) of Rathfarnham Castle

A short history of Rathfarnham I read many years ago, shortly after the events recounted above, described the area as a “waste village” in the early 1580s when Adam Loftus took possession and began the construction (or reconstruction) of Rathfarnham Castle. This simple phrase – with its hints of violence and war − stirred my curiosity and led to another novel insight into Irish history for me. I went on to read more about how Rathfarnham had been the frequent victim of Gaelic plundering. I had vaguely known about the raids of the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles before, and I’d of course heard ad nauseam in school about the Pale, the small area of Ireland surrounding Dublin that was still under the control of the English Crown in the 1300s. But it was only reading about Rathfarnham on this occasion that these facts really hit home.

It now seemed remarkable to me that the Wicklow highlands, so close to the centre of English power in the country, had remained Irish for so long. It took 400 years for English power to reach the hills and mountains that I could see out the window of my childhood home – and a further 200 for that control to be complete and uncontested. That’s 600 years total, more than the time that has elapsed since significant numbers of Europeans first set foot in the Americas. What’s more, these highlands are clearly visible from the city centre, and with good traffic, just 30 minutes away by car. Even back in medieval times they could only have been a few hours march distant at most. This was fascinating – the fact that two worlds co-existed side by side for so many centuries, the fact that in medieval times guards on the walls of Dublin Castle could have looked south at the hills and known that there lay another country: different language, different culture, different law.

That Rathfarnham was to some degree a borderland between these two realities, and would have witnessed these raids, was utterly engrossing to me. And the realisation that the expression “Beyond the Pale” literally applied to my neighbourhood (which straddled the Pale in fact, my house being inside it), that I could see “beyond the Pale” out the window of my redbrick suburban home, this was the icing on the historical cake.

Ticknock Forest, all too near Rathfarnham

Rathfarnham is a middle-class suburb located on the southern extremity of Dublin city, where the land begins to crumple into green hills that eventually give onto the granite Wicklow uplands and their rolling moors and peaks. At first glance it is an entirely unremarkable district. And at closer glance it is still quite unremarkable: suburban housing estates, main roads, shopping centres and parks. That’s basically it.

The parks – such as Rathfarnham Wood mentioned above – are the keys to understanding the neighbourhood’s history, as most of them are not recently developed urban parks, but the remains of the demesne gardens of wealthy, almost exclusively Protestant landowners. From the time of the English Reformation until Ireland’s Independence in 1922, the country was divided from its colonial overlords by religion, in addition to political and cultural questions. In essence, Ireland was ruled by a wealthy, landowning Protestant elite, much like in Britain, except in Ireland the vast majority of the population was Catholic (and extremely impoverished). Being close to the seat of English power in Dublin, Rathfarnham was greatly sought after by members of this class, and so the suburb boasts a high density of their mansions, giving the area an uncommon level of historical continuity when compared to many other areas of the city.

But all that comes much later: the history of Rathfarnham begins thousands of years before even Catholicism – not to mentioned Anglicanism – were even dreamed of. In the suburb − and particularly in its hilly, rural sections − are many millennia-old megaliths: cairns, tombs, dolmens, all left scattered by peoples whose languages, cultures and beliefs are utterly lost to the great bog of history. A Neolithic passage tomb recently excavated on Montpellier Hill probably dates back more than 5,000 years. Flint lithics, a polished stone axe head and a bone pin were found at the site. Another passage tomb cairn known as Fairy Castle is not actually in Rathfarnham, but is visible from the area as a grey nipple on the rounded summit of Two Rock mountain. The portion of Rathfarnham’s history that we can speak about with any degree of certainty – less than 1,000 years – pales in comparison to these deep stretches of time.  

There is not much to say about Rathfarnham before the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th Century, but we can safely assume that this fertile country, close to the River Liffey and Ireland’s east coast, would have been inhabited. There were early Christian monasteries nearby, with one possibly being located on the site of the old churchyard in Rathfarnham village. From the founding of Viking Dublin in the 9th Century, there was probably extensive Scandinavian presence in the area. But it is only after the Anglo-Norman invasion that we begin to have a solid written record of Rathfarnham. Incidentally, Diarmaid Mac Murchadha – the Irish king who brought the Anglo-Normans to the island in order to try regain his lost kingdom – led the invaders through the Rathfarnham area on the final leg of their march to attack Dublin, the most prosperous settlement in Ireland at the time. Ironically, seeing as it would take the English settlers hundreds of years to subdue the Wicklow mountains, it was through these uplands that they first entered the Dublin region, choosing this difficult route in order to surprise the city’s defenders. So in one of those strange rhyming reversals of history, the hills that for several centuries afterwards would be a thorn in the side of English Dublin, the vulnerable southern flank of the Pale from which would descend raiders and armies; these very same hills that would become their nemesis in the centuries ahead, are what allowed the Anglo-Normans to invade and occupy the city of Dublin in the first place.

