Earning its Upkeep


The complex history of Montalto, County Down was discussed here two months ago (see https://theirishaesthete.com/2019/11/25/montalto). The building’s various alterations, additions and eliminations are reflected in its interior, although in recent years this has enjoyed comprehensive refurbishment. It will be remembered that in the late 1830s M0ntalto’s then-owner, David Stewart Ker decided to enlarge his house not by building up but down, excavating what may already have been a somewhat raised basement to create a new ground floor. The entrance hall, with its screen of Doric columns providing access to the Imperial staircase, dates from this period.





As an ambitious politician and major landowner in this part of the country, David Stewart Ker felt driven further to increase the size of his residence and in the 1850s he added a two-storey ballroom wing to the west of the existing house, together with a new service area to the north. These, together with a number of other portions of Montalto, were demolished in the 1950s, thereby almost halving the size of the place. Further parts to the rear were also taken down following a serious fire in 1985. As a result, Montalto was now a more compact and manageable building, but lacked any really substantial reception rooms on the ground floor. The most important space is upstairs, directly over the entrance and known as the Lady’s Sitting Room; dating from the 1760s, the plasterwork on the walls and ceiling here has been attributed to Dublin stuccodore Robert West. It might be thought that because of the room’s location, it originally served as the entrance hall. However, an account of Montalto 1802 refers to a ‘parlour’ the ceiling of which was ‘ornamented with various figures &c. in stucco’ which sounds like the Lady’s Sitting Room. Research in recent years suggests that the house was reoriented in the early decades of the 19th century and that the original front was to the south west. If this were the case, it explains why there is a long gallery-like passage on this side of the house, once the entrance hall.





Montalto’s present owners bought the property in 1994 and for some years they lived in it with their family. However, over a decade ago they moved out of the building and began to consider what alternative uses it might serve. Working with conservation architect John O’Connell they have gradually restored not just the main house but many other parts of the estate, which is now open to the public. Now used for weddings and other functions, Montalto has been very thoroughly refurbished in a more considered and sensitive fashion than is often the case with such properties. The gallery-like passage on the first-floor, for example, has been re-made into an attractive sitting room, as has its equivalent directly below where the walls are decorated with Chinese papers from de Gournay. Montalto today works hard for its upkeep but still retains much of the character and atmosphere of an Irish country house.

Just an Inch


The somewhat scant remains of Inch Abbey, County Down. Originally on an island in the Quoile marshes (but since these were drained now on the banks of the river Quoile, the first monastic settlement here was established c.800 but few traces of it survive: the buildings were plundered more than once in the 11th and 12th centuries by the Vikings. The present monastery dates from 1180 when Cistercian monks from Furness in Lancashire were settled here by the Anglo-Norman knight John de Courcy and his wife Affreca as an act of atonement for his destruction of another religious house at nearby Erinagh.



Although wealthy, Inch Abbey seems never to have had a particularly large community; growth in numbers weren’t helped by Parliament restricting admission to the monastery to the English or Anglicised Irish. This helps to explain why in the 15th century, the transepts were blocked off and a small church created out of the chancel and the first bay of the nave, the rest of the space being abandoned. The tall east windows survive, as do those to the immediate north and south, but not much else, with few parts of the ancillary buildings still above ground. Inch Abbey was suppressed in 1541 and the site, together with some 850 acres, was granted to Gerald FitzGerald, 11th Earl of Kildare.

Subject to Change


Few houses in Ulster have as complex a history of building, alteration and demolition as Montalto, County Down. There was likely some kind of residence on the site in the 17th century when this part of the country was still under the control of the McCartan family. However, at some point around 1650 it was either bought by or granted to George Rawdon who had moved from Yorkshire to Ireland twenty years before to manage another estate in County Antrim. Until 1775 the Rawdons’ principal abode was at Moira elsewhere in County Down; Montalto would therefore have been a secondary property. It was the settler’s great-grandson, John Rawdon, created first Earl of Moira in 1761 who decided to move to Montalto and erect the core of the house still seen today. Quite what was there before he took this decision is unclear, as is the precise date of the house’s construction; in their recently published guide to the Buildings of South County Down, Philip Smith suggests work on Montalto may have begun in the second half of the 1750s, soon after the future Lord Moira had finished erecting a splendid town house on Usher’s Island in Dublin. (Later used by the Mendicity Institution, Moira House was demolished in the 1950s, with only the gateposts into the building’s forecourt surviving.) A couple of pictures from the 1790s (one of them depicting a battle in 1798 which took place in nearby Ballynahinch) show Montalto to have a somewhat disordered exterior, suggesting that work undertaken there in the previous years had been sporadic, and based around an earlier structure. The landscape in which the house sits, not least a fish-shaped lake in front of the east-facing entrance, was also undertaken during the same period.




