Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Silence of the Bonfires

This column originally appeared in the first issue of The Dubliner in February 2001.

191 “Big Houses” were burnt in Ireland between 1919 and 1923.* Mine survived. I can’t think why. Tom McClintock Bunbury, the man on the throne during the Troubles, did not have the sort of CV that people of a Republican nature generally admire. 2nd Baron Rathdonnell. Chairman of the Leinster Unionists. Lord Lieutenant of County Carlow. President of the Royal Dublin Society. As I say, not the sort of titles one did much bragging about in the last century.

100 years ago, Tom owned upwards of 25,000 acres strewn across Ireland in neat, often walled estates, from the glens of Donegal through the soggy Midlands to the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains. Bullocks were his passion and I have seen photographs of the oxen he reared. They were magnificent beasts, utterly dwarfing the smiling peaky-capped men they stand solemnly beside. These bullocks were bred for their pedigrees. A prize bull could keep a farmer wealthy for a decade. I’ve never seen their like in real life. Perhaps they no longer make them. Why should they? What does one get for a prize bull these days? A red rosette? A snow-flaked crystal vase?

In October 1899, Tom’s son and heir, Billy, set off on a rickety ship from the south coast of England to Cape Town. He wore a red uniform and a set of stripes indicating that he was an officer in the Royal Scots Greys. The “Greys” were a formidable regiment, experts in cavalry warfare, heroes of Waterloo, the Crimea and umpteen other imperial campaigns. Billy was terrifically excited about going to war. “Tomorrow morning we’re off to have a crack at the Boer!”, he exclaimed in one of many letters to his parents.

These letters are contained in the library at my home and I have read them with sadness. I don’t know if Billy and I would have been friends. He rowed for Eton and was reckoned to be one of the straightest horsemen in the Greys; I require armbands in a bathtub and I look like a desperately uncomfortable sack of spuds when placed upon a rocking horse. Still, I would like to have chewed the fat with him a while. I’d be fascinated to know why he was so keen on shooting Boers. Was it something personal? Did he genuinely hate them? Truth is – and I have read his fervent letters and observed photographs of the boy at work, polishing his knee-high boots and joking with fellow officers in the barren scrub – Billy was one of those absurd young bucks who reckoned dying for the Empire was a jolly good way to go.

I happened to be in South Africa on 17th February 2000, the centenary of Billy’s death. I tried to find his grave but the Boer War boffin who knew such things could not be tracked. He was probably tied up organising the centenary celebrations for the Relief of Kimberley.

Kimberley was then a small diamond-mining town, established by Cecil Rhodes and his merry men in 1871. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Boer marksmen had surrounded the town and, for 124 consecutive days, confidently delivered a zippy bullet to the forehead of any soul who stepped into their line of fire. Rhodes himself was trapped in the town. The “Greys” were one of the many regiments that eventually cantered to the rescue and scattered the sprightly Boer farmers into distant kopjes. That was on the 16th February. The following day, Billy stumbled into an ambush and was shot in his left leg. Gangrene and shock set in. It took him just over eleven hours to die. His commanding officer wrote a remarkable 8-page letter to Billy’s parents, giving an intense blow-by-blow account of Billy’s state from the ambush through to his eventual passing. He believed Billy was too faint to be scared. He kissed the boy’s forehead for his mother and father and oversaw the burial. Billy was a noble and foolish lad. This letter made me want to weep. In part, for all those who never received such a poignant obituary when their own sons and husbands were slaughtered during the colossal world wars of the 20th century.

Tom was out hunting with the Carlow & Island Hunt when the news arrived on 20th February. The hounds were taken home and, according to The Carlow Sentinel, “sadness spread across the county for the bereaved relatives and the gallant boy who was so good a sportsman, so bright a spirit”. At the occasion of Billy’s birth 21 years earlier, this same paper spoke deliriously of bonfires being lit “across the county” in jubilant celebration at the birth of William McClintock Bunbury.

I have no notion how Billy’s death affected his parents. In compliance with changing times, Tom gradually sold most of his estates. In 1929, a few days before the Wall Street Crash, the 81 year old man died. By then his holdings had been reduced to that which he retained in Carlow. His younger son, Tim – my father’s grandfather – duly inherited. And so on it goes. It’s odd to realise my family’s fate was dictated by a Boer bullet a hundred years ago, funny to think how different it might all have been.

But there are times when walking the dogs around the house at night, I find myself drifting backwards to a time when a brown haired toddler perhaps galloped his pony across these same Terraces, joyously screeching over small jumps, while his parents and the household staff regarded him with mixed emotions. But then I snap to and I realise the screeches I heard were not Billy’s ghost. They were those of a motor car, hurtling along the backroads, no doubt making its way to one of the twinkling lights in the ever-creeping closer distance, where once the bonfires flickered and bowed.

* It appears this figure should be closer to 280 big houses destroyed - circa 80 in the War of Independence and circa 200 in the Irish Civil War. Note added 2011.