Just five years later in 1175, Rathfarnham was granted by Henry II to Walter the goldsmith (aurifaber). Then in 1199, Milo le Bret was given Rathfarnham and constructed a motte and bailey fort in the area. This marked the beginning of the Pale period of Rathfarnham’s history mentioned above, when the district’s position at the edge of Dublin, right on the foothills of the Wicklow mountains, made it a cultural and military borderland for centuries. The precarious situation of Rathfarnham (and all the Pale’s southern border) became much more severe in the 1300s when Europe-wide famine and the Black Death, among other factors, led to a weakening of English power in Ireland, subjecting Dublin’s hinterland to ever more frequent and vicious raids from the O’Byrne and O’Toole clans from the mountains. Violence also went in the other direction, with the medieval records of Dublin showing the levying of forces to carry out attacks on the Gaelic kingdoms.

This cultural fault line was plagued by violence for another 200 years. Only in the 1580s was the power of the Gaelic lords finally broken. It was at this time that Rathfarnham was described as a “waste village” and that the original Loftus − Adam – was granted the lands and built the Castle that still exists today. Adam Loftus was a Yorkshire clergyman who managed to secure extensive wealth while in colonial service in Ireland. As well as being the man who built Rathfarnham Castle, he was Archbishop of Dublin and the first provost of Trinity College Dublin, which he helped to found and which was named after his alma-mater in Cambridge. He had a reputation for being a self-serving opportunist and apparently opposed the foundation of Trinity College in St Patrick’s Cathedral as it would have deprived him of a lucrative source of income. In any case, the fortified house that he built – and the village that grew to serve it – has remained the central historical feature of Rathfarnham to this day. And, of course, it is in the lands of this castle that the red-brick 1980s housing estate that I grew up in would be built, almost exactly 400 years later.  

In 1600, in an act of nostalgic violence, the Wicklow clans, taking advantage of the Nine Years’ War, attacked the castle. Letters of Adam Loftus from the time lament the loss of his cattle, sheep and other goods to the raiders. During the Irish Confederate Wars and Cromwellian invasion of the 1640s the castle changed hands many times and was occupied by both Royalists and Roundheads. There is a tradition that Cromwell himself stayed in the castle but no one knows if this is true.  

Cromwellian agitprop – the English warrior slays the Irish dragon

After peace came to Ireland in the late 1600s, a “golden era” (at least for some) began in Rathfarnham. The 18th Century was the height of the power and influence of the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, a period when wealthy Protestants (some recent arrivals from England, others not) consolidated their control over the island. These landlords owned vast estates across the entire country, while Catholics had their rights restricted under various, ever-changing Penal Laws. It was from this landowning class that came the writers Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Bowen, and it was from the social reality of this elite’s status in Irish society that came the Big House novel genre. In Rathfarnham this contrast would probably have been less fraught, as ordinary peasants living close to Dublin would have been less obviously impoverished and less obviously “Irish” than those elsewhere in the country.

In any case, it is at this time that were built most of the large, extant and historically relevant structures in Rathfarnham: Rathfarnham House, The Hermitage, the Church of Ireland church in the village, Eden House (now a pub), Marlay House, the Priory (later demolished) and other less extravagant homes.

Just as significant was the refurbishment by Lord Ely (Henry Loftus) of Rathfarnham Castle, which converted the 16th Century fortified house into a luxurious modern home, complete with rococo ceilings, painted glass windows and other decorative features. Perhaps most tellingly, the Castle’s windows were enlarged to a size that would have been unthinkable in the era of the Wicklow clans’ incursions. But this was a new era for Rathfarnham, when security was no longer a great concern.

Lord Ely’s Gate, formerly the main entrance to the Rathfarnham Castle demesne

Funnily enough, approximately 250 years later an “attack” by another group of outsiders – probably some drunken roughs from another area of the city that had gate-crashed a party nearby –would result in some of these windows being smashed and a return to a state of  high vigilance at the castle. Motion sensors and cameras were installed to defend the place, instead of the more traditional armed watchmen of centuries past.

