A history of minor gentry constructed from an Anglo-Irish family tree’s charred roots

Anglo-American Sara Day on Not Irish Enough, her Anglo-Irish ancestors’ story

Growing up in a conservative English family in the 1950s, I was entranced by the colourful and humorous stories my father told me about his carefree early childhood at Derrylahan Park in a remote corner of north Tipperary, and his eccentric Irish relations. He told me very little about what brought his Irish childhood to a terrifying and abrupt end.

During the night of July 1st-2nd, 1921, Derrylahan became one of the last houses burned by the IRA in a final round of recrimination against those who openly supported the forces of the British Union during the War of Independence. A crowd of young men arrived around 2am. Their loud and insistent hammering on the doors shocked the women and children in the house, including my eight-year-old father, the only male in the house that night. Ordered outside, they were held under armed guard while men splashed purloined petrol throughout. The sturdily built stone mansion literally exploded.

My grandfather had escaped assassination by the IRA two weeks before and he and his English wife decided he must leave Ireland until the signing of a ceasefire. By the time that was signed just 10days later, the house was a burned-out shell and the family reunited in England.

It was decades before I began to question why this happened. A well-thumbed, undated cutting in my father’s possession from a local newspaper reporting the burning claimed Colonel Head was “too friendly with the English” but I sensed there was a long and complex history behind this simplistic allegation.


My father died from cancer aged just 58 in 1970, shortly after I moved, recently married, to the United States. I spent most of my adult life in America with a long and challenging career in public and academic American history, curating exhibitions and researching, writing and editing books, most notably at the Library of Congress.

I was aware that Terence de Vere White had mocked aspects of my grandfather’s published 1943 memoir, No Great Shakes, in an entire chapter, The Unknown Unionist, in his 1972 book, The Anglo-Irish, but it was decades before I read both and realised I needed to make my own judgments.

When I read No Great Shakes for the first time in the 1990s, Charles Head’s explanation of Irish history seemed biased and judgmental to me, unsurprising for a man of his military background and solidly unionist political views. Despite his evident distaste for Head’s politics and snobbery, White seemed to share my admiration for his writing ability, judging by the sheer quantity of quotations from his book.

It wasn’t until I left paid employment to write my own books that I had time to begin researching my father’s family’s three centuries in Ireland. They were Anglo-Irish Protestants, of middle-class trading origins in the south of England, of whom the first may have arrived in Dublin around 1620. My early research showed that his sons, John and Michael Head, didn’t enter the historical record before 1659 but it was essential to understand the causes of rapidly increasing enmity between Gaelic and Norman Irish Catholics and English and Scottish Protestants that reached a climax with the Cromwellian invasion of 1649.

I borrowed my husband’s ancestor, Robert Phair (Phayre today), son of an Anglican clergyman who lost his benefice and property in Co Cork during the Irish rebellion of 1641, to lead the essential early narrative. Robert Phair became a regicide and a colonel in Cromwell’s New Model Army. The Heads, although not Cromwellian supporters themselves, became beneficiaries of the Cromwellian land settlement through marriage to the heir of one, and eventually the proprietors of five different small estates in northern Tipperary.

As I was to discover, this was a circular story. The “Big House” dwellings of the Anglo-Irish, symbols of Cromwellian land-grabbing and previous and subsequent plantations, became the targets of burnings during the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, particularly in Munster. I realised that this had to be more than the history of one family. It was essential to examine the political, religious, and social context, with a particular focus on predominantly Catholic Co Tipperary with its violent and fiercely nationalist history. Of the nearly 300 big houses burned during the independence conflicts (1919-1923), six belonged to Protestant kin of the Head family in the Midlands.

My approach to Not Irish Enough is not unique but it is rare. That is largely because there has been, understandably, less focus on minor gentry than on the aristocratic proprietors of larger estates. However, the greatly respected novelist Elizabeth Bowen rose to the same challenge in her classic Bowen’s Court (1942), describing the history of her Anglo-Irish gentry family from the Cromwellian settlement on. I envy her the family archives she drew upon and her memories of lengthy stays at the house she eventually inherited in 1930. Having been apprehensive that Bowen’s Court might be targeted like so many others, she had it in mind for the burning of the fictional Danielstown in her evocative novel The Last September (1929). Her beloved house was doomed in any case. Financial constraints forced her to sell it in 1959 and it was soon demolished, like so many others.

When I began researching the Head family (one member having married a Bowen in the 19th century), I was not aware that attempts to include a more balanced view of the Protestant side of Irish history, particularly during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, were attacked or dismissed as revisionist by contemporary nationalists.

My first exploratory trip to Ireland was three years after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and I had to tread delicately on my first visit to Tipperary. Despite the touchiness of my topic, I encountered generosity and warmth from the community, particularly from local historians, who led me to several priceless family stories and documents.

Beyond that were the extraordinary challenges facing anyone interested in Irish history or genealogical research today. The documentary evidence of the Irish administration from the 13th to the 19th century was mostly incinerated when mines stored by Anti-Treaty forces in the basement of the Public Record Office exploded during the shelling of the Four Courts by the Free State army at the beginning of the Civil War in June 1922. Many archives of Anglo-Irish landed families were lost in the house burnings or as the result of earlier personal or political tumult; many that remain have been slow to enter the archives. Just as devastating is the frustrating continuing closure to historians and researchers of the voluminous records of the Irish Land Commission, now archived in Portlaoise.

The only way to circumvent the paucity of original records was to muster all other available sources of information. As I said, local historians in Tipperary provided me invaluable information and guidance, including deeds for one of the estates once owned by a junior branch of the family; the Register of Deeds in Dublin provided the trajectory of the wider family; and, more recently, the fate of the former big houses and estates has been the focus of research and publications by scholars, many of them at Maynooth University.

Digitised local Irish newspapers and ever-widening online genealogical and other records have added flesh to the bones. To my astonishment, my father’s memories of family scandals have proven to be true. Essential for the context through which I wove the family stories was my wide-ranging reading of Irish history by specialists in all the periods covered in my book.

While the Heads were never more than minor gentry, denoting the size of their estates, they or their more prominent kin, such as John Toler, Lord Norbury and his family or the Dunalleys (Prittie family) of Kilboy, seemed to make enough colorful, controversial or tragic appearances in local and national history that their experiences and perspective are revealing of an alternative or lesser-known Ascendancy life and its demise.

There was no escaping Ireland’s notoriously violent history when the fate of those Irish Protestant landowners was tied to highly emotional religious division and bitterly disputed land. Charles Head was certain that the real target during the War of Independence was not he or his Anglo-Irish family and neighbours but his excellent farming land, which the Irish Land Commission “compulsorily acquired at an arbitrary price for distribution among claimants”.

I trust my account of my family's long history in Ireland will provide further links of understanding across a long and bitter divide, humanising those who, like my grandfather, felt both Irish and British, and for whom those halcyon years in Ireland did not end well. Not Irish Enough can be seen as a lengthy prologue to the partitioning of Ireland one hundred years ago. Now, as I explain in my epilogue, I share the deep concern about the impact of nationalist Brexit on hard-won peace in Ireland and on the viability of the United Kingdom for which my grandfather risked his life and his family's safety.
Not Irish Enough is published by New Academia Publishing.