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.

The End of the Line

The Irish Yew Walk at Hillsborough Castle, County Down has a south-facing vista that concludes in Lady Alice’s Temple. The walk was laid out in the late 1870s by Colonel Arthur Hill who was then living in the house, although it belonged to his nephew, the sixth Marquess of Downshire. Col. Hill is also believed to have erected the temple on the site of a former summer house in honour of his sister Lady Alice Hill who had married Thomas Taylour, Earl of Bective in 1867. The ten Ionic columns supporting a masonry entablature & copper-clad masonry dome are made of cast-iron.

Acquired Antiquity

Writing of the fashion for Gothic and Tudor-Revival architecture among early 19th century Irish landowners, in 1982 Maurice Craig quoted Victorian political theorist and historian William Lecky who declared that the power and property of Ireland had been conferred by successive British monarchs ‘upon an English colony, composed of three sets of English adventurers who poured into this country at the termination of three successive rebellions.’ While considering Lecky’s remarks ‘a gross overstatement’ nevertheless, Craig believed that in the aftermath of the 1800 Union ‘the landed class were haunted by these words and did not want to believe them. By castellating their houses, or adding castellated wings to them, or in extremes replacing them by sham castles, they sought – at the sub-conscious level no doubt – to convince themselves and others that they had been there a long time and that their houses, like so many in England, reflected the vicissitudes of centuries. As it happens, the romantic fashion for irregularity was just now hitting European architecture (having affected gardening a couple of generations earlier, so that, once again, if only for a moment, Ireland was bang up to date.’ Such was the case with Narrow Water Castle, County Down designed in the early 1830s by Newry architect Thomas J Duff for local landowner Roger Hall.



Myles Campbell’s 2014 doctoral thesis Building British Identity: British Architects and the Tudor-Revival Country House in Ulster, 1825-50 does not discuss Narrow Water Castle, since the house’s architect was Irish. Nevertheless, many of the points he makes are relevant to Narrow Water in particular his consideration of the reasons why the Tudor-Revival style, incorporating elements of earlier Gothic, should have proved so popular in this country. Dr Campbell has discovered that at least 127 country houses in the same style were built in Ireland in the 19th century, the vast majority of them prior to 1845 and the onset of the Great Famine (which understandably put an end to almost all country house construction). Fifty, or 39 per cent of the houses either built or remodeled in the Tudor-Revival style were in Ulster (the lowest number, just ten, were in Connacht, but this generally had fewer country houses and they were more widely dispersed about the province). Campbell proposes that ‘The group of Ulster patrons concerned were characterized by a common loyalty to the Union between Ireland and Britain, a deep commitment to their Anglican faith and an unstinting preference for British goods and services.’ Combine the desire to demonstrate loyalty to Britain with the need to emphasise (cf. Craig) longevity of residence, and one understands why Tudor-Revival became so popular. After all, there were no original Tudor buildings in this style extant in Ireland, and so versions of it had to be imported. And they were very much versions, or interpretations: in Ballantyne and Law’s Tudoresque: In Pursuit of the Ideal Home (2011) the authors note that Tudor-Revival architecture was not very specific in its detailing and could be ‘vague about the distinction between the Middle Ages and the Tudor era.’ Furthermore, as Campbell comments, given the hybrid character of the original, ‘it is unsurprising that Tudor-Revival architecture possessed a similarly imprecise stylistic pedigree and reflected the influence of both modest and grand examples. Many features of early Tudor houses such as emphatically horizontal elevations, small casement windows, crenellated parapets and Perpendicular tracery, were revisited. Their great mullioned glass windows, projecting bays and rather chaste ashlar walls served as a source of inspiration for the architects of the Tudor Revival. These architects were not reluctant to add gables, Tudor arches, turrets and label mouldings to these basic elements in the pursuit of authenticity.’





