When Moore is Less

IMG_9565

Extracted from a letter written by George Henry Moore of Moore Hall, County Mayo to his mother Louisa (née Browne) on 6th May 1846:
‘My dearest Mother,
Corunna won the Chester Cup this day. We win the whole £17,000. This is in fact a little fortune. It will give me the means of being very useful to the poor this season. No tenant of mine shall want for plenty of everything this year, and though I shall expect work in return for hire, I shall take care that whatever work is done shall be for the exclusive benefit of the people themselves. I also wish to give a couple of hundred in mere charity to the poorest people about me or being on my estate, so as to make them more comfortable than they are; for instance, a cow to those who want one most, or something else to those who may have a cow, but want some other article of necessary comfort; indeed I will give £500 in this way. I am sure it will be well expended, and the horses will gallop all the faster with the blessing of the poor…’

IMG_4585

IMG_4623

Moore Hall dates from 1792 and is believed to have been designed by the Waterford architect John Roberts whose other house in this part of the island, Tyrone, County Galway is also now a gaunt ruin. The Moores were an English settler family originally members of the established church who converted to Roman Catholicism following the marriage of John Moore to Mary Lynch Athy of Galway. Their son George Moore, who likewise married an Irish Catholic, moved to Spain where through his mother’s connections with various Wild Geese families, he became successful and rich in the wine export business. In addition he manufactured iodine, a valuable commodity at the time, and shipped seaweed from Galway for its production, owning a fleet of vessels for this purpose.
Having made his fortune, George Moore then returned to Ireland and bought land to create an estate of some 12,500 acres. He commissioned a residence to be built on Muckloon Hill with wonderful views across Lough Carra below and the prospect of Ballinrobe’s spires in the far distance. Fronted in cut limestone, Moore Hall stands three storeys over sunken basement, the facade centred on a single-bay breakfront with tetrastyle Doric portico below the first floor Venetian window. A date stone indicates it was completed in 1795, three years before Ireland erupted in rebellion. Among those who took part was George Moore’s eldest son John who after being schooled at Douai had studied law in Paris and London had returned to Ireland where he joined the uprising. On August 31st 1798 the French general Jean Joseph Humbert issued a decree proclaiming John Moore President of the Government of the Province of Connacht. However within weeks the British authorities had crushed the rebellion and captured Moore who died the following year while en route to the east coast where he was due to be deported. George Moore, who had spent some £2,500 attempting to secure his heir’s release, had died just a month earlier.

IMG_4587

IMG_4591

Moore Hall now passed into the hands of its builder’s second son, also called George Moore. A more studious character than his brother, he is known as an historian who wrote accounts of the English Revolution of 1688 (published in 1817) and, on his death, left behind the manuscript of the history of the French Revolution. He married Louisa Browne, a niece of the first Marquess of Sligo, and the couple had three sons, one of whom died at the age of 17 after a fall from his horse. The same fate would befall the youngest child, Augustus Moore when at 28 he was taking part in a race at Liverpool. He and the eldest son, another George, had set up a racing stable at Moore Hall and become notorious for their fearless recklessness. But this George Moore had an intelligent and sensitive character – while still a teenager he was publishing poetry – and following the death of his brother and the advent of famine in Ireland in the mid-1840s he turned his attention to Moore Hall and the welfare of its tenants. The letter quoted above shows that after his horse Corunna won the Chester Cup in May 1846 he used the proceeds to make sure no one on his land suffered hardship or deprivation. In 1847, having already participated in calling for an all-party convention to work for the betterment of Ireland, he was first elected to Parliament where he proved to be a deft orator (his background as a youthful poet came in handy) and an ardent advocate of the country’s rights: he spoke in favour of the Fenians and was an early supporter of the Tenant League, established to secure fair rents and fixity of tenure in the aftermath of the famine. But his philanthropy was George Moore’s undoing. In the spring of 1870 his Ballintubber tenants withheld their rents, judging he would not dare retaliate. Since Parliament was sitting at the time, he returned from London to settle the matter and four days later died as a result of a stroke.