Following his father’s death in 1793, the second Earl of Moira (later first Marquess of Hastings), a distinguished soldier who participated in the American War of Independence and later served as Governor-General of India, inherited estates in England from his mother and therefore sold his Irish property. Montalto was bought in 1802 by a young man called David Ker whose family lived elsewhere in the county. He appears to have undertaken some alterations to the building; a contemporary description notes that he had ‘much improved the house by putting in larger windows, painting, &, &.’ More than thirty years later, Ker’s son, also called David, decided to enlarge the building. The obvious way to do this would have been to add an additional storey above those already standing. In this instance, however, the owner decided to do down rather than up. In other words, the basement was excavated to create what is now Montalto’s ground floor; something similar had been done by his father in the 1820s at the Kers’ other residence in Portavo. The considerable feat of engineering was most likely due to the involvement of a Newtownards builder/architect called Charles Campbell whose son died in 1849 ‘in consequence of a fall which he received from a scaffold whilst pinning a wall at Montalto House.’ In the 1850s David Ker made further additions by adding a two-storey ballroom extension to the rear (west) of the house, along with a new service section. The Kers sold the estate in 1910 to Arthur Vesey Meade, fifth Earl of Clanwilliam, his wife refusing to live in his family home, Gill Hall on the grounds that it was haunted.




In 1950 Lord Clanwilliam attempted to sell Montalto but was unable to find a buyer. Three years later, his son the sixth earl demolished the ballroom and mid-19th century service wing: the outline of the former can be seen delineated by a new beech hedge on the lawns behind the house. In 1979 the house and what remained of the estate was sold to a business consortium but six years later a fire further extensively damaged the building and led to further demolition, so that Montalto today is less than half the size it was a century ago. Nevertheless, it remains a substantial house and, since being acquired by the present owners in the mid-1990s, has been thoroughly restored and opened to the public for weddings and other events. And, as can be seen, the demesne has also received much attention. The house’s interior will be discussed here at a later date.

In Two Parts


A stone doorcase on what is now a side elevation of Tyrella, County Down but was once the main front. Of five bays and two storeys, this section of the house is believed to date from c.1730, not long after the land on which it stands was acquired by George Hamilton. At the end of the 18th/start of the 19th century, this grandson the Rev. George Hamilton added an extension to one end of the building with Wyatt windows and a fine Tuscan portico, and thereafter this has served as Tyrella’s entrance.

A Very Pleasant Place


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.


For more information on the gardens at Seaforde, see: https://www.seafordegardens.com

Rampant Grandiosity



The grandiously-named Woburn, which stands on the coast in north County Down. Designed by Dublin architect John McCurdy, the house was built in 1866-67 around an earlier seaside villa. This had been owned by wealthy mill owner John Gilmore Dunbar but was spectacularly enlarged into an Italianate mansion by his nephew and heir, George Orr Dunbar: the property subsequently passed to the Pack-Beresford family. Death duties obliged Woburn’s sale in the 1950s, after which it was bought by the Northern Ireland Ministry of Finance and converted into a borstal. More recently it became a training centre for prison officers but following the closure of this facility, the 43-acre site – on which many ancillary buildings had been constructed – stood empty until sold last year. The house’s future is unclear.


Strictly Greek


Not a miniature Greek temple, but a mausoleum erected in 1860 to the Corry family. It stands in the same cemetery as the remains of Movilla Priory church, County Down seen here last Wednesday. Originally from Scotland, the Corrys moved to Ulster in the early 17th century and settled on the Ards Peninsula. In the first half of the 19th century, Robert Corry became extremely wealthy through involvement in quarrying and timber. It was he who commissioned this mausoleum, believed to have been designed by his second son John, a keen amateur architect (he was also responsible for the design of the Italianate Elmwood Presbyterian church in Belfast). John Corry was clearly well-informed, since the building conforms to strict Greek revival rules, the little temple featuring an open base plinth around which runs a peristyle of Doric columns supporting a pedimented entablature.

Buried in Tombs


Movilla, County Down takes its name from the Irish magh bile, which means ‘plain of the ancient tree’ because in pre-Christian times a sacred tree had stood here. A monastery was founded here in 540 by St Finian and grew to be one of the most important in the country. However, after being sacked by Vikings in the ninth century, it went into decline and was eventually re-established as an Augustinian priory. This was closed down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and today all that remains are the gable ends of a 15th century church, the space between them filled with tombstones.

Sorrow in Sunlight


The graveyard of Grey Abbey, County Down. A Cistercian monastery was founded here in 1193 by Affreca, wife of John de Courcy and daughter of Godred Olafsson, King of the Isles after she had vowed to create such a house if given a safe passage across the Irish Sea. The abbey was closed down in 1541 and then the buildings burnt some thirty years later by the O’Neills to stop English colonists using them. On land directly behind the east end of the church the graveyard, where once monks had been buried, continued in use and is accordingly packed with tombstones tumbling one over the other. Particularly poignant is this stone erected to commemorate Isabella Green who died in December 1816 aged ten months.