A date stone beneath one of the windows on the façade of the Old Rectory at Glenarm, County Antrim. It carries the year 1838 but the house is believed to be much older than this, a section to the rear likely having been built in the 17th century by a settler in the area, so perhaps the house was originally occupied by a tenant farmer before becoming a residence for the local Church of Ireland clergyman. Another date stone over the main entrance is inscribed with the year 1858, indicating further work was carried out then. The same stone reports the house was restored in 1990 by its present owner, the artist Hector McDonnell.
In June 1743 Mary Pendarves (née Granville) married as her second husband the Anglican clergyman Dr Patrick Delany who a year later was made Dean of Down. As a result, although the couple’s main residence was at Delville on the outskirts of Dublin, they often spent time in the Dean’s diocese there occupying a house not far from Downpatrick with the distinctive name of Mount Panther. Much embellished after its acquisition by the future first Earl Annesley in 1770, for two centuries Mount Panther was judged one of the finest properties in County Down with especially fine plasterwork in the ballroom and drawing rooms. It survived until the 1960s but is now a ruin. However, a few souvenirs of Mount Panther have been incorporated into a house in neighbouring County Antrim including these curved doorcases and doors which were a feature of the staircase hall. Also rescued from Mount Panther were the neo-classical plasterwork wall decorations which incorporate a variety of motifs including the head of a big cat, although it looks more like that of a lion than a panther.
The canal at Antrim Castle, County Antrim is laid out in two sections, the original (seen above, on the cusp of yet another recent storm) believed to date from either the late 17th or early 18th century: if the former, then it was the work of John Skeffington, second Viscount Massereene (died 1695), if the latter his son, Clotworthy Skeffington, the third Viscount. Approached by a yew walk, it is thirty feet wide and runs to 660 feet, a rare surviving example of the formal French-style gardens then in vogue. In the 19th century John Foster-Skeffington, tenth Viscount Massereene added an upper canal (below) the two lengths separated by a short cascade. A survey of Antrim conducted by James Boyle in the 1830s describes the water as being edged by a lime hedge of eighteen feet. Although the castle was gutted by fire in 1922 and later demolished, the gardens were restored some years ago by the local authority and are now a public park.
Recently photographed on a typical Irish summer morning (that is to say in sleeting rain: the Irish Aesthete is nothing if not intrepid) the walled garden at Glenarm Castle, County Antrim. Dating from the 18th century, it originally provided the main house with fruit and vegetables but in recent years has been converted into a series of pleasure grounds open to the public, the upper sections designed by Catherine FitzGerald, eldest daughter of the late Knight of Glin. Above is an obelisk of oak created by local craftsman Corin Giles: what distinguishes this piece is the use of wood for a rusticated base. Meanwhile below a pair of rills flanked by beech hedges run down to a cascade before concluding in a pool; far below can be seen an opening cut into the yew circle dating from the 1820s. How simple devices can achieve powerful effects…
The main entrance to the former Court House in the county town of Antrim. A popular venue for markets and fairs since the first patent to do so was granted in 1605, inevitably there was a certain amount of disruption whenever these took place. Hence the citizens of Antrim felt the need to have a court house where miscreants could be tried and punished. In the early 18th century, the County Antrim Grand Jury granted £150 ‘towards building and carrying on a Session House in the town of Antrim in and for said county.’ Dating from 1726, the court house is of two storeys, that on the lower level originally having an open arcade where mercantile activity could take place even while justice was being administered upstair. By 1836, the ground floor had been converted into an enclosed yard
for prisoners attending trial and for confining drunkards
and rioters. The building continued to serve as a courthouse until 1994 since when it has been extensively restored by the local authority. Commendable work, although one must regret the installation of such commonplace light fittings and metal grills.
From George Benn’s The History of the Town of Belfast, with an Accurate Account of its Former and Present State (published 1823):
‘The Belfast Incorporated Charitable Society, or as it is more generally denominated the Poor House, for the reception of aged and infirm persons, as well as for the support and instruction of children destitute of protectors, has long remained a noble proof of the general philanthropy which prevails among the inhabitants of this town. It stands at the extremity of Donegall Street, in an elevated and healthful situation. The ground was granted by the late Marquis of Donegall, the building completed by subscriptions and the produce of a lottery, and first opened for the purposes above stated in the year 1774. Since its commencement, it has preserved annually about three hundred individuals, old and young; the former from want and misery, the latter from idleness and vice. The children are here instructed in the elementary branches of education, till they are capable of being apprenticed out to trades. The old are carefully attended to, being permitted to increase their comforts by their own industry; and it is a proof not less of the instability of fortune than of the great benefits of the establishment, that an individual was lately received into the Poor House who had, in more prosperous times, contributed to its support. All its inmates, varying in number but commonly about three hundred and fifty, are fed and clothed at the expense of the society. The dress of the children is uniform; they walk on the Sabbath Day, hand in hand, to the respective houses of worship; and due care is taken, in every respect, of their moral and religious habits. The whole government of the Institution is conducted in the most methodical manner, and it receives contributions from every denomination of Christians, all being anxious for the continuance of an establishment which is as invaluable to the poor as it is creditable to the opulent.’
