Late on 29 January 1923, Lady Mayo was eating dinner with her husband, Lord Mayo, at their palatial home, Palmerstown house, in the Kildare countryside.
Times were unsettled; civil war was still fitfully raging between the anti-Treaty guerrillas of the IRA and the troops of the Irish Free State government. In an effort to stamp out the guerrillas’ will to resist, the Government had embarked on a policy of widespread executions. That day, six IRA men had been shot by firing squad at the military base at the Curragh.
Out of the darkness of the country night, a party of armed men approached Palmerstown House and knocked on the door. The butler refused to let them in but the men – anti-Treaty guerrillas – barged their way through the servants’ entrance. Bursting into the dining room, they told Lord and Lady Mayo they were going to burn the house in reprisal for the executions of their men that day at the Curragh.
They asked the Earl if he was a Free State Senator and he confirmed he was. ‘Are you going to shoot me?’ he asked the man covering him with a service rifle. “No, my lord: we are not going to shoot you, but we have our orders to burn the building.” “It is only right to say”, Lord Mayo recalled, “that the raiders were excessively polite”.
Still, they gave the pair only 20 minutes to remove valuables before they poured petrol in each room and set the house alight. By the time Free State troops and a fire brigade unit arrived from Newbridge, the house was already, ‘a flaming furnace’. By the following morning, the mansion, built in 1877, was ‘gutted’.