IMG_4601

IMG_4612

And so Moore Hall passed to the next, and final, generation, being inherited by another George Moore, one of the greatest prose stylists Ireland has produced, a decisive influence on James Joyce and many another Irish author since. Today his contribution to this country, as well as that of his forebears, is insufficiently appreciated, but during his long lifetime George Moore was recognised as a great writer, as well as a serial controversialist. If he is no longer as celebrated as was once the case, then Moore must accept at least some responsibility for this state of affairs since he was given to creating and maintaining feuds with those who by rights should have been his allies. In his wildly entertaining, if not always credible, three-volume memoir Hail and Farewell he explained, ‘It is difficult for me to believe any good of myself. Within the oftentimes bombastic and truculent appearance that I present to the world, trembles a heart shy as a wren in the hedgerow or a mouse along the wainscotting.’ If no match for his father as a horseman, he inherited the latter’s bravado and audaciousness, and as a result created far too many enemies all of whom relished an opportunity to denigrate him. W.B. Yeats called Moore ‘a man carved out of a turnip’, while Yeats’ father considered Moore ‘an elderly blackguard.’ Middleton Murry described him as ‘a yelping terrier’ and Susan Mitchell ‘an ugly old soul.’ Yet they all had to acknowledge his genius. ‘When it comes to writing,’ declared Ford Madox Ford, yet another opponent, ‘George Moore was a wolf – lean, silent, infinitely sweet and solitary.’ The monument erected to him on Castle Island on Lough Carra rightly proclaims:
‘George Moore
Born Moore Hall 1852 died 1933 London
He deserted his family and friends
For his Art
But because he was faithful to his Art
His family and Friends
Reclaimed his ashes for Ireland.’

IMG_4662

IMG_4644

In keeping with his character, George Moore always had an ambivalent relationship with Moore Hall. He wrote about it often, both in fiction and fact, but spent relatively little of his adult life in the place. For much of the time the estate was run by his younger brother Maurice with whom, like everyone else, he inevitably quarrelled. Unlike most Irish landowners of the era, however, he understood their time was drawing to a close, that the age of the big house was coming to an close and that the class into which he had been born would soon be no more. As he wrote to his brother in 1909, ‘The property won’t last out even my lifetime, that is to say if I live a long while and there will be nothing I’m afraid for your children…You always put on the philosophic air when I speak of the probable future and say “the future is hidden from us.” But the future of landlords isn’t in the least hidden from us.’
Nor was it, although the end was gratuitously harsh. On February 1st 1923 a local regiment of IRA men arrived at Moore Hall in the middle of the night, ordered the steward to hand over keys, moved bales of straw into the house, poured fuel over these and then set the place alight. It was a callous and philistine act which ignored the patriotic history of the Moores and lost the west of Ireland one of its finest Georgian residences. Many years later Benedict Kiely wrote in the Irish Times that he knew someone who had been present when Moore Hall was burnt and who could list various houses in the area containing looted furniture and other items. Envy and spite seem to have been the arsonists’ primary, if not sole, motivation.
Ever since the building has stood empty, the surrounding land today owned by Coillte, a state-sponsored forestry company. With all the sensitivity one might expect from such an organisation, it has planted trees all around the house so that the view down to Lough Carra – the reason Moore Hall was built on this spot – cannot even be glimpsed. There was much talk some few years ago of restoring the building but no more and the final traces of its interior decoration, not least the delicate neo-classical plasterwork, are about to be lost. So this is how Ireland honours her own: more in the breach than in the observance.

IMG_4580

Misplaced Priorities

IMG_4561

This weekend the grounds of Westport House, County Mayo play host to a music festival. Revellers of sensitive disposition are advised not to venture into the adjacent town as the neglect of its historic core can only lead to feelings of disgust. In the closing decades of the 18th century, the centre of Westport town was laid out by John Browne, third Earl of Altamont (and later first Marquess of Sligo); its design is often attributed to James Wyatt – who was certainly responsible for some of the house’s interiors – but there is no direct evidence to support this.
In any case what cannot be questioned is that Westport has the potential to be one of the most attractive towns in Ireland, a potential which at present is being squandered as the photograph above shows. This is a former coaching inn standing on the North Mall and overlooking the canalised Carrowbeg river. In 1835 John Barrow described it as being a hostelry ‘where the most fastidious could scarcely fail to be pleased’ and seven years later Thackeray called ‘one of the prettiest, comfortablest inns in Ireland.’ The hotel continued in business for over two centuries until 2006 when plans were announced for its refurbishment: since then this crucial site has remained shut, despite Westport being heavily dependant on tourism.
If only this were an isolated case, but worse can be found towards the eastern end of the North Mall where the hotel’s equivalent can be seen below. Of similar date, five bays and two storeys, and originally created as a private residence the building served for many years as a bank until that closed in 2007 since when it has likewise been permitted to fall into the present state of decay. Furthermore the same is true of several other properties along the mall, their roofs sagging, their window frames decaying, the whole spectacle a sad testament to on-going neglect.
Almost 180 years ago John Barrow regarded the North Mall as ‘bearing a close resemblance to a street in a Dutch town’ although it is unlikely any local authority in Holland would allow such dereliction to occur. Mayo County Council’s current development plan for Westport states ‘It is the policy of the Council to maintain, conserve and protect the architectural quality, character and scale of the town.’ Looking at these pictures, it is hard to find evidence of the policy being put into practice. Westport even has a town architect who as recently as last November could be found lecturing the burghers of Fermoy, County Cork on how to improve their historic centre. He would do better to stay at home and ensure the place where he is employed, officially designated a Heritage Town of Ireland, holds onto its heritage before this is lost forever.

