A fortnight ago the BBC reported that the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland had spent almost £400,000 maintaining an equestrian centre in County Fermanagh that it stopped using four years ago. ‘The Necarne Estate in Irvinestown has been lying empty since equine courses were moved to Enniskillen. In 2012, the department said Necarne had become surplus to its requirements. But it had signed a 25-year lease for £500,000 that runs until 2023 without an early opt-out clause.’ At the centre of this property, which runs to 228 acres, are the remains of a residence called Castle Irvine.
Castle Irvine, sometimes known as Necarne Castle, was originally built around 1618-19 by a Scottish settler called Gerard Lowther: given the uneasy times, the four-storey rectangular building was defensive in appearance, with walls seventeen feet thick and two towers to the rear. The castle and surrounding lands were subsequently acquired by another Scottish settler Christopher Irvine whose descendants remained there until the last century. In 1788 Major Gorges Irvine married the Meath-born heiress Elizabeth D’Arcy, after which the family was known as D’Arcy-Irvine. Thanks to this injection of money, the castle underwent a major overhaul in the first half of the 1830s, the architect responsible being John Benjamin Keane, former assistant to Sir Richard Morrison. Perhaps for this reason the appearance of Castle Irvine bears some similarities to that of Borris, County Carlow which had been revamped some years earlier by Morrison in the same Tudor-Gothic idiom. A new range was added in front of the old castle, of five bays with an arcaded central porch and octagonal turrets at the corners. Further towers and crenellations were scattered liberally elsewhere, so that the whole building became an elaborate gothic fantasy. However, again like Borris, while the exterior of Castle Irvine was in one style, the interiors adopted another, being strictly classical. The entrance hall, for example, was flanked by red scagliola columms with Corinthian columns (once more the entrance hall of Borris is called to mind).
In 1922 Major Charles Cockburn D’Arcy-Irvine gave up living at Castle Irvine: his son Captain Charles William D’Arcy-Irvine had been killed in the Dardanelles seven years earlier. In 1925 a Captain Richard Outram Hermon from Sussex bought the castle and estate and lived there with his own family until the outbreak of the Second World War. During the subsequent period it was used as a military hospital by British and American forces but thereafter Castle Irvine was never occupied. Following Captain Hermon’s death in 1976 the estate was put up for sale and bought first by a local entrepreneur who had developed several other hotels in the Fermanagh region. However, in 1987 Castle Irvine was acquired by the local District Council for about £300,000, after which the same authority spent some £4 million developing equestrian facilities on the site including a 300-seat indoor arena, 80 stables, 16 bedrooms, two dressage arenas, and courses for cross-country, point-to-point and steeplechase. Ultimately this ambitious project came to a premature end, although it continues to cost the NI Department of Agriculture money every year. Throughout this time no funds were spent on the old castle, which despite being a listed building in the care of the council, has deteriorated to the point where it is now just a shell: as one of the authority’s officials told the BBC, ‘Unfortunately a use for the castle has not been found and it would take a very serious amount of money to put it back together.’ It is hard to imagine who might now want to spend such money for what has become a large and derelict white elephant.