The ceiling of the library at Killyleagh Castle, County Down. Although the building dates back to the 12th century when constructed by the Norman knight John de Courcy, its present appearance is the result of a complete renovation undertaken 1849-51 to the designs of Charles Lanyon. Exterior and interior alike display terrific exuberance, as well as a wide variety of sources of inspiration, as this ceiling demonstrates. Originally a gasolier would have hung from the centre of the plasterwork.
The founder of Methodism John Wesley first visited Downpatrick, County Down in June 1778 and in his journal noted that at the top of the town ‘stands the Abbey, on a hill which commands all the country. It is a noble ruin and is far the largest building I have seen in the kingdom.’ Back in Downpatrick in June 1789, he wrote, ‘In the afternoon we viewed the venerable ruins of the Abbey. Great men have talked of rebuilding it for many years; but none moves a hand towards it.’ Wesley was here precipitate, because a year later, some of those ‘great men’ did indeed undertake a complete restoration of the old building.
According to legend, when St Patrick came to preach the Christian message in Ireland in 432 he landed at Saul, County Down and after converting the local chieftain Dichu, there he established his first church. Patrick is said to have died at Saul almost three decades later after which his body was placed on a cart drawn by two untamed oxen with the understanding that where they stopped would be his burial place. That spot was where the Downpatrick’s Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity now stands.
The association with Ireland’s patron saint meant the hill at Downpatrick soon became a place of worship, although it only assumed this name – as Dún Phádraig – in the 13th century. In any case, it was already the site of an historic settlement: in the second century the Alexandrian Ptolemy mentioned the town (as Dunum) in his Geographia. Meanwhile from around the time of St Patrick onwards the dominant ruling authority in this part of Ireland was the Dál Fiatach dynasty which had its chief royal site in Downpatrick, thereby confirming the place’s political as well as religious importance.
With regard to the latter, a monastery was established at the site of the saint’s burial. This foundation had a chequered history. It was plundered by Viking invaders on a number of occasions and later the stone church and round tower were burnt after being struck by lightning. In 1124 St Malachy became Bishop of Down and undertook a restoration of the building, establishing an order of Augustinian Canons Regular there. These were replaced later in the century by the Norman knight John de Courcy after he had ousted the last King of the Dál Fiatach and seized control of this part of Ireland. De Courcy invited Benedictine monks from St Werburgh’s in Chester to Downpatrick and that order remained responsible for the site until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Before the end of the 12th century the remains of St Patrick had been joined by those of Ss. Brigid and Columba. But this was not enough to preserve the church from further vicissitudes: it was damaged by an earthquake in 1245 and then burned by Edward Bruce in 1315.
Following the suppression of monasteries, in 1539 Down Cathedral was laid waste by the then Lord Deputy of Ireland Leonard Grey, Viscount Grane who is said to have stabled his horses in the building. Thus it fell into a ruinous state even though in 1609 James I granted the cathedral a charter dedicating it to the Holy Trinity and providing for a Dean and Chapter. So although successive deans continued to be installed, the cathedral was in too poor a condition to be used for services. (In fact when Robert Echlin, Bishop of Down and Connor undertook a visitation of his diocese in 1622 he found all but ten of Down’s churches were in ruins.)
Jonathan Carver’s The New Universal Traveler published in 1779 describes the cathedral as being ‘yet venerable in its ruins. The roof was supported by five handsome arches, which compose a centre aile of twenty-six foot broad, and two lateral ailes each thirteen foot wide. The whole length of the structure is a hundred foot. The heads of the pillars and arches, the tops of the windows, and many niches in the walls, have been adorned with variety of sculpture in stone, some parts of which yet remain. Over the east window, which is very lofty, are three handsome ancient niches, where are the pedestals on which it is supposed the statues of St. Patrick, St. Brigid and St. Columb formerly stood.