IMG_4541

M’Lady’s Chamber

Ir Arch Archive 2

A proposal for the decoration of the Duchess of Leinster’s dressing room on the first floor garden front of Leinster House in Dublin. The building was designed in 1745 by Richard Castle, but this plan is believed to date from the end of the following decade and to have been made by the English architect Isaac Ware. His connection to the FitzGerald family was most likely through Henry Fox, brother-in-law of the first Duke of Leinster but Ware had other Irish links too. Supposedly as an eight-year old London chimneysweep, he was discovered by Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington (and fourth Earl of Cork) sketching the elevation of Inigo Jone’s Whitehall Banqueting Hall. According to this story, Lord Burlington was so impressed by the child’s natural talent that he gave him a formal education and then sent him to Italy to study architecture. And one of Ware’s most celebrated buildings was Chesterfield House in London designed for Philip Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield who served as Lord Lieutenant in Ireland around the time work began on Leinster House: although unexecuted, the dressing room’s French rococo style bears similarities to the music room in Chesterfield House (sadly demolished in 1937).
This drawing is one of a large number once kept at the Leinsters’ country house, Carton, County Kildare and then later moved to the Leinster Estate Office at 13 Lower Dominick Street, Dublin. When that building was demolished in 1958 the drawings were saved by Desmond and Mariga Guinness who thereafter built up a large holding of historical architectural designs; this was acquired in its entirety by the Irish Architectural Archive in 1996. A selection of items from the Guinness Collection, including this drawing, is on display at the archive until August 22nd. For further information, see: http://www.iarc.ie/exhibitions

On the Brink

Killegar 1

From a distance Killegar, County Leitrim looks quite splendid. The house is approached via a long and densely wooded drive, with occasional glimpses through trees and meadow of a slender lake, Lough Kilnemar. Finally the approach enters more open ground dropping down to the left and offering views across the parkland to Killegar itself, a building of two storeys and eight bays, the centre pair forming a pedimented breakfront with handsome engaged Tuscan doorcase flanked by windows. The house faces south-east, a sequence of terraces descending to the lake’s glistening surface. One understands how John Kilbracken (who died almost eight years ago) could write in 1955, ‘It’s easy to love Killegar, as I realised more than ever when I came here for the first time after my father’s death. I can imagine selling it when I’m in Portofino, or Manhattan, or Paris (and imagine the villa, penthouse or atelier I’ll buy instead)…’ But he never did so, his love for the place overwhelming any urge to make money from it (thus proving him a most unlikely Irishman). But the consequences of passion combined with penury grow all too apparent the closer one draws to the house.

IMG_4143

IMG_4152

As seen today, the greater part of Killegar dates from c.1813, the same year the estate’s then-owner John Godley married Catherine Daly, a daughter of Denis Daly of Dunsandle, County Galway and his wife Lady Henrietta Maxwell (for more on Dunsandle and its lost interiors, see Dun and Dusted, December 9th 2013). But there was an older property on at least part of the site built around 1750 and incorporated into the new house. This takes advantage of the sloping site to have two storeys at the front but effectively only one at the rear where a courtyard was created. As so often, the architect is unknown and indeed one may not have been employed since Killegar’s design was always relatively simple. One curiosity is that the principal entrance, having initially been placed at the centre of the garden elevation, was subsequently moved to one side where a large pedimented porch was added. Thus visitors to the house stepped not into the main hall but into a rather narrow passage from whence they moved to the small drawing room. This was the first of an enfilade of rooms running the length of the main block. Above them were the bedrooms with a wonderful prospect of Lough Kilnemar (otherwise known as House Lake) although the view from the passage to the rear was of the service yard.

