It was one of the first conversions of a country house to a hotel in Ireland. The Quinn family threw open the doors of Ballymascanlon House to the public almost seven decades ago and continue to run this successful establishment. It’s hidden in a 53 hectare estate to the north of the smart east coast town of Dundalk. In the 1860s, the Dublin born architect Patrick James Byrne gave the Georgian mansion a Tudor Gothic makeover. There are modern extensions but the main house is full of period charm, indoors and out, and to the rear, historic rubblestone outbuildings embellish three sides of an unbruised lawn.
Apart from its namesake hotel, Castlebellingham used to be well known for being halfway between Dundalk (to the north) and Drogheda (to the south) along the old Belfast to Dublin road. The opening of the M1 motorway dramatically changed its character from sleepy to busy. The castle isn’t the only building of interest in the village – far from it. Smallwares Ltd, a company making clothes hangers since 1936, occupies a large industrial complex adjoining a tall three storey Victorian house, all faced in brownish brick.
This building, or rather group of buildings, started life in the 1870s as Castlebellingham Brewery. On the outskirts of the village lies The Crescent, an enigmatic ruin, made more enigmatic by its name and lack of visible curves. Castlebellingham Tidy Towns have helpfully placed a placard on the perimeter stone wall: “The Crescent was a beautiful house owned by the Brewery. It was leased to Charles J Thornhill, who was Managing Director of the Brewery at the turn of the last century [19th]. Charles married Helen Mary Eager in 1905 at Killencoole Church.
When the Brewery closed down in 1923, the Thornhills moved to Belfast where Charles was employed in its sister brewery. In the late Thirties, The Crescent House was converted into six large flats and leased out to local people. Some of the earlier residents were: Karl Roche and his family; Garda Jim Cleary, his wife and nieces; Sinclair and Kit Brophy; James and Nellie Lynch and their daughter Kathleen; Jack and May Marley and their family John, Jim, Bernadette and Brendan; Paddy and Mary Faulkner and their family; Peter and Kathleen Sands and their family; Bobby and Susan Hosie and their family; Joe and Grace McIntyre; Vin and Ann Byrne and their family; Tommy and Delia Daly and their family.
Mrs Marley remembers the beautiful avenue leading up to the house. The rent was six shillings and six pence a week, a sum that never increased in all the years she lived there. In 1938 they even had running water and light, the reason being the Button Factory, which occupied part of the Brewery, was powered by the same generator that also powered The Crescent. For this privilege, they put a shilling into a meter which was collected weekly from each flat by Mr McMullen who ran the Button Factory. The only problem was that the generator was switched off at the weekends which left the flats without light or water. Mrs Marley remembers that when they had no electricity or water, they would sit around the fire telling stories, a very popular pastime in those days.”
We haven’t rested our trotters here for at least three decades. The last time we called by was en route to the Caseys’ rather well known Georgian townhouse in north Dublin. As the blood red sunset descended upon Henrietta Street we knew we would live in that city some day. Moving on: it’s great to see the original 19th century Italianate block of Stameen House, the core of Boyne Valley Hotel, being carefully restored – stonework cleaned, glazing bars reinstated to sash windows, stained glass landing window repaired, and so on – and a new sensitively designed two storey wing elongating the entrance front. We’ll pass on the 20th century extension… Such fun flicking through the original hard copy brochure. David Hicks style brown carpet! Brown wallpaper! Brown haired people whose follicles match the décor! Although it’s nice to see the brown furniture still in use in the main reception rooms. Stameen House owes its current appearance to the Dublin architect William Francis Caldbeck (circa 1824 to 1872). His clients, the Cairnes family (beeresses rather peeresses), eventually sold their home for hotel use in the 20th century. Parp parp! Trains chug along the end of the garden.
Esteemed architect Fergus Flynn Rogers more or less single handledly turned around Carlingford back in the day. Everywhere you look in the village there’s one of his motifs: a plate glassed Diocletian window here; a sky high metal framed corridor there. He possesses a crucial and unnerving handling of materiality, at once immediate and sympathetic. Between Carlingford and Newry lies the village of Omeath.
