Until the start of the 18th century, the village of Castlebellingham, County Louth was known as Gernonstown, named after the Gernon (otherwise Garland) family, the first of whom, the Anglo-Norman knight Roger de Gernon is thought to have arrived here in the 12th century with Strongbow. As evidence of their presence in this part of the country, there is also a Gernonstown to the northwest of Slane, County Meath. However, in Louth the Gernons were ousted by later arrivals, the Bellinghams. The first of that family to come to Ireland was Henry Bellingham who appeared here in the mid-17th century and in the great reallocation of Irish land which then took place, he was received or bought some of it based around Gernonstown; his possession of what would be the future Castlebellingham estate was confirmed by Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. When Henry Bellingham died in 1676, the estate was duly inherited by his son Thomas who in 1690 took the side of William III, becoming a colonel in his army and serving as a guide on the march south from Dundalk. In retaliation, the forces of James II burnt the colonel’s residence, probably an old Gernon tower house. A new house for the family was built around 1710 and it is about this time that the surrounding village acquired the new name of Castlebellingham. Today an hotel, the house was extensively remodelled and enlarged at the end of the 18th century and then given a fashionable Gothic makeover in the 1830s.
Located to the east immediately outside the gates of Bellingham Castle, as seen today the core of the village dates from the 19th century when it was carefully laid out in picturesque style by the Bellingham family. Among the most delightful features is a group of former almshouses built immediately adjacent to the Church of Ireland church to accommodate the widows of estate workers. A plaque above the main entrance to this building declares that it was endowed by Sir William Bellingham. Created a baronet in 1796, Sir William died thirty years later in 1826, and the almshouses, endowed with £64 per annum, were erected as a result of a legacy in his will. Sir William had no sons of his own, so the estate and baronetcy were inherited by a nephew, Alan Bellingham, but he died exactly ten months after his uncle, therefore it was Sir Alan’s son, the third baronet (another Alan) who undertook to honour Sir William’s intentions. The design of the building is often attributed to architect William Vitruvius Morrison, not least because it bears similarities to a couple of other ornamental cottages for which he was responsible: Carpenham, County Down and Lough Bray, County Wicklow. Here, as with both of the others, the building has steeply-gabled roofs and an amplitude of detail, such as the decorative bargeboards, ornamental finials, diamond-patterned pointed windows and tall brick chimneys. A further three detached two-storey cottages were subsequently built on the other side of the lane.
The Widows’ Almshouses were modest enough residences, with a single room on the ground floor and another two above. The interiors were altered since first built, but the essential structure remains unaltered, with just a tiny yard to the rear of each before meeting the church grounds. Five years ago, in April 2016, the entire block was offered for sale for the modest sum of €100,000, but with the proviso that the almshouses were in need of refurbishment. The property was duly sold and in September 2018 an application was made to, and granted by, the local authority for the four units to be upgraded and converted into two dwelling houses. Nothing appears to have happened since then and unfortunately the almshouses are in poor condition. One must hope that sooner rather than later something will be done to bring this important part of the area’s architectural heritage back to decent condition.