IMG_4130

IMG_4213

The Godleys were the latest in a succession of owners of the land on which Killegar stands. For centuries this part of the country was under the control of the O’Rourke clan, but as part of the plantation policy in the 17th century they were dispossessed and in 1640 Charles I granted a large parcel of some 2,784 Irish acres to the Scottish settler Sir James Craig: this territory subsequently became known as Craigstown. However further generations of Craigs did not manage their Irish estates well. They appear to have been prone to bickering, fell into debt and in 1734 were declared bankrupt. Craigstown was accordingly put up for sale and bought for £5626, eight shillings and four pence by a Dublin merchant Richard Morgan who had made his money in textiles. Richard Morgan’s only daughter, Mary married the Rev Dr William Godley, a landless clergyman who was rector of Mullabrack, Co Armagh and whose father had also been a Dublin merchant and alderman. The Godleys had arrived in Ireland at some date in the 17th century, probably from Yorkshire.
Killegar came into their ownership because although the estate was left by Richard Morgan to his son (also called Richard), the latter despite two marriages only had a single daughter who died while in her teens. And his only brother, William, a pupil and disciple of John Wesley (and an early Methodist) died in Dublin at the age of 20. So on the death of Richard Morgan the younger in 1784 there were no direct male heirs. The estate ought then to have passed to Mary Morgan’s eldest son, John Godley, a lawyer. However, despite his background the will was disputed and was only settled after twenty-six years of litigation in 1810. By then John Godley had died and so it was his son, another John Godley, who took possession of Killegar. It was he, hitherto a city merchant, who married Catherine Daly and decided to build the present house.

IMG_4106

IMG_4115

In addition to the main house, John Godley built a church, school and school-teacher’s house at Killegar, together with the two gate-lodges and eight other cottages on the estate before dying in 1863 at the age of eighty-eight. By this date his eldest son, John Robert Godley, had already died. The latter is generally deemed the founder of the Canterbury region of New Zealand, settled in the mid-19th century as a colony following the beliefs of the Church of England. He served as leader of the settlement that became the city of Christchurch but then returned to England where he died two years before his father. Therefore in 1863 Killegar passed to the next generation, John Arthur Godley, then in his teens and at school. A few years after leaving Oxford, he served as Assistant Private Secretary to the Prime Minister William Gladstone and in 1880 was appointed Commissioner for Inland Revenue, a position he held for the next two years. In 1883 he became Under-Secretary of State at the India Office, remaining there until his retirement in 1909 when he was raised to the peerage as Baron Kilbracken of Killegar.
But of course, a career as a senior civil servant in London meant he had little time to spend on his estate in Ireland. Killegar was instead given on a long lease first to his uncle Archibald Godley and then in turn on his death in 1907 responsibility for running the place passed to Archibald Godley’s only child Anna who lived until 1955. As a result, Arthur Godley’s son Hugh, second Lord Kilbracken, never spent much time at Killegar, only bringing his own family to Ireland for the first time in 1927.

IMG_4097

IMG_4090

The first Lord Kilbracken had been a Liberal and, perhaps as a result of having worked for Gladstone, was fully supportive of tenants’ rights to buy the land they farmed. Unlike the great majority of Irish landlords, he encouraged the sale of his estate with the result that even before the passing of the Wyndham Act of 1903, all but Killegar’s home farms had passed out of family ownership.
While certainly admirable, an obvious consequence of Lord Kilbracken’s action was that it left subsequent generations of Godleys with limited income from land: thus the second Lord Kilbracken qualified as a barrister and, like his father before him, spent the greater part of his professional life in London, with only holidays at Killegar. Although he moved into the main house on his retirement in 1943, it was already apparent there were insufficient resources to sustain the place and so at the time of his death in 1950 Killegar and the remaining 420 acres, was on the market with two identical offers made of £8,000.
At the time of his father’s death, John Godley, third Lord Kilbracken was travelling overland to New Zealand to take part in celebrations marking the centenary of the foundation of Christchurch. Initially he was prepared to go ahead with the sale of Killegar but by the time he reached Sydney, Australia he had come to the conclusion that the estate ought to remain in the family, and the following year he came back to Ireland determined to take over responsibility for the place. Clearly although he never regretted this decision, it had consequences he could not have foretold.

IMG_4164

IMG_4182

John Kilbracken, journalist and bon viveur, was throughout the course of his long and hectic life the very embodiment of the impoverished Irish peer possessed of big house and small income. A man of exceptional intelligence and charm, his various books are to be recommended, not least for their ability to make sundry travails sound highly entertaining. For example, in Living like a Lord (1955) he devotes a chapter to recounting the story of how he almost came to play the part of Ishmael in John Huston’s Moby Dick, parts of which were filmed in the County Cork port town of Youghal. Typically, as a result of having amused Huston one night over dinner, he found himself caught up in a six-month maelstrom of screen tests and costume fittings before eventually being relegated to the part of an extra carrying a live pig onto a vessel. However, owing to technical issues the scene had to be re-shot with someone else as pig carrier. Thus he never made the final cut, although he did work as a supplementary script writer, for which – naturally in his narrative – he received no screen credit.
But in relation to Killegar perhaps the greatest challenge he had to face occurred in 1970 when the house was gutted by fire. A rebuilding programme followed, testament to his devotion, but sadly many of the contents were forever lost. he struggled on and since his death in 2006 Killegar has been occupied by his second wife Sue and their son Seán. As the pictures above indicate, it remains as much a battle as ever to keep the house from falling into desolation. With little land (and proportionately little income) Killegar is now at a turning point in its fortunes, the last big house in County Leitrim to remain in the hands of the original family – but for how much longer? There comes a moment when the struggle becomes overwhelming with an outcome insufficient to justify the effort. One feels Killegar is nearing that moment. It is on the brink, from which there can be no return.

IMG_4159

‘So there she is for you: beautiful Killegar, happy Killegar, funny tumbling-down Killegar, waiting to open her seductive arms to me.’ John Kilbracken, 1920-2006.

A Stellar Design

IMG_0694

A section of the spectacular ceiling in the Gold Drawing Room at Ballyfin, County Laois. Its decoration, designed by the Morrisons and executed by Irish craftsmen in the 1820s, derives inspiration from the work of French First Empire architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine. Their sumptuous style would have become familiar to William Vitruvius Morrison on his travels in mainland Europe before he returned to this country to join his father’s practice: at least some of the motifs seen here are taken from the vaulted ceiling of the Gabinete de Platino in the Aranjuez Palace outside Madrid, designed by Percier and Fontaine for Joseph Bonaparte while the latter was King of Spain. The gilding was added when the room was redecorated in 1848 by Gillow’s of London.

Very Stately

IMG_4901

A view of Tulira Castle, County Galway. The tower house to the right dates from the 15th century although resting on earlier foundations. Around 1880 the estate’s then-owner Edward Martyn commissioned the new castellated residence to the immediate left from architect George Ashlin who hitherto had been primarily known for his ecclesiastical architecture (he worked on no less than eight of Ireland’s new Roman Catholic cathedrals as well as designing countless churches). Indeed the High Gothic interiors would not look out of place in a religious establishment: Martyn was an ardently pious man who directed his body be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Now on the market, Tulira has been extensively and sensitively restored in recent years. It will be among the properties discussed in a talk on The State of the Irish Country House Today that I am giving next Sunday afternoon, June 22nd at the National Gallery of Ireland. For more information, see: http://www.nationalgallery.ie/whatson/Talks/Sunday_Talks/June-22.aspx

A Metropolitan Air

IMG_9494

In his Irish Sketchbook of 1842, William Thackeray describes visiting a cotton mill in Belfast: ‘There are nearly five hundred girls employed in it. They work in huge long chambers, lighted by numbers of windows, hot with steam, buzzing and humming with hundreds and thousands of whirling wheels, that all take their motion from a steam-engine which lives apart in a hot cast-iron temple of its own, from which it communicates with the innumerable machines that the five hundred girls preside over. They have seemingly but to take away the work when done – the enormous monster in the cast-iron room does it all…I have seldom, I think, seen more good looks than amongst the young women employed in this place. They work for twelve hours daily, in rooms in which the heat is intolerable to a stranger; but in spite of it they looked gay, stout and healthy; nor were their forms much concealed by the very simple clothes they wear while in the mill.’ Thackeray came to Belfast with introductions from the Irish novelist Charles Lever who he had met in Dublin (and who the following year in a review of the Irish Sketchbook described it as ‘the pleasantest reading for a morning in the country, and the most amusing text of an evening’s conversation in town.’) Thus he was able to meet the owner of the cotton mill he visited, one of the era’s most successful entrepreneurs, Andrew Mulholland.