Former resident artist Anne Davey Orr explains, “Omeath was the last Irish speaking area on the east coast. It was where people from Falls Road Belfast came for their summer holidays – hence the caravan parks.” Meanwhile, lucky roadside donkeys chomp on apples from a Ballyfin goody bag.
Bridge Place as The Pig was once known is a Grade II* Listed Building. The Listers state: “An L shaped building which is all that remains of a large mansion built by Sir Arnold Braems in the late 17th century, the remainder having been demolished… between 1704 and 1729. Red brick. Brick pilasters flank each window bay. Bracketed wood eaves cornice. Brick stringcourse. Steeply pitched hipped tiled roof. The north or entrance front has two and a half storeys. Two hipped dormers… Five windows, irregular, with mostly casements with wooden mullions and transoms, some small square leaded panes but two bung sash windows with glazing bars. Some of the windows at the east end are dummies and were probably blocked when sash windows were inserted in the east front. Rusticated stone doorway with keystone. The east front has two storeys, attic and basement. Four windows and two hipped dormers, windows having glazing bars and hung sashes. The interior has unusual carved cornices in two rooms and two painted stone fireplaces.” And what an architectural remainder! The gloriously atmospheric interiors are jazzed up with clubby antiques.
Framed flyers next to the Burlington Patent Cisterns in the timber beamed cellar bathrooms are a reminder of the former life of the house: “Bridge Place Country Club. Dance or drink, and if you wish, dine in this picturesque old manor. You may drink longer with our supper license. Ladies may come unescorted if they wish: many do!” Forthcoming attractions in 1968 included The Christmas Carnival, Boxing Night Ball and a New Year’s Eve Party with guest musicians Spencer Davis and Long John Baldry. The Pig continues this partying tradition for the escorted and the unescorted, revving it up a notch or two. As the Minister of Sustainable Development and Tourism Pavle Radulović informed us over dinner in Podgorica: “It’s all about knowing how to cater for the needs of high net worth individuals.” We’ve a feeling this isn’t our last fabulous weekend visiting The Pig at Bridge!
Holywood and Cultra, County Down. Brighton and Hove, East Sussex. Margate and Westgate, Kent. Deal and Walmer, Kent. Some coastal towns don’t need a committee to be twinned. Each resort itself is dual aspect with a centre and a front. “You can do things at the seaside that you can’t do in town,” went the old music hall saying. Architecture by the sea can also exhibit a frivolity not found so much inland. The 1927 terrace facing leafy Archery Square, a block back from Walmer seafront, is a case in point. These six two storey with attic houses overlook the rather smart Walmer Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Their white painted brick walls and louvred window shutters appear suitably nautical but it is the roof that turns to pure whimsy. The dormer of each house and the side elevation of the terrace are framed by extravagant Dutch gables. Provençale style red pantiles add a splash of colour to the roof. The architects, Messrs Kieffer and Fleming, are relatively unknown. One other project they did work on is Barrington Hall in Cambridge. They remodelled that house which also has white painted brick walls and Georgian sash windows, but is American Colonial in essence with a columned verandah overlooking the lawn.
A high two storey main block, a low two storey ancillary block and a three storey campanile type tower all fit more or less into one rectangular footprint (except for south and east facing bow windows and north and south facing porches), neatly threading together the polite and service rooms of the house. Tall chimneystacks, some a storey in height, rising over slate hipped roofs, form a stimulating roofscape. Wilmont House is the centrepiece of a 54 hectare estate on the outskirts of Belfast.
Today, the estate is named after its last private owners Sir Thomas and Lady Edith Dixon, shipowners and timber merchants, who bought it in 1919. This philanthropic couple handed over the house and its grounds to Belfast Corporation, the forerunner of Belfast City Council, just 40 years later. Conveyancing conditions included: “Not to permit the sale of intoxicating liquor upon the said land and premises or any part thereof” and “To use the house and lands for the greatest good of the Citizens of the City of Belfast and in particular to use the lands as a public park and public playing fields and not to erect buildings thereon except as may be necessary in connection with these purposes.”