In the 18th century Belfast was a small but growing market town and port: as late as 1801 its population stood at just 19,000. Nevertheless, the town’s spirit of enquiry and liberalism can be seen through several developments during this period, such as the publication of what is now the world’s oldest surviving English language daily newspaper, the Belfast News Letter, (started 1737), the creation of the Belfast Academy (now Belfast Royal Academy) in 1785 and the setting up of a library (later to become the Linenhall Library and still extant) three years later. Of interest here today are the origins of another organisation which continues to the present day, the Belfast Charitable Society.
In 1631 Edward Holmes, a former Sovereign of Belfast (as the city’s mayors were called until 1842) left in his will ‘to the poore decayed inhabitants of Belfast 40 pounds.’ This created a fund to which further sums were added over the next hundred years. However by the middle of the 18th century, it was apparent that more was required to assist the poor and needy. Hence in late August 1752 a group of concerned citizens met at an establishment called the George Inn and there resolved ‘to consider a proper way to raise a sum for the building of a poor House & Hospital & a new Church in or near the town of Belfast.’
A site of eight acres for the project was granted by Arthur Chichester, fifth Earl (and later first Marquess) of Donegall, whose family had long owned most of the land on which Belfast developed. The funds required to build the Poor House, at an estimated cost of ₤7,000, were raised through private donations and also by running a lottery based on the model of that already existing in Dublin. Work started promptly and in December 1774 the new premises were officially opened by Lord Donegall with the following accommodation: seven beds for the sick, four double beds for the beggars, twenty-two double beds for the poor and four single beds for vagrants.
The building’s design has an interesting history. Both the Scottish-born architect Robert Mylne and his former draughtsman and clerk Thomas Cooley submitted proposals, but eventually the person responsible was a local amateur, Robert Joy (1722-1785). He and his brother Henry were co-proprietors of the aforementioned Belfast News Letter, which had been founded by their father Francis Joy; they were also uncles of the United Irishman, Henry Joy McCracken. The siblings were among the key figures behind the Poor House’s foundation and hence it is understandable that Robert Joy should have been permitted to have the final say in its design. However, extant drawings by Mylne indicate that his work provided a basis for the eventual structure. Corridors off a passage behind the entrance hall, for example, retain walled-up Tuscan columns, part of what was once an open-air colonnade, a feature of Mylne’s scheme. On the other hand, Joy replaced the dome and lantern proposed by Mylne with an octagonal stone tower and spire rising behind the brick facade the appearance of which mimics that of a Palladian country house. Despite the spire, the church which was originally intended to be part of the scheme was never built.
It is instructive, if a little disturbing, to read the role played by the Poor House’s more youthful occupants in the establishment of the cotton industry in Ulster. This account is taken from Philip Dixon Hardy’s 1820 publication The Northern Tourist:
‘In 1771, at which time there was not a single cotton loom in the whole North of Ireland, the late Robert Joy conceived the scheme of introducing into this then desponding kingdom the cotton manufacture which had proved an unfailing source of industry and consequent opulence to the sister country. Having, in conjunction with Thomas M’Cabe, suggested that the spinning of cotton yarn might, as an introductory step to the establishment of the manufacture, be at once a fit and profitable employment for the children in the Belfast Poor-house, several of them were set to work…And shortly after an experienced spinner was brought over by Mr Joy from Scotland, to instruct the children in the Poor-house. Also, under the same direction, and at the expense of the gentlemen mentioned, a carding machine was erected at Mr Grimshaw’s, to go by water, which was afterwards removed to the Poor-house, and wrought by hand. A firm was now formed of the original projectors, and others, under the name of Joys, M’Cabe and M’Cracken, who contracted with the same charitable institution for the employment of a number of its children, as well as for the use of its vacant rooms…In less than ten years from their first introduction in the country, several thousand looms were employed in the manufacture of cotton in the towns of Belfast, Lisburn and Hillsborough.’
