Few acts of official vandalism rival the decision by the Government in 1957 to proceed with plans to demolish Shanbally Castle, near Clogheen. Built for Cornelius O'Callaghan, first Viscount Lismore, in about 1810, the mansion was the largest house built in Ireland by the famous English architect, John Nash.
When the Land Commission purchased the Shanbally estate in 1954, one of the immediate questions which it addressed was what should become of the castle. For a brief period it seemed that a purchaser could be found in the form of the London theatre critic Edward Sackville-West, fifth Lord Sackville, who had a tremendous love of the Clogheen area, which he had known since childhood. He agreed to buy the castle, together with 163 acres, but pulled out of the transaction when the Land Commission refused to stop cutting trees in the land he intended to buy.
Consequently, by 1957, the fate of the castle was sealed. The Land Commissioners, with Government approval, decided to proceed with plans to demolish the castle on the grounds that they had no use for it and that it was in poor condition. They ignored suggestions that a religious community might be found for the building, and also rejected its suitability as a forestry school.
In that year, Professor Denis Gwynn, wrote an article in the `Cork Examiner' in which he pleaded with the authorities to reverse their decision. `Shanbally Castle has been well known for years as one of the most graceful and original examples in Ireland of late Georgian architecture,' he said.`Its formal gardens, which have run wild, could easily be brought back to order.'
The Professor pointed out that Shanbally Castle was designed by one of the most famous of all modern architects, who also planned all the well known terraces that surround Regent's Park in London, and so many other celebrated buildings in England. `What conceivable justification can there by for incurring the great expense of demolishing this unique Irish mansion,' he asked.
`All around the house, with its long avenues, the land has been admirably laid out and planted with fine trees in groups to enhance the views and to produce valuable timber,' he continued. `More recently there has been wholesale clearance of the timber. Last summer I saw cutting in progress at many places, and big gaps had been made in the boundary walls to assist removal of the felled trees.'
Describing the order to demolish the castle as an `act of vandalism,' Professor Gwynn called for an inquiry into the circumstances of the decision. `There is no sense whatever in squandering public money on the destruction of a beautiful house which is well known to students of Nash's domestic architecture,' he added.
But Professor Gwynn's article was already too late. Despite some local opposition and widespread critical comment, the roof was removed and some of its impressive cut stones were being removed by hand and broken into smaller pieces for use in road building. The house, with its 20 stately bedrooms, extensive drawing rooms, dining room, library, marble fireplaces and mahogany staircase was rapidly reduced to a state of ruin.
In March 1960, `The Nationalist' reported the final end of a building which was once the pride of the neighbourhood. `A big bang yesterday ended Shanbally Castle, where large quantities of gelignite and cortex shattered the building,' it said.
In the weeks prior to the explosion, demolition workers bored 1,400 holes, 18 inches above ground, into the cut stone of the castle. Each hole was then filled with explosives which were detonated on 21 March 1960. Almost all of this material was used for road building.
The protests against the demolition of Shanbally Castle came from some local sources, An Taisce and a few academics such as Professor Gwynn. Politically, the Fianna Fail Government had no love for houses of the Ascendancy, a group of people who, in its selective view of history, had deprived Ireland of its freedom for so many centuries.
However, it was from within the ranks of Fianna Fail that the only political voices were raised against the demolition plans, albeit privately. One was Senator Sean Moylan, the Minister for Agriculture until his death in November 1957, and the other was his close friend and TD from Mitchelstown, John W Moher. They were over-ruled by the Cabinet and failed to get wider political support, even from opposition deputies.
When the explosion finally came, the Government saw fit to issue a terse public statement in response to protests favouring the retention of Shanbally Castle for the nation. `Apart from periods of military occupation the castle remained wholly unoccupied for 40 years,' said the statement.