With increased freedom for the majority of Irish following Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Rathfarnham underwent another interesting shift that mirrored the social and political changes taking place across the country. From this time until Irish independence in 1922, the big structures of Rathfarnham were increasingly occupied by Catholic institutions as the power of the Protestant Ascendancy began to wane. Rathfarnham House became the Loreto convent (where Mother Teresa of Calcutta trained). The Hermitage became St Enda’s School, or Scoil Éanna, a bilingual Catholic school under the direction of Pádraig Pearse, the man who later led the 1916 Rising, which though a military failure led to the conflict that eventually saw Ireland gain independence from Britain. And the Castle itself became a Jesuit college and retreat centre. During this period the Church of the Annunciation Catholic church was built, there having been only a small mass house before.

Rathfarnham’s final transformation (and probably its last for the foreseeable future) came in the mid to late 20th century, when Dublin’s suburban sprawl spread to what had been a populated but still largely rural district. Many housing estates were built, including the one I grew up in. Shopping centres, schools, pubs and other services sprung up to attend to the needs of the new inhabitants. And now that is what Rathfarnham is: an area of suburban housing estates scattered with old Ascendancy mansions, or perhaps an area of stately Ascendancy parklands now occupied by suburban homes. It all depends on your perspective.           

So where does this leave us? Ultimately, for most of its residents, with a suburb that they can live in and its local parks that they can jog in, or play football in, or drink in at night when they are still underage. Rathfarnham is a place that holds a lot of physical history: there are few places in the whole country with such a high density of old buildings and ruins, particularly from relatively recent times, but also from extremely distant eras. However, buildings do not have memory, people do, and in this way Rathfarnham is a paradox, as while many old structures have persisted through the ages here, its people have not. In recent decades, this has been due to the explosion of suburban growth: the residents of the housing estates of Rathfarnham are mostly not from the area and a huge number are not from Dublin at all. As such there is little of the folk memory and interrelations that exist in parts of rural Ireland. And none of the big houses are occupied by their original residents.

Before this, Rathfarnham had its cultural continuity disrupted by the Viking and Anglo-Norman invasions and subsequent settlement. One thinks of the late, great Tim Robinson’s exceptional books on the Aran Islands and Connemara (Stones of Aran – Pilgrimage, Stones of Aran – Labyrinth, and the Connemara Trilogy – Listening to the Wind, The Last Pool of Darkness and A Little Gaelic Kingdom) how − though these were disappearing even as he recorded them – names existed for individual rocks and hummocks in the land; and how there were folk tales and traditions associated with individual cliff faces and bogs and bays. In Rathfarnham, this is almost non-existent, and entirely so for the vast majority of residents these days. One thinks of the local names and stories and traditions that must have existed here over the centuries, in English more recently, and further back in the Irish language itself.

This cultural dislocation is perhaps illustrated most clearly in the name of the place: no one knows exactly where the name Rathfarnham comes from. All that is certain is that it originates in a time when Gaelic culture would have been ascendant in the area. The Irish Ráth Fearnáin is usually translated as Fearnán’s ringfort, but even this is debated. And, even assuming this is correct, no one knows who Fearnán was or – though there are educated guesses − exactly where his ráth lay. The English form obviously alters the last syllable to make it similar to British place names such as Birmingham or Nottingham. This would be like renaming Castledermot in county Kildare, “Castledertown.” And if we translate ráth loosely as “castle” (on the logic that both were the central defensive structures of their respective cultures), the strange disjunction of this cultural forgetting becomes even clearer, as it would mean that Rathfarnham Castle, the central point of the neighbourhood, can be construed as the tautological “The Castle of the Castle of Fearnán,” which makes zero sense, or all the sense in the world. Again, it all depends of your perspective.

Study for the Head of Samuel Beckett, by Louis de Broquy – the Anglo-Irish analyst of states of mind depicted like a Celtic warrior

Exploring the history of Rathfarnham (or anywhere perhaps) is akin to psychoanalysis, insofar as what is most interesting and revelatory is usually not the discovery of something completely unknown, but rather the coming to awareness of things that were clearly there all along. In the case of Ireland, one theme is the ambiguity of our attachment to the relics of a colonial past, animosity towards which – for lack of other things, much of our native culture having been destroyed – is a fundamental part of the country’s national identity. For all the reasons outlined above, Rathfarnham embodies this starkly, it being a seat of both Protestant ascendancy and nationalist revolution. With its completely obliterated Gaelic past, and its colonial history remaining only in the repurposed or ruined shells of old buildings, Rathfarnham is ultimately the unremarkable embodiment of a clash of cultures that began 850 years ago and which continues to this day.

Unremarkable as, in the final analysis, this story is repeated all over the island, and is simply another way of defining the idea of Ireland itself, whether one lives on the grounds of a literal Big House or not. And as much as battles and rebellions, this clash is equally well represented by a modern, health-conscious suburbanite jogging in an ornamental parkland planted by a colonial landlord long, long ago.