During its first decades of operation, the Poor House looked after inmates well, not least by providing them with all necessary clothing and food. With regard to the latter, daily meals included bread, cheese, milk, broth, rice and porridge. Beef and veal were added to the diet on Sundays. On Sundays, the meal included beef and veal, this at a time when around a third of the country’s population lived on potatoes and buttermilk.
Local physicians attended the sick in the Poor House, their services provided without charge, and there was also a dispensary where the same doctors would see the unwell from outside the house on Tuesdays and Saturdays. In 1794 the Belfast Charitable Society opened Ireland’s first Fever Hospital in a rented building on Factory Row (now Berry Street) and soon afterwards, as a means of raising funds, it started a cemetery in the city. Other methods of generating income included taking responsibility for Belfast’s water supply, which it did from 1795 to 1840, and then charging households for access to fresh water.
By the time the society gave up this role (in return for financial compensation), much else had changed, not least new Poor Laws and a more active role by the state in the provision of assistance to those citizens unable to support themselves. However, the Poor House remained true to its original purpose and indeed expanded premises during the course of the 19th century. In 1821 and 1825 respectively extensions were made behind each of the end wings and then in 1867 a block was built at right angles to these; five years later it was linked to the rest of the property by further additions thereby creating a quadrangle as had originally been envisaged by Robert Mylne.
After the Belfast Charitable Society celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2002, a decision was taken to build a new nursing home elsewhere in the city. The old property was handed over on a seventy-year lease to another charity, Helm Housing Association, the funds thus generated allowing for a programme of necessary renovation. Since then the building has been shared between the two organisations, offering sheltered accommodation and operating as an old persons’ home. This year marks the 240th anniversary of the opening of Belfast’s Poor House (now called Clifton House), the oldest complete surviving building in the city, a wonderful example of 18th century philanthropy, a landmark structure and yet somehow little known even by the local population.
Shane’s Castle, County Antrim is located at the north-east corner of Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in Britain and Ireland. The building was originally known as Edenduffcarrick (from the Irish meaning ‘The Brow of the Dark Rock’) and first appears in the late 15th century Annals of Ulster as the town of Conn O’Neill; a settlement of houses remained around the lakeshore until swept away towards the end of the 18th century to create an open parkland, much of which still happily remains as designed at the time. In 1490 there are references to a castle on the site which was attacked and demolished, but another such structure is mentioned in 1535 as being under assault and in 1596 it was reported that ‘on the edge of Lough Neagh standeth a runiated pile called Edendow Carreck, which, being made wardable, could be converted into a store for provisioning Blackwater and Coleraine in case of sea storms.’ Having suffered repeated attacks and changes of ownership, in 1607 the Castle and surrounding lands were settled by James I on Shane McBrian O’Neill. The name Shane’s Castle probably derives from this man whose descendants have lived on the estate ever since.
The oldest part of Shane’s Castle probably dates from the late 15th or early 16th century but the building was subject to so many assaults and reconstructions during this period, and such radical alteration later that it is now difficult to discern what might be original. Looking at the remains today, with their confusion of stone and brick, and comparing this with surviving paintings it becomes clear the structure was considerably extended and aggrandised in the 17th and more especially the 18th century. The eventual Shane’s Castle, which sat at right angles to the shores of Lough Neagh with the main symmetrical entrance facing east, was of three storeys over basement. It’s rendered exterior had a battlemented parapet and hipped roofs, the west front featuring projecting circular end bays while that to the east was centred on a large curved bay and closed with projecting rectangular bays. In the 1793 engraving after William Ashford immediately above it can be seen these east bays are pedimented but other images from previous decades show differently, an indication of how the building was subjected to repeated revisions reflecting changes in architectural taste during the course of the 18th century. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the 1830s make reference to some features of the structure which no longer exist, mentioning a sculptured coat of arms ‘said to have been erected over one of the principal entrances of the castle’ and also noting ‘none of the floors and only a small portion of a beautiful spiral stair of cut stone now remain.’