The park was officially opened to the public in 1963 and the house was converted to a nursing home, so fulfilling Lady Dixon’s wishes. The following year a large rose garden was planted near the house and before long the estate became synonymous with the annual Rose Trials. The horticultural attractions were augmented by a Japanese Garden in 1990. While the park has flourished, the house has not, lying vacant for over three decades. Various attempts by Belfast City Council at reinventing the house have seemingly gone awry.
“Sadly what we look at now bears little resemblance to what the house was in its heyday,” Lady Dixon’s great great nephew Andrew Dixon told the Belfast Telegraph in 2019. “They [the Council] have said they would like to talk to the family. I have plenty of ideas on how it could be used and surely that’s more preferable than letting it go to ruin. I and my father Robin Dixon, Baron Glentoran, have already watched how another of the properties at Cairndhu in Larne has been handled and I would hate to see Wilmont House go the same way.” The Council responded, “We’re currently preparing an invitation for expressions of interest to go to the market to seek a suitably qualified developer for the restoration and regeneration of Wilmont House, to bring it into a new use.”
At least the damson’d gardens and rolling parkland remain and are open to the public. A silent drum beats again. Balustrades and battlements and buttresses protecting nothing and going nowhere. Transoms and mullions holding air. Crocketed pinnacles pointing heavenward. Metre high green carpet pile. Pearl necklaced capitals. A damsel’d Ayesha Castle tower with no Enya to come to its rescue. And yet Drum Manor has fared slightly better than its neighbour Pomeroy House. All that remains of the latter is a derelict portion of the stable block outbuilding. An adjacent marking on the ground provides a ghostly outline of the house’s footprint encircled by forestry. The demise of a demesne.
In the land of champ and Portavogie scampi and pasties (Ulster not Cornish) and soda farls and wheaten bread and dulse and Tayto crisps and fifteens and rocky roads and yellowman there’s something new and exciting to go and explore for a wee dander. The original house at the heart of the Culloden Estate – the Bishop’s Palace – may be 145 years old but Art and Soul, the Holywood International Art and Sculpture Fair filling its grounds and interiors, is very much a meantime use.
Dr Howard Hastings, Managing Director of Hastings Hotels, explains “At Hastings Hotels, I believe that we can distinguish from our competitors by highlighting the local culture and heritage surrounding our hotels. One way we do this is by focussing on our own locally grown produce in our menus. At Culloden Estate and Spa, another way we achieve this is through the artwork on display throughout the hotel. Some of these paintings were acquired by my father, Sir William Hastings. He selected paintings he liked and which he thought were in keeping with the Bishop’s Palace setting. More recently we’ve concentrated on supporting our local artists, many of whom have international reputations, yet still live and work in Northern Ireland.”
Occasionally a casual perambulation turns into a mud spattered stumble across a farmer’s field but it’s all worth it for the greater good of capturing picturesque rural Kent houses in the Turneresque sunlight. If a picture tells a thousand words, this feature is half a thesis.
The first time we visited Mourne Park House, November 1992, the recently widowed Julie Ann Anley whisked us off on a whistlestop tour. “It’s great!” she laughed. “No one ever bothers us here because the house isn’t architecturally important.” This was no tourist attraction. The country house as time capsule may have emerged as a phenonomen in the Eighties when Derbyshire’s Calke Abbey came to the public’s attention, but it certainly was applicable to an extreme at MPH in the wilds of County Down. While the Treasury saved Calke, sadly no knight in shining armour would come to MPH’s rescue.
