Downton Abbey’s Lazy Irish History. The Truth is Far More Alarming than the Fiction.

Downton Abbey is a show that the whole family can enjoy and even learn a little from, as the drama on-screen follows real historical events. Except, of course, when it comes to the Irish history.

Tom Branson looking like he's stepped out of Miller's Crossing.

Tom Branson looking like he’s stepped out of Miller’s Crossing.

In Season 3, episode 4, Tom Branson flees Ireland after helping to burn down the castle of Lord & Lady Drumgoole, an act which the Dowager Countess seems to approve of on purely aesthetic grounds, as she says the castle was “hideous.” I went to the internet and to my various histories of Ireland, and could not find a mention of the burning of any great house belonging to a Lord Drumgoole. There was a Drumgoole/Drumgool Castle taken by Cromwell in 1649, but that was turned into a hotel at some point thereafter, and didn’t remain a stately residence. There’s a Drumgrole in Co. Monaghan, where my mother’s family comes from, but that’s a little agricultural townland without any big house to burn.

Similarly, Lady Mary’s reference to Lady Drumgoole’s coming out with her — “she was Laura Dunsany then” — is also false history. The contemporary Lord Dunsany, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, had no daughters. So, the name conjures up Irish associations, but the event is imaginary.

The Dowager Countess Disapproves

The Dowager Countess disapproves of ugly Irish castles.

This is a pity, as there was no shortage of action in 1920 in which to implicate Tom Branson. The War of Independence was raging. It would, indeed, have been a truly shocking environment in which to leave Sybil to fend for herself — very far from the rainy, bucolic scene of a copper pedaling along on his bicycle shown in the episode. In reality, the police were being targeted by the Irish rebels and members of the constabulary were quitting in droves. The first ‘Black and Tans’ (recently demobbed British soldiers more used to fighting Germans than keeping the peace) arrived early in the year, and many raids and atrocities followed. There were major riots in Belfast, Cork and Derry, and the first British soldiers killed in Dublin since the Easter Rising were ambushed in September 1920. The Head Constable of the Irish police was assassinated in Co. Dublin, spurring massive police reprisals knows as the Sack of Balbriggan. This event occasioned a lot of coverage in the British press at the time. However, involvement in that would have made Tom Branson a party to murder, rather than simple arson, and it’s less likely that the Home Secretary could have been persuaded to go lightly on him for Lady Sybil’s sake.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the lure of independence, and the removal of any threat of arrest will bring Tom back to Ireland in season four. Perhaps he’ll stay at Downton for young Sybil’s sake, secure with a position and family support? The Bloody Sunday massacre at Croke Park occurred in November 1920, followed by the burning of Cork city center. I wonder if Lord Grantham will change his tune about the Irish after those atrocities come to light? I doubt it. History serves as a backdrop to Downton Abbey, rather than a motivating factor. The primary focus of the show is the family dynamics, and anything else is a distraction to that, even major historical events. But, l’ll keep watching, even if I can’t help but be distracted by what isn’t impinging on their comfortable lifestyle — the Dowager Countess alone is worth the price of subscription.



A contemporary Pathé newsreel (silent) showing the aftermath of the sack of Balbriggan. (Plays in a new window.)

link to a video clip for the Sack of Balbriggan


And a youtube clip providing some context on the Black & Tans.




Tags: , ,


  1. Lois Farley Shuford’s avatar

    Great post – and amazing footage. I agree with you about Downton. Seemed like a lost opportunity, but perhaps Ireland in the 20’s was just too much info to clarify for a mostly unaware audience. But Branson is a great character, and I always hope they’ll do more with him.

    1. Rich’s avatar

      We can hope. He suits Fellow’s aim to point out the iniquities of the upper class, but broad strokes seems to be all that’s necessary so far.

      Ireland never comes up for the other “Irish” characters at all: O’Brien & Bates (whose mother was Irish).

    2. Kody’s avatar

      Names are fictional… There is no actual Earl of Grantham, no Duchess of Yeovil nor Duke of Crowborough. I’ve not done the research to know if any great houses were burned down or not but the names are not factual, this goes for Laura Dunsany.

      1. Rich Rennicks’s avatar

        Yes, the characters are fictional. However, most of the historical events they refer to are factual (Titanic, WWI, Ponzi scheme, financial difficulties of great houses after the war, etc.) Making up historical events for one character when there are plenty of real ones to motivate him just seems lazy.

      2. Lisa’s avatar

        They did use a real event. As indicated here, 275 ‘big houses’ were burnt by the Irish. The Downton creators simply made up a family whose house would be involved, rather than using true names. At the end of the day, we need to remember that this show is purely fiction, and not an accurate historical drama.

        1. Rich Rennicks’s avatar

          The incident is realistic, but the event in the show is imaginary. As they fold in many real-life events in the show I felt it was important to note that this one was made up. Going by the amount of people who come to this post looking for information about that scene, I’m not the only one who notices these things.

          Also, they didn’t make up a family, they appropriated a real aristocratic family, further blurring the line between actual history and fiction. When they mix history and fiction throughout the show, it’s all the more reason to point out the things that sound plausible but that they actually made up.

        2. M.A.’s avatar

          The show is not set in nor about Ireland. I don’t understand what the problem is.

Comments are now closed.

%d bloggers like this: