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