Hillsborough Castle, County Down has long been misnamed since there is nothing castle-like about its appearance. The core of the house dates from the 18th century when it was built for the Hill family who were created Marquesses of Downshire. Owners of some 1115,000 acres in Ireland, it was said the Hills could travel from Larne in County Antrim to Blessington, County Wicklow without ever losing sight of their land. At Hillsborough, it appears there was a house on the site by c.1760 but this was enlarged in the mid-1790s for the second marquess to designs of Robert Brettingham. Further additions were made in the late 1820s for the third marquess who employed a local architect, Thomas Duff of Newry. It was at this time that the pedimented portico with four giant Ionic columns was added on the garden facade. This had hitherto been the entrance front, but that was now moved to face the main square of Hillsborough town. Hillsborough Castle remained in the ownership of the Hills until 1922 when sold by the sixth marquess to the British government. The house then served as a residence first for successive governors of Northern Ireland and then for Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. Since 2014 Hillsborough Castle has been managed by Historic Royal Palaces.
Over the past three years, both the house and grounds at Hillsborough have benefitted from considerable, and ongoing, attention. The gardens run to almost 100 acres and originally incorporated the main road to nearby Moira which ran in front of the Ionic portico and followed the line of the Yew Walk. However here as elsewhere the desire for privacy led the family to enclose this part of their land and lay it out for their own pleasure with the development of water features, ornamental bridges, the Doric Lady Alice’s Temple and a rusticated ice house.
When the scheme of improvements was initiated at Hillsborough in 2014, landscape designer Catherine FitzGerald, eldest daughter of the late Knight of Glin, was appointed to oversee a revitalisation of the gardens. Collaborating with her regular business partner, landscape architect Mark Lutyens, she drew up a master-plan which is being gradually implemented. So far the most notable feature introduced has been the re-working of the terrace outside the drawing room: here a harsh gravel surface has been replaced with reclaimed stone intermingled with diverse planting. Immediately beyond, the Jubilee Parterre has similarly been softened, while thousands of bulbs were planted on either side of the Yew Walk. This is very much a project in progress with much more yet to be done, as is also the case inside the house where extensive refurbishment is likewise underway. The intention is that in the years ahead, Hillsborough will receive in the region of 200,000 visitors, thereby generating revenue that can in turn be used for further developments: an excellent enterprise that merits being emulated elsewhere in Ireland.