IMG_3731

IMG_3799

IMG_3857

Before the Beerage came into existence, there was the Linenocracy: a group of predominantly Ulster families who became exceedingly rich thanks to their involvement in the region’s linen industry. The Mulhollands were one such family, the origins of their rise traceable to Thomas Mulholland, described as a ‘dealer’ who in 1803 bought two houses on Belfast’s Upper Church Lane: the fact that he signed the contract for this transaction with an X is often taken as indicative of his illiteracy but this could be unfair. In any case, he must have possessed abundant shrewdness because in 1815 he and three of his sons entered an already-flourishing cotton industry by purchasing a mill. Five years later Thomas Mulholland died but the trio of siblings carried on the business, building a large spinning mill in the city near York Street. There was a set-back in June 1818 when this premises was almost completely destroyed by fire. Undaunted, the brothers set about rebuilding their property with one crucial difference: instead of cotton, it was now used for spinning flax. Not only was the former business beginning to experience economic problems, but a new method of flax spinning by machine had recently been developed in northern England without yet being subject to patent. Hence the Mulhollands were able to benefit from this technological advance. As indeed they did: when the York Street mill opened in 1830 it had 8,000 spindles, and by 1856 it had grown to 25,000 and was probably the largest such enterprise in the world. Also by that date it had entirely passed into the control of one brother, the aforementioned Andrew Mulholland and it was he who had shown Thackeray around the site. Where Mulholland led, other Belfast businessmen followed: by 1850 the city boasted 29 flax-spinning mills compared with only four premises spinning cotton. On the advent of the American Civil War in the early 1860s, which had the effect of almost cutting off the supply of raw cotton to Britain, linen became ever more important. In 1864, Andrew Mulholland & Son became a limited company, the York Street Flax Spinning Company Limited, its prospectus proclaiming the business possessed ‘the largest flax mill and linen factory in the North of Ireland, covering about four acres of land.’ With branches in Paris (opened 1870) New York (1871) London (1874) Berlin (1876) and Melbourne (1882) it soon became the largest firm of flax spinners, linen manufacturers and distributors in the world.

IMG_3754

IMG_3791

IMG_3757

One of Andrew Mulholland’s brothers, St Clair was a Justice of the Peace for County Down and High Sheriff of County Louth while Andrew was elected Mayor of Belfast in 1845. In his speech of thanks he undertook to ‘ameliorate the condition of the operatives,’ proposing the introduction of public gardens and washhouses, free libraries and coffee shops for workers which would promote ‘their health and cleanliness and give them better tastes.’ The onset of the terrible potato famine later that year put paid to such ideas, and instead Andrew Mulholland was a generous contributor to relief programmes. When better times returned to the country, he provided Belfast’s Ulster Hall with the grand organ still in situ. The donation was initially anonymous but once his identity became known, he explained the intention was ‘to give an opportunity to the working classes to hear from time to time the best music from a truly splendid instrument, at such a rate as would enable the humblest artisan to enjoy advantages which even the opulent could rarely purchase until now.’
Andrew Mulholland died in 1866 but before then the family business had passed into the hands of his only son John. He nurtured more overt political ambitions than had his father, serving as a Justice of the Peace for Antrim and Down, and as High Sheriff of Down in 1868 and of Tyrone in 1873. He stood as Conservative candidate for Belfast in 1868 but was beaten by the Orange populist William Johnston of Ballykilbeg. However John Mulholland was subsequently more successful, being elected MP for Downpatrick between 1874 and 1885. Three years before his death, on the recommendation of the outgoing Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in 1892 he was created Baron Dunleath of Ballywalter.