Adjoining to the east end of the cathedral are two square columns, one of which is solid and the other hollow; and in it are twenty winding steps, which are supposed to have led up to the roof…There are no ancient monuments remaining in the old abbey, but at the distance of about forty foot from the cathedral, stands a round tower, sixty-six foot high. The thickness of the walls is three foot, and the diameter within, eight foot. On the west side of it is an irregular gap, about ten foot from the top; near a third of the whole circumference being broke off by the injury of time…’
In 1787 the Hon. And Reverend William Annesley, son of the first Viscount Glerawly, and brother of the first and second Earls Annesley, was appointed Dean of Down and immediately began making plans for the restoration of the ruined cathedral under his care. In this he was greatly helped by Wills Hill, Earl of Hillsborough who in 1789 was created first Marquis of Downshire. In July of that year the Dean and Chapter met in Downpatrick and passed a resolution committing themselves to the old building’s reconstruction, assisted by Dean Annesley agreeing to give £300 of his annual tithes for this purpose. Lord Downshire provided £568 (and embarked on a lengthy letter-writing campaign to raise funds from other potential donors) and in 1790 an Act of Parliament granted £1,000 from George III provided an equal sum was raised by subscription. The total cost was estimated to be in the region of £5,000. In fact this much had been expended by 1795 when the building was reroofed by otherwise still insufficiently restored; the east window, for example, was glazed in April 1800 and the floor reflagged. Seats were being put in a year later and the organ arrived in July 1802. But as late as July 1810 the third Marquis of Downshire could write that he had visited the building ‘the restoration of which had been promoted by my ancestors, and I am much concerned to observe it still continues in an unfinished state.’ While services were already held there the cathedral was only ready to be consecrated in 1818, the octagonal vestibule and gothic tower at the west end of the building being added in 1826.
The architect responsible for rebuilding the cathedral was Charles Lilly about whom we know relatively little, although he appears to have originated in Dublin. Lilly was active in County Down during this period: he carried out work for Dean Annesley at his residence Oakley House and also designed the new gaol in Downpatrick in 1789, as well as receiving a number of other public and private commissions. Architectural historians are inclined to be unenthusiastic about his work on the cathedral, regarding it as excessively heavy-handed. It is certainly regrettable that he should have pulled down the old round tower, seemingly on the grounds that it was unstable. And he is criticized for having retained little of the old building, preferring to create his version of a mediaeval cathedral.
On the other hand, one wonders after 250 years of neglect how much was capable of being retained. Furthermore Lilly’s interpretation has a great deal of charm, and none of the turgid heaviness often found in full-blown 19th century cathedral restorations. Down Cathedral displays the delicacy, even frivolity of Gothick, as opposed to the earnestness of Pugin-esque Gothic Revival. The interior is full of light and movement and rhythm, the tiered box pews – those closest to the centre aisle given a series of bow fronts like houses on a Regency terrace – adding a certain theatricality to the space. This impression is enhanced by the line of boxes directly beneath the organ case of the pulpitum: these would not look out of place in an opera house. It may not be historically correct, but Down Cathedral is a delight, its slender sprung arches lifting one’s eyes heavenwards. St Patrick would surely approve of that.
The principal entrance to the former Southwell Charity and Parochial Schools on English Street, Downpatrick, County Down. This long two-storey, red-brick building is centred on a clock tower (directly above the archway seen here) and terminates in a substantial three-bay pavilion at either end. With fine views on a sloping site overlooking the town and providing almshouses for six old men and six old women as well as schools for ten poor boys and ten poor girls, the charity was established in 1733 by Edward Southwell who like his father and grandfather served as Secretary of State for Ireland. As is far too often the case, we do not know who was the architect responsible: in 1996 Maurice Craig proposed Sir Edward Lovett Pearce but five years later Dr Edward McParland declared ‘its mannerisms are not Pearce’s’. Although looking as though a refurbishment would be beneficial, the Southwell Buildings remain one of the most important architectural ensembles in Downpatrick.
A window shutter in the library of Mount Stewart, County Down. This is located in what is now the west wing, the section designed by English architect George Dance the younger c.1804. Dance had visited the house in 1795 when he came to Ireland with his supposed lover Lady Elizabeth Pratt, sister of the new Lord Lieutenant Lord Camden. She was also sister-in-law of Mount Stewart’s then-owner Robert Stewart, first Baron Londonderry (later first Marquess of Londonderry) who early in the new century decided to enlarge his property and called upon Dance’s services. However, we know the architect did not come to Ireland again until 1815, instead sending drawings from London which were executed by John Ferguson, the estate carpenter. Note how the shutter’s prosaic function is concealed by being lined with leather bindings in imitation of those books filling the surrounding library shelves, a deft touch on the part of either Dance or Ferguson.
Travelling along Belfast’s Outer Ring Road through the the Newtownbreda area one passes signs for Belvoir Park. The picture above, dating from 1805 and painted by Vice Admiral Lord Mark Kerr, shows a house of that name. Today the name is almost all that remains of what was once the largest private residence in this part of the country. An keen amateur watercolourist of some ability Lord Mark, the third son of the 5th Marquess of Lothian, enjoyed a successful career in the Royal Navy until 1805. His connection with Ireland came through marriage in 1799 to Lady Charlotte McDonnell who would later become Countess of Antrim in her own right. During the early 1800s the Kerrs stayed at Belvoir Park, which belonged to Lady Charlotte’s half-brother and it was during this period that Lord Mark painted this picture along with another, both of which were in the collection of the Knight of Glin until sold at Christie’s in 2009.
There are earlier, and finer, views of Belvoir Park, the first of which is shown immediately above. This is one of four oils painted by the artist Jonathan Fisher (fl. 1763 – d. 1809) at the request of the house’s then-owner Arthur Hill-Trevor, 1st Viscount Dungannon. Fisher is believed to have been born in the 1740s and to have spent some time in England, first coming to attention here in 1763 when he was awarded a premium for a landscape by the Dublin Society (he would receive another five years later). He exhibited some 57 pictures with the Society of Artists in Ireland between 1765 and 1780, including the four views of Belvoir which were shown in the organisation’s premises on South William Street, Dublin (now the headquarters of the Irish Georgian Society, see Restoration Drama, July 15th). The pictures are highly significant because they show us the house from different aspects when it was newly completed and before alterations were made towards the close of the 18th century. They also offer us views of the landscape around Belfast before the city had much expanded and show how lovely this region looked prior to the onset of the industrial revolution (the last of the pictures at the end of this post offers Fisher’s bucolic view of the area as it would have been seen from the house).
Sir Moyses Hill was the first member of his family to settle in Ireland in the 1570s and it was his descendant Michael Hill who purchased for £2,000 the land on which stood Belvoir, then called Ballyenaghan, although the family’s main estate was at Hillsborough. Michael Hill’s wife Anne Trevor, subsequently married to Viscount Midleton, is reputed to have given the place its new name, in part owing to the view (‘Belle Vue’) and in part in recollection of Belvoir Castle, the Duke of Rutland’s seat in England where she had spent a large part of her childhood. Thanks to Lady Midleton, the property was inherited by her younger son Arthur who in 1766 was created Viscount Dungannon.
When Walter Harris published his survey of County Down in 1744 he described Belvoir as being ‘laid out lately in Taste; the Avenue is large and handsome, the Fruitery, from an irregular Glyn, is now disposed in regular Canals, with Cascades, Slopes and Terraces, and the Kitchin Ground inclosed with Espaliers, the best of the Gardens lying over the Lagan River, which is navigable to this Place. The Offices are finished, but the House not yet build.’ There does appear to have been a small residence on site but building work on something more splendid must have started soon afterwards. Even so when the indefatigable Mrs Delany came to stay in October 1758 she described it as a ‘charming place, a very good house, though not quite finished.’
Faced in brick, Belvoir Park’s main elevation looked north with views over the Lagan river and thence to the mountains beyond. This front was of seven bays, the three centre ones incorporating immense Ionic pilasters beneath a pediment with carved wooden mouldings. The entrance front faced west while the south side featured a canted bow. Belvoir Park is often attributed to Richard Castle, although if this were so it would have been a very late work since he died in 1751. He certainly designed the nearby Knockbreda Church for Lady Midleton (it can be seen to the left of the house in the first of Fisher’s pictures above). More recently the proposal has been made that a lesser known architect Christopher Myers was responsible for Belvoir Park.
Following the first Lord Dungannon’s death in 1771, title and property alike passed to a young grandson (his only son having predeceased him by a year). The second viscount appears to have lived and entertained lavishly and as a result further work was undertaken on the house, notably by the addition of a third attic storey which can be seen in Lord Mark Kerr’s watercolour. In the mid-1790s Lord Dungannon moved to his Welsh estate and Belvoir Park was left unoccupied except by the agent, and by the Kerrs for a period. Eventually the entire place was sold in 1809 and after passing through various hands was acquired in 1818 by Belfast banker and landowner Robert Bateson around the time he became a baronet. He did much to improve the Belvoir, as did his son Sir Thomas Bateson (later first Lord Deramore) who around 1865 commissioned Newry architect William Barre to carry out some alterations to the house, including balustrades around the roof parapet and a balustraded entrance porch. At that stage the estate ran to more than 6,000 acres but decline set in soon after Lord Deramore’s death in 1890. Belvoir was let to various tenants but by this time Belfast was fast expanding and the land on which house and grounds stood just a few miles from the city centre was wanted for housing. In the 1920s part of the estate became a golf course while it was suggested the house become a residence for the Governor of Northern Ireland (ironically the Hill family’s former principle property, Hillsborough Castle, was instead selected). During the Second World War the site was used by the Admiralty, but from 1950 onwards the buildings started to fall into ruin. The succession of photographs seen here show the building in 1961 shortly before it was blown up by members of the army; today only parts of the old yard remain. 185 acres of the former estate are a forest park but the rest of the land is given over to suburban housing. The loss of Belvoir Park must be judged a grievous one but thankfully the paintings of Jonathan Fisher survive as evidence of this once-fine house. Privately owned, the pictures have been loaned for inclusion in an exhibition on Irish landscape art currently running at the Ulster Museum in Belfast.
The gothick drawing room at Grey Abbey, County Down. Dating from the early 1760s the main part of the house was built in the classical manner by William Montgomery. Following his death in September 1781 while leading British troops at the Battle of Groton Heights during the American War of Independence, the estate was inherited by his brother Hugh. In 1793 the latter married the Hon Emilia Ward, daughter of the first Viscount Bangor who lived on the other side of Strangford Lough at Castle Ward. This house is famous for its dual architecture and decoration: owing to the differing tastes of Lord and Lady bangor one half is in the classical style, the other in gothick. It would appear the Hon Emilia preferred her mother’s predilection and thus caused the redecoration of Grey Abbey’s drawing room.
The west front of Mount Stewart, County Down speckled in sunlight last weekend. This was the original entrance to the house designed c.1804 by English architect George Dance the younger. Some thirty years afterwards Mount Stewart was greatly enlarged by William Vitruvius Morrison and Dance’s work relegated to being a mere wing. The elaborate gardens are of a later date, created by Edith, seventh Marchioness of Londonderry between the two world wars (see In Circe’s Circle, November 28th). Now in the care of the National Trust they have recently benefitted from extensive replanting.
A view from the Ards Peninsula, County Down across Strangford Lough towards the Mourne Mountains, the highest of which Slieve Donard, rises to 2,790 ft. This range provided the inspiration for what is perhaps the most famous song by Percy French (1854-1940) in which a young Irish emigrant describes London life while yearning to be back in his own country. French was also a distinguished watercolourist, many of his pictures showing an interest in the dappling effect of light on water such as that seen here.
Mount Stewart, County Down formerly belonged to the Vane-Tempest-Stewarts, Marquesses of Londonderry but was given to the National Trust in 1977. However the family retain private quarters in the house including this drawing room which opens onto the gardens created by Edith, 7th Marchioness between the two World Wars. Known as Circe, she can be seen over the chimney piece in a 1913 portrait by Philip de László.