Killeen Castle following the 1981 fire.

'How Killeen would burn'

40 years since Plunkett castle set on fire during H-Block campaign

‘How Killeen Would Burn’ thought Daisy, Countess of Fingall, in 1922, as Ireland’s Civil War raged, and word came that Lismullen House some miles away was in flames.

However, it was to be another 60 years before that shocking scenario came true, when during the H-Block campaign of 1981, republican sympathisers set the castle ablaze.

The castle was gutted shortly after 2am on Saturday 16th May. Luckily, it was unoccupied as the owners at the time, the Brindley family, lived in the manager’s house on the estate.

The alarm was raised by Brother O’Reilly, a member of the Salesian Order of Warrenstown College, across the Skane river valley from Killeen. He was locking up the hall where a disco had been held when he noticed what appeared to be lights from the castle.

Brother O’Reilly thought it was floodlighting as there had been an event there the previous week, but when he looked closer he could see the flames. He alerted the fire service and gardai. Five fire tenders, from Dunshaughlin, Navan, Trim, Kells and Drogheda, were quickly on the scene. The Drogheda tender managed to tackle the more difficult parts of the castle using a hydraulic lift. As morning broke, the fire was well under control.

The Brindley family had, in the past, opened the estate to the fire service to carry out training operations and this helped the services in combating the blaze.

Fire damage to the interior.

A number of men were later convicted of the burning of Killeen, which occurred during the 1981 hunger strike period in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh Prison at The Maze, Northern Ireland. One culprit said the castle was burned to highlight the H-Block issue.

The 1981 Irish hunger strike was the culmination of a five-year protest during The Troubles by republican prisoners in Long Kesh. The protest began as the blanket protest, when the British government withdrew special category status for convicted paramilitary prisoners. In 1978, after a number of attacks on prisoners leaving their cells to ‘slop out‘, the dispute escalated into the dirty protest, where prisoners refused to leave their cells to wash and covered the walls of their cells with excrement. In 1980, seven prisoners participated in the first hunger strike, which ended after 53 days.

The second hunger strike took place in 1981 and was a showdown between the prisoners and the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. One hunger striker, Bobby Sands, was elected as a member of parliament during the strike. Ten prisoners starved themselves to death, including Sands.

In the court case on the burning of Killeen, one accused man made a full statement describing how he and three other men went to burn the castle, using petrol, at the height of the H-Block campaign. They sprinkled seven gallons of petrol over some of the 100 rooms, setting it alight. Another accused said he would not have burned the house if he knew it was owned by an Irishman.

* From 'The Killeen Castle Story' by John Donohoe, published 2011.