IMG_3811

IMG_3813

IMG_3817

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an affluent urban entrepreneur must be in want of a rural retreat. Thus Andrew Mulholland, having acquired great wealth through his early engagement with linen production, sought a spot to which he could retire and found a suitable estate on Ulster’s Ards Peninsula. Originally this was called Ballymagown and in 1729 had been acquired by the Matthews family from the Montgomerys of nearby Grey Abbey. Walter Harris’ Ancient and Present State of the County of Down (published 1744) refers to the property built there and now named Springvale, as being of two storeys over a semi-basement and containing a collection of curios gathered by George Matthews while a captain in the Royal Navy (including ‘several Figures of Mummies in divers kinds of Earth, in wood that is said never to decay…’). In 1805 a remodelling of the house was begun but remained incomplete before being abandoned seven years later: this was the building, together with surrounding estate, bought by Andrew Mulholland in 1846 for £23,500. He also acquired the adjoining Ballyatwood demesne, uniting the two of them with a replanting programme that ran to 41,000 trees and shrubs. The whole was now called Ballywalter Park, taking its name from an adjacent town founded in 1605.
Andrew Mulholland also turned his attention to the old Matthews house which over the next few years was encased inside a much larger structure (although traces of it survive in the basement), the greater part of the building being absorbed into a top-lit inner hall sixty feet long. In addition, the entrance was moved from south to east side, signalled by the presence of a porte-cochere with coupled Doric columns. Two single storey wings were added to either side of the main block and these have bows on the garden front the better to contemplate Ballywalter’s well-planted parkland. The eventual house’s appearance is sometimes described as emulating an Italian palazzo but more often and truthfully is said to look not unlike one of London’s smarter gentlemen’s clubs as designed by Sir Charles Barry. In a much-quoted observation, Professor Alistair Rowan has remarked that Ballywalter possesses ‘a metropolitan air and all the architectural trappings of a London club, dropped as if by chance in the open country of the north Irish coast.’

IMG_3828

IMG_3841

IMG_3833

Ballywalter Park was designed by Sir Charles Lanyon and the interior is one of his most accomplished pieces of work. As mentioned, the core of the building is its inner hall which rises to a gallery from which in turn springs a glazed roof, thereby filling the entire space with natural light: note how plain Doric columns and pilasters of the ground floor give way to the richer Corinthian order above so as to encourage the eye upwards. Also worthy of attention here and in the other main rooms are the deep and heavily ornamented cornice mouldings, and the beautiful parquet floors. The effect throughout is opulent yet by no means overwhelming: as Alistair Rowan commented the house exudes an air of ‘solid comfort.’
One advantage of the inner hall is that it gives direct access to a succession of reception rooms, moving from morning room to library to drawing room and from thence to dining room. Despite having certain decorative elements in common, each of them possesses a different and distinct character, and all of them has – like the space at its core – ample natural lighting: even the library where the pedimented mahogany bookcases were installed in 1866 is a singularly bright room: Ballywalter is entirely free of the oft-cited Victorian gloom. Although the main block was completed by 1852, in 1863 Lanyon returned to carry out further work, adding a billiard room onto the north-west corner of the garden front and, at right angles to this, a large domed conservatory which provides a spectacular conclusion to any tour of the house.

IMG_9489

IMG_3902

IMG_9488

Ballywalter Park epitomises mid-19th century splendour, but this has proven hard to maintain in subsequent eras. By the time the fourth Lord Dunleath inherited the property more than 100 years after its completion, there were no live-in staff, the house was suffering serious structural problems and its future looked uncertain. What saved the place was both a young owner’s determination to battle on, and a visit in 1961 by future Poet Laureate and life-long champion of Victoriana John Betjeman who urged the house’s preservation at all costs, since he recognised the then-rampant detestation of mid-19th century architecture was a merely a passing fashion in taste. Of course he was proven right, and luckily Ballywalter was not demolished or reduced in size: its survival has become even more precious since two other of Lanyon’s Ulster houses, Dundarave, County Antrim and Drenagh, County Derry, both of which have hitherto remained in the ownership of their original families, are now being offered for sale.
Meanwhile Ballywalter continues to benefit from ample care and attention to its welfare and future. Both inside the house and in the grounds, the sixth Lord Dunleath who succeeded in 1997 has together with his wife tirelessly continued the programme of refurbishment and restoration embarked upon by their predecessors, and as a result Ballywalter today looks better than was likely the case half a century or more ago. Displaying the old Mulholland entrepreneurial spirit, the Dunleaths have made the property available for a variety of events, not least film and television production (as a result of which it has appeared in an disconcerting assortment of guises) and yet the spirit of the place and its distinctive character have remained uncompromised, which is too rarely the case. Ballywalter survives as a tribute to the once-mighty Ulster linen industry and, equally important, as a very happy family home.

IMG_3877

For more information on this house, see: http://ballywalterpark.com (and while there don’t forget to look at Lady Dunleath’s stylish blog – http://ballywalterpark.com/category/walled-garden-blog – in which she displays her encyclopaedic knowledge of food).