Narrow Water Castle was built to replace an earlier residence called Mount Hall which dated from the early 18th century and, judging from a surviving stableblock, was classical in manner. Like many other landed families, the Halls were of settler stock, the first member arriving in Ireland in 1603. Roger Hall’s precise reasons for commissioning a new house in the Tudor-Revival manner are unknown; by the time work began, he was in his forties and had been married for twenty years. The explanation is likely to be that given above, a desire to emphasise the family’s antiquity (through such details as incorporating heraldic crests into the main staircase window). There was also another factor at play in choosing this style over others, and that was comfort. 18th century houses, while grand, could be cold and austere with little consideration given to the occupants’ well-being. Improved building techniques and better insulation were available by the onset of the 19th century. A purist approach to Gothic, as would develop later thanks to the influence of architects like Pugin, could also lead to somewhat austere interiors. The Tudor style, on the other hand, not only implied antiquity but also offered the opportunity for domesticity: rooms could be cosy. Ballantyne and Law observe that Tudor-Revival country houses were ‘comfortable, and could be composed freely, so as to allow the convenient arrangement of rooms.’ The more formal aspects of the classical house were dispensed with in preference for a relaxed approach to layout, although the enfilade of public rooms remained. Campbell explains, ‘This suite usually contained a minimum of three formal rooms; drawing room, dining room, library or saloon, and represented the primary focus of formal social activity in the house. It was customary for the entrance front to face east and this front was almost invariably asymmetrical. There were usually service quarters to the north and, in many cases, a private family wing to the west…The emphasis here was on comfort rather than ostentation. This convenient plan, in addition to a recognizably indigenous stylistic vocabulary, transformed the country house into “a temple not of taste but of the domestic virtues.’ And because Tudor-Revival was not bound by strict rules, other stylistic features could be incorporated: hence in Narrow Water Castle, the walls of one room are covered with Chinese paper.


Monumental Recognition


Not necessarily one for our American friends: the Ross Monument, County Down. Erected on the shoreline of Carlingford Lough in 1826 to the design of William Vitruvius Morrison, this massive granite obelisk commemorates Major General Robert Ross who had been killed in September 1814 while advancing on Baltimore during the American War. The site was chosen because it was here that Ross and his wife had planned to build a house after his retirement from the army. On the pedestal of the monument if a carved relief in the form of a sarcophagus, featuring emblems of the various countries in which Ross had fought during his military career.


Robert Ross was born in Rostrevor, County Down in 1766 and after attending Trinity College Dublin joined the British army, seeing action in successive wars against the French in Egypt, Italy, Spain, Holland and Portugal before being given command of an expeditionary force against the United States. Famously, following the Battle of Bladensburg, he and his troops entered Washington where they burnt many significant buildings, including the White House (which had been designed less than twenty years before by another Irishman, James Hoban). Within a month he was dead, his body subsequently being brought for burial to Halifax, Nova Scotia. As plaques on the other faces of the monument explain, it was erected thanks to subscriptions of more than £2,300 received from his fellow army officers and residents of County Down.

A Long Way from the Loire

Despite looking as though it belongs in the Loire Valley, Killyleagh Castle rises close to the south-western shore of Strangford Lough, County Down. The oldest part of the building was constructed in the late 12th century by the Norman knight John de Courcy and this subsequently passed into the control of the O’Neill family. However in the early 17th century Killyleagh was given by James I to a Scottish supporter, James Hamilton whose descendants have lived here ever since: much of its present form dates from c.1666 when the castle was rebuilt by James Hamilton’s grandson, Henry Hamilton, second Earl of Clanbrassil. A complex family dispute towards the end of the 17th century led the castle remaining in possession of the Hamiltons while the bawn wall and gatehouse passed to their relatives the Blackwoods. The two portions of the site were only reunited in 1860 when Frederick Temple Blackwood, future first Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, handed over his share to Archibald Rowan-Hamilton. By then the latter had employed Charles Lanyon to redesign the castle, including the addition of turrets on the two towers.