Writing in 1744, the indefatigable Mrs Delany described Seaforde, County Down as being ‘a very pleasant place and capable of being made a very fine one; there is more wood than is common in this country and a fine lake of water with very pretty meadows. The house is situated on the side of a hill and looks down on his woods and water. The house is not a very good one, but very well filled; for he has ten children, the youngest about ten years old – but that’s a moderate family to some in this country.’ In fact the ‘he’ to whom Mrs Delany here refers, Matthew Forde (1699-1780) had ten children with his two wives, so it is not surprising to find Mrs Delany some years later worrying that ‘there is one error which most fathers run into, and that is in providing too little for daughters; young men have a thousand ways of improving a little fortune, by professions and employments, if they have good friends, but young gentlewomen have no way, the fortune settled on them is all they are to expect – they are incapable of making an addition.’ In fact, all three Forde daughters did marry, so they must have been provided with some money by their father.
The Forde family claim descent from the Norman de la Fordes who are believed to have settled in Fordestown (now Fordstown), County Meath in the 13th century. The move to County Down occurred in the first half of the 17th century when Mathew Forde, of Dublin and Meath, ought the Barony of Kinelarty, running to more than 20,000 acres, from Thomas Cromwell, future first Earl of Ardglass for £8,000. The acquisition of property here began in 1617 then Forde married Eleanor MacArtan, niece of Phelim Macartan who more than a decade before had sold some of the land of the Lordship of Kinelarty to Lord Ardglass’s father. For the next century or so, the Fordes lived primarily in Dublin (where they sat in the Irish House of Commons) and County Wexford, where they also held property and which they represented in Parliament. It was only during the lifetime of the Matthew Forde of whom Mrs Delany wrote, that they started to spend more time in County Down (and indeed, to stand for election there). The original house at Seaforde, disparagingly described earlier as ‘not a very good one’, had been built by Matthew Forde’s father (also called Matthew). Other than a bare outline in grass, nothing remains of this building, which was destroyed by fire in 1816 and soon afterwards replaced by the present house in severe neo-classical style fronted in sandstone ashlar: its design is attributed to English architect Peter Frederick Robinson. Seaforde remains home to the Forde family.
As Mrs Delany noted, the situation of Seaforde is fine, aided by house and yards being flanked by large lakes to the immediate east and west. To the north of these buildings lies a five-acre walled garden, the origins of which date to the mid-18th century. As was the case with similar estates throughout these islands, in the Victorian era, these gardens were elaborately laid-out with axial paths and complex formal planting. The south-facing wall was covered in a series of greenhouses; tropical fruits such as pineapples grown in these won prizes at fairs in Belfast. However, by the middle of the last century, Seaforde’s walled garden had fallen into dereliction, and all the greenhouses cleared away. It was only following the marriage of Patrick Forde to Lady Anthea Lowry-Corry in 1965 that work began to reclaim the area, and to transform it into what can be seen today. At its centre stands a hornbeam maze, planted in 1975 to mark the Fordes’ tenth wedding anniversary and now the oldest surviving maze in Ireland. Elsewhere, can be seen perhaps the finest collection of Eucryphia on the island, and many specimen trees, as well as some of the earliest Wellingtonia to be grown here (in the mid-19th century). The gardens at Seaforde, together with an adjacent butterfly house, are seasonally open to the public.