The last time we visited the house, April 2003, it was teeming with members of the public rummaging over the soon to be dispersed contents. Everything was beginning to unravel. Beige auction labels dangled like insipid baubles from Christmas past, hanging on everything including the kitchen sink. A striped marquee consumed the courtyard while the building itself was crumbling at the edges. The auction was the outcome of a long and bitter family feud which erupted following the death of Nicholas Needham Fergus Philip Gore Anley in 1992, dragging through the courts until the opening days of 2003. On 14th February, without much filial or inter sibling love, it was finally settled.
But by the end of the decade, the close of last century, this harmony of outlook had floundered following much brouhaha over how the estate should be run. Events reached a dramatic climax when Marion removed what she considered to be her fair share of the contents from the house in a midnight flit. Her refusal to reveal the whereabouts of these “chattels” as the courts would archaically call them resulted in Marion spending a week at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Five years of arduous legal wrangling costing hundreds of thousands of pounds only concluded when it was finally agreed that she could keep her share and her brother and sister would auction off their two thirds of the contents.
Julie Ann may have modestly described the house as being architecturally unimportant and it doesn’t boast the baronial battlements of Ballyedmond Castle or share the symmetrical severity of Seaforde House, to take two other South Down seats. But it is a rare example of a substantially Edwardian country house in a county where Georgian and Victorian are the norm. MPH oozes charm with its long low elevations hewn of local granite and its lavish use of green paint (Farrow + Ball’s Folly Green?) on bargeboards and garden furniture, window frames and porches, and the endless array of French doors. Much of the interior decoration dates from the early 20th century lending the house a magical nostalgic air. And the setting is second to none. Looming behind the house and stables are the craggy slopes of Knockcree Mountain rising 130 metres above oak and beech woodlands. A Victorian visitor, William Russell, waxed lyrical on Mourne Park. “The scene… from the front entrance is indeed very fine. Before you, in the precincts of the mansion, is a lake. Beyond this lake, the demesne stretches away with a gently rising slope, which hides the intervening land, till one can fancy that the sea waves lap the lawns of the park.”
The genesis of the current building dates back to at least 1818 when the 12th Viscount Kilmorey employed Thaddeus Gallier of County Louth to build the central block. It replaced an earlier house on the site. An architect or ‘journeyman builder’, he had already completed Anaverna at Ravensdale a decade earlier. Baron McClelland commissioned that five bay two storey house near Dundalk in 1807. It’s now the des res of the Lenox-Conynghams. Too grand for a glebe, too modest for a mansion, the middling size house, tall, light and handsome, stands proud in its sylvan setting overlooking a meadow. A glazed porch under the semicircular fanlight partially obscures the double entrance doors in the middle of the three bay breakfront. Otherwise, Thaddeus Gallagher’s façade remains untouched. Relieving arches over upstairs windows introduce a motif he was to later employ at MPH. At Anaverna he proved himself to be a designer of considerable sophistication. His was no vainglorious provincial hand. Thaddeus Gallagher’s son James, who recorded in his autobiography that his father worked at MPH for nine months in 1818, emigrated to New Orleans where he carried on the dynastic tradition of designing fine architecture. His grandson, James Gallier Junior, was a third generation architect and his 1857 New Orleans townhouse is now the Gallier House Museum.
The first of multiple incarnations of MPH, Thomas Gallagher’s design was a typical late Georgian two storey country house with Wyatt windows on either side of a doorway similar to Anaverna’s. Next a third storey was added and then some time after 1859 a new two storey front of the same height was plonked in front of the existing house, so that the rooms in the newer block have much higher ceilings that those behind. The replacement façade is three bays wide like the original front but in place of the Wyatt arrangement are twin windows set in shallow recesses rising through both storeys with relieving arches over them. It is the combination of these paired windows and gentle arches, like brows over the eyes of the building, which lends the garden front such a memorable look. In the central breakfront the bottom of the shallow recess floats over the entrance door which is treated as another window, flanked on either side by a window of similar shape and size. A low parapet over a slender cornice partially conceals the hipped roof which wraps round the roof lantern over the staircase. Five attic bedrooms are tucked under the eaves with windows overlooking the roof lantern, unseