Some attention has already been paid here to the eccentricities of Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, specifically the house he constructed at Downhill, County Derry (see It’s Downhill All the Way, October 28th 2013). Today the focus is on his other great building project in Ireland, one which attracted more attention at the time but is now largely forgotten, at Ballyscullion in the same county where work began around 1787/88 (that is, more than a decade after Downhill). As with the first house the architect credited for being responsible was Cork-born Michael Shanahan. He appears to have come to Hervey’s attention when, prior to his transference to Derry, he was serving as Bishop of Cloyne. Although Shanahan seemingly had trained as a stonecutter, he possessed a facility for drawing (he would teach this to the bishop’s son) and an interest in architecture. Hence he was taken up by Hervey and indeed taken to Italy in 1770-72 where time was spent in the Veneto, and specifically in Vicenza in May 1771. This is important because a key influence on Ballyscullion’s distinctive design is Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda (in turn derived from the Pantheon in Rome): one must assume it was seen by Hervey and Shanahan while they were in the area. A second influence, and one closer to home, is Belle Isle on Lake Windermere, Cumbria which was designed in 1774 by another self-taught architect, John Plaw. This is a circular building capped by a segmental dome and fronted by a full-height pedimented portico, all features shared with Ballyscullion. Since Plaw was based in London (and designed Belle Isle for a wealthy city merchant Thomas English) it is probable that Hervey and Shanahan would have seen his plans for the house even if they did not visit it.
Ballyscullion was never fully completed, and in its unfinished state was only intermittently occupied before being demolished a decade after the bishop’s death in 1803. Therefore imagination is required to grasp how it must have looked (aided by familiarity with Ickworth, Suffolk, the last of the bishop’s building schemes begun in 1795 and following a similar ground plan to that of Ballyscullion). However, the house was so curious in form and scale that many visitors were drawn there during its brief period of existence, and some of them left a record of what they found. A few of these now follow.
In August 1799 the Rev William Bisset, then Rector of Loughgall, Co Armagh (and later Bishop of Raphoe, County Donegal) travelled along the Ulster coast with his brother George. He kept a journal of the trip from which the following is taken:
‘Aug. 13_ at 7 O’Clock in the morning We left a very indifferent Inn, and sending our Baggage by the direct road to Coleraine, turned out of our way to gratify a curiosity which the name and character of Lord Bristol excited, to see his House at Ballyscullion. I was not disappointed for I expected something singular, and assuredly I found it_ the Singularity however did not please me_ his Lordship has put himself to great expence to produce a
very bad Effect_ at a distance One cannot imagine what extraordinary thing it is that stands so staringly in the Landscape_ a large black Dome raised high in the Air, without anything that seems proportioned or connected with it; no Trees, or dressed ground of any sort_ A gigantic Mass presents itself upon the naked Plain, and though I was so far prepared as to be actually going to see a large house, and one too that I expected would be in some respect or other singular, yet it did not occur to me that the Object I had in view long before I reached the Village of Ballaghy about a mile distant from it, could be the Mansion we were looking for_ such however it was; and upon a nearer approach we perceived it to be a large round house with a small Corinthian Portico, and surrounded by fluted Pilasters of the same Order_ Above these is a Frieze and Cornice, and upon the whole a high Attic Story with another Cornice bearing a ponderous Roof; every part of which is not only visible, contrary to the general Taste in Architecture, but is so strikingly conspicuous that I found it difficult to turn my Attention to anything else…
…I must observe however that the Plan of this House is not completed_ it is intended to connect it by a Colonnade with other buildings, and probably it will be less disagreeable to the Sight, when relieved in that manner_ The Hall appeared to me to be small, but I did not measure it, and as it is at present filled with Casts of the Laocoon, Centaurs, &c the dimensions may be more considerable than they now appear_ I could not mistake in observing that the Staircase is dark, and from the Figure of the house which is nearly circular, the fantastic Shape of the Rooms, at least of many of them may be supposed, and could not well be avoided_ The Eating room is a handsome one, and the Drawing room corresponding throughout, and the Pictures though not of the first Masters are such as one should like to have_ I am told there are no Originals, but the Person who shewed the house not having a Catalogue I could not make a memorandum of particulars_ Many of them were very pleasing to me_there is a beautiful Portrait of the present unfortunate Pope, a Death of Wolfe, the Departure of Regulus, and indeed a great number if not of the best and highest Character, certainly of sufficient merit to captivate an unskilful Person_ The Whole Taste of the Furniture is vicious; one should imagine it had been chosen by the Neapolitan Lady whose Portrait you are shewn, and who is said to have been a Favourite of his Lordship. Nothing can be more gawdy and effeminate, nothing less suitable to a Bishop, or agreeable to a manly taste_ the Library is almost without Books, a fault which cannot be remedied, as there are no places made to receive them_upon the whole I must confess, I am led to form as low an Opinion of the noble Owners proficiency in matters He seems to have devoted himself to, as his public conduct obliges me to form of his Character in those higher points to which his Rank and Profession have in vain demanded his Attention…’
Not long afterwards a more sympathetically-inclined Anglican clergyman visited Ballyscullion. This is taken from the Rev. George Vaughan Sampson’s Statistical Survey of The County of Londonderry published in 1802:
‘The house of Ballyscullion is so uncommon as to plan, that even the following imperfect sketch may be desirable to lovers of architecture.
The ground plan is an oval, whose greatest diameter is 94 feet, the shorter is 84 feet; around the building are disposed 20 fluted Corinthian pilasters of two feet nine inches in diameter; the intermediate spaces are faced with stone, quarried in the neighbouring mountains, in colour resembling the Portland stone. On the frieze are the following lines in gold letters, which encircle the house.
”Hic viridi in campo, templum de marmore ponam,
Propter aquam, tardis ingens ubi flexibus errat
Bannius, et tenui praetexit arundine ripas.”
Of these lines, the literal translation is: “Here is a verdant plain; I will place a temple of marble beside the waters, where the vast Bann strays in sluggish windings, and clothes his banks with tender reed.”
…The northern face presents a stately portico, supported by six pillars, similar to the pilasters as to order and dimension. On the frieze of the portico the following Greek verses are inscribed in large gold letters…”Immediately open ye doors, for much wealth is within, and, with that wealth, fresh-springing benevolence.”
Over a neat entablature is raised an attic storey, 12 feet in height; the building is crowned by a dome, in which is an elegant sky-light. The hall is in measurement 24 by 22½ feet, ornamented by admirable statues of the Apollo Belvedere, and the Vatican Mercury; the busts of Cicero, Demosthenes, Seneca and Pericles, of fine statuary marble, are placed in niches. The great stair-case is constructed geometrically, in the centre of the house; it is of cut stone, carrying with it a back stair-case, occasionally communicating; these form a kind of double spiral and both are lighted from above. A number of busts and statues are placed in niches, along the stairs and lobbies.
The drawing and dining-rooms are on the first floor; each of these is a segment of an ellipse, 36 feet long, 24 feet wide and 18 feet high: both rooms are ornamented with fine paintings. The library is 70 by 22½ feet. The upper rooms are sleeping chambers, each being the section of an ellipse.
From a small room on either side of the hall, a coridore (sic) is extended, which coridores are intended to conduct towards two large galleries, one for the paintings of the Italian, the other for those of the Flemish school: these galleries are to be 82 feet by 25.
Two large squares of offices, each 110 feet, are to be ranged in front of the galleries. All these are to be faced with cut stone, from the quarries near Dungiven. When completed, the line of building in front will extend nearly 350 feet.’
In October 1807, four years after Hervey’s death, the restless Rector of Navan, County Meath, the Rev. Daniel Beaufort made a tour of the north of the country (one wonders, did none of the period’s Anglican clergymen ever think to stay put in their parishes?). He was accompanied by his wife Mary and their youngest daughter Louisa. The latter was the first woman to be made an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy and here is her account of the family’s visit to Ballyscullion:
‘2 miles brought us to Balaghy a tolerable village, church repairing, it has good spire, some very nice houses with flower gardens & shrubs before them. In the middle of the town was a very high pole, on the top of which was a board painted blue & orange, one person said it was a weather cock, another a free masons sign.
Here we turned off to Ballyscullen, whose ruin’d magnificence shew at once the taste & Madness of Ld. Bristol – it is circular in the Corinthian stile, built of well color’d free stone – brought from Ballinascreen, the pediment of the Portico white Marble veined with pale grey on which Ld Bs & the See Arms were carved in Italy, the Collumnes seem too slender for their height – the staircase is very light & handsome, all the work seems to have been uncomly well executed, as much of the handsome stucco, still remains tho’ all the windows have been taken out & sold, as were the floors, doors & every thing that could be got at, it is expected that Ld O’Neal will buy the staircase – the rooms were numerous shapes very pretty & well contrived – the lead from the roof has been sold, so that in a few years the weather will compleat what Avarice has so well begun.
The house was built on a gentle eminence which forms a small peninsula in Lough Beg, the view from it extensive & rendered pleasing by Church Island & It might have been made a very fine place, by plantings, the small groves that are there seem to grow extremely well.’
As has been mentioned before, the Earl-Bishop spent his last years in Italy where he died in July 1803; taken ill on the way to Albano he could only find sanctuary in the outhouse of a peasant who refused to admit a heretic into his cottage. An equally degrading fate awaited his great house at Ballyscullion. Along with the rest of his Irish property, this was left to yet another Anglican clergyman, the Rev. Henry Hervey Bruce whose great-grandfather had been the first Earl of Bristol. In 1786 his rich kinsman settled on him a yearly income of £400 and the incumbency of Tamlaghtfinlagan, County Derry. In addition Hervey Bruce became the Bishop’s steward at Downhill, assuming responsibility for both managed the estate and the diocese during the older man’s increasingly long absences from Ireland.
On coming into his inheritance, Hervey Bruce (who was created a baronet in 1804) removed the greater part of Ballyscullion’s contents to Downhill where he preferred to live. Ballyscullion was left to moulder: Louisa Beaufort’s observations reveal that even by 1807 it had begun to fall into decay. What could be sold out of the building was offered to buyers: the great staircase caught the attention of Lord O’Neill and went to Shane’s Castle where regrettably it too was lost in the great conflagration there in 1816 (see Fascination Frantic in a Ruin that’s Romantic, February 17th last).
But not everything perished. For example, Ballyscullion’s portico with its four towering Corinthian columns was bought by Dr. Nathaniel Alexander, then-Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Connor and presented by him to the rebuilt St. George’s Church in High Street, Belfast; supposedly the stones were first brought by horse and cart to Lough Neagh and from there travelled by the first cargo barge to make the journey to Belfast on the new Lagan Canal. Photographs of the facade of St George’s, incorporating the Ballyscullion portico, can be seen above.
For his own residence in Portglenone, Dr Alexander bought other items from Ballyscullion including chimneypieces and a pair of scagliola columns with corresponding pilasters (curiously this house has since become a Roman Catholic Cistercian monastery). Other pieces of Ballyscullion were acquired by diverse house owners and remain in some of these properties to the present time (see various pictures above). But within ten years Hervey’s great building was largely gone and today almost nothing remains other than the outline of the main block’s foundations and the partial walls of one of the galleries, all of it surrounded by thick woodland.
There is still a house on the Ballyscullion estate: in 1840 Sir Charles Lanyon designed a handsome new residence – see below – for Admiral Sir Henry Bruce (a younger son of the Rev. Sir Henry Hervey Bruce) who at the age of 13 had fought at the Battle of Trafalgar and went on to command the British fleet in the Pacific. Ballyscullion Park remained in the possession of the Bruce family into the last century before being sold in 1938 to the Hon. Sir Harry Mulholland, first Speaker of the Northern Ireland Parliament at Stormont. Sir Harry’s grandson Richard and his wife Rosalind live in the house today and maintain the property with every respect and appreciation for its distinguished and colourful history. The Bishop’s Ballyscullion may have gone but its memory is duly cherished.
For more information on Ballyscullion Park, see: http://www.ballyscullionpark.com