The torching of Downhill House

County View

County View
John Healy

Moore Hall was not the only stately home in Mayo put to the flames in the troubled years of the Civil War. Less than three weeks after the home of the Moore family had been completely burned, Downhill House in Ballina – home of the prominent legal practitioner, John Garvey – was to suffer a similar fate, with not a stick of furniture saved from the blaze.
A member of the Garvey family of Murrisk, John Garvey had been Crown Solicitor for Mayo before the abolition of that office. He had also served briefly as Mayo State Solicitor under the new Irish government, up to his dismissal a few weeks before his home became the target of the anti-Treatyites. He had also served as a member of Mayo County Council, and was a member of Ballina UDC.
On the night of Sunday, February 18, 1923, he and his wife had retired for the night, only to be aroused by a maid telling them that a party of armed men had burst in and were demanding  to see Mr Garvey.
As Garvey approached them in the stairway, the leader of the group barked the instruction that the occupants were being given two minutes to flee the house, after which it would be burned to the ground. Meanwhile, their son, Lt Commander Douglas Garvey of the Royal Navy, who had been a battleship commander in the Great War, was held at gunpoint and ordered to say his prayers before he would be executed.
John Garvey challenged the gunmen as to the reason for the outrage, to be told that it was ‘recrimination for the executions’, a reference to the new state’s policy of executing IRA prisoners in retaliation for the killing of state forces.
When Garvey tried to reason that he had nothing whatsoever to do with the executions – having already been dismissed from his judicial position – the leader’s only reply was that ‘orders are orders’.
A request by Mrs Garvey to be given time to retrieve some pictures of her son, Captain Ivan Garvey, who was killed with the Connaught Rangers in France in 1917, together with the Military Cross and other medals awarded to him posthumously, was refused. So too was her plea to be allowed retain her daughter’s recent wedding presents. Instead, the family was herded outside barefoot in the rain, in night clothing, and forced to walk to Ballina.
John Garvey was later to recall that the only compassion shown them was from two masked gunmen in the hallway, who ‘showed considerable sympathy to myself and Mrs Garvey, and who expressed their regret at what was being done’. He also recalled that, as the raiders prepared to burn the stables, they refused the Garvey request to release the horses before the stables would be set alight. However, after much pleading, the raiders eventually relented, and the animals were set free before the flames engulfed their stabling.
Like Moore Hall, the damage done to Downhill House and its contents was devastating. All of the family’s books (including first editions), jewellery, furniture, silver and heirlooms were destroyed beyond recognition.
John Garvey’s claim for malicious injury was settled in Ballina Court the following November, but he never went back to live in Downhill, nor did he replace the mansion. He left Mayo to end his days in Dublin, and sold the property to a Mr Arnold, a Ballina bank official. Arnold rebuilt the house, and in 1934, sold the house and lands to Michael Moylett.
Over the succeeding years, the Moylett family extended the house, investing heavily in its improvement, and transformed it into the Downhill Hotel, one of the most prestigious establishments in the country.