We are fortunate to possess a number of descriptions of Shane’s Castle in full opulence. As a young woman, the 18th century’s most celebrated actress Sarah Siddons had met and been befriended by Henrietta Boyle, judged one of the loveliest women of her generation, who subsequently married John, first Viscount O’Neill. Hence in 1783 when Mrs Siddons was performing at Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre she travelled to County Antrim to spend time with her friends at Shane’s Castle. In her memoirs she recalled the visit: ‘I have not words to describe the beauty and splendour of this enchanting place; which, I am sorry to say, has since been levelled to the earth by a tremendous fire. Here were often assembled all the talent, and rank, and beauty of Ireland. Amongst the persons of the Leinster family whom I met here was poor Lord Edward Fitzgerald, the most amiable, honourable, though misguided youth, I ever knew. The luxury of this establishment almost inspired the recollections of an Arabian Night’s entertainment. Six or eight carriages, with a numerous throng of lords and ladies on horseback, began the day by making excursions around this terrestrial paradise, returning home just in time to dress for dinner. The table was served with a profusion and elegance to which I have never seen anything comparable. The sideboards were decorated with adequate magnificence, on which appeared several immense silver flagons, containing claret. A fine band of musicians played during the whole of the repast. They were stationed in the corridors which led to a a fine conservatory, where we plucked our dessert from numerous trees of the most exquisite fruits. The foot of the conservatory was washed by the waves of a superb lake, from which the cool and pleasant wind came, to murmur in concert with the harmony from the corridor.’
Four years after Mrs Siddons, the Rev. Daniel Beaufort, a sociable Anglican clergyman and amateur architect who succeeded his father as rector of Navan, County Meath, likewise paid a visit to Shane’s Castle and again was deeply impressed by what he saw there. In his journal he wrote: ‘Drawing room adorned with magnificent mirrors, off breakfast room is rotunda coffee room, where in recesses are great quantities of china, a cistern with a cock and water, a boiler with another, all apparently for making breakfast; a letter box and round table with four sets of pen and ink let in for everybody to write. Conservatory joins house, fine apartment along lough, at end alcove for meals, from it a way to h & c bathing apartments with painted windows. On other side of house, pretty and large theatre and magnificent ballroom 60 X 30, all of wood and canvas painted, and so sent ready made from London.’ The theatre Beaufort mentions reflected Lady O’Neill’s interest in the performing arts and it is believed that Mrs Siddons acted there during her stay.
It must be recorded that other visitors to Shane’s Castle were less impressed by what they found there. In 1806 the English antiquarian Sir Richard Colt Hoare (who more than twenty years before had inherited Stourhead from his grandfather) made a tour of Ireland, publishing an account of his trip the following year. In this he observed that Shane’s Castle was ‘placed immediately on the shores of the lake, whose waves beat against its wall; it is an old castle modernised, or rather a modern mansion attached to an old fort; its situation is bold; but its architectural design far from picturesque or appropriate. Improvements, both in gardening and farming, are advancing here most rapidly; a fine kitchen garden, with all its luxurious and glassy appendages, and very extensive and commodious offices have lately been erected.’ Perhaps Charles O’Neill, the second viscount (who had become first and last Earl O’Neill in 1800) took Hoare’s criticisms of his house to heart, since soon after he engaged the services of architect John Nash to make improvements to Shane’s Castle and render it more gothic in character.
Had circumstances been otherwise, Shane’s Castle would feature prominently in any consideration of Nash’s oeuvre. It appears that the architect was consulted on alterations to the building in the early 1800s although work only began in the second decade of the century. Accounts of visitors like those mentioned above all indicate a terrace to the south already existed along with a conservatory linked by a passage to the main building. The terrace was now extended further out into the lough, the conservatory replaced with one to Nash’s design and from this, a suite of reception rooms planned eastwards with views directly across the water. All the foundations had been put in place, and the new conservatory erected, when in 1816 fire broke out in the old house, seemingly originating in a dressing or bedroom chimney where rooks had built a nest (although local legend preferred to believe that a banshee, for whom accommodation was always left vacant, took umbrage when a full house party meant her traditional quarters were occupied and so she started the conflagration).
The result was devastation and cessation of the proposed Nash adjunct. In fact Lord O’Neill abandoned the site occupied by his forbears and moved into part of the estate’s offices and outbuildings some distance to the west. Here in the 1860s a new house was built by the Belfast firm of Lanyon, Lynn and Lanyon: in turn it was burnt by the IRA in May 1922.
Today Shane’s Castle forms a striking sequence of ruins, with the outer walls of diverse sections of the old house surviving largely unconnected to each other. Then in the midst of these hollow shells one comes across Nash’s conservatory which has long served as a camellia house and was meticulously restored by the present Lord O’Neill and his son a few years ago after suffering damage in a storm. Sitting on top of an extensive vaulted undercroft, the building has thirteen arched openings filled with panes of scalloped glass, each of these windows opening on a central pivot in order to allow circulation of air on warm days.
It is a poignant survivor of the otherwise lost ‘Arabian Night’s entertainment’ so keenly remembered by Mrs Siddons. To give a sense of what has gone, below is an imagined view of what the completed Nash design might have looked like, as painted for Lord O’Neill in 1988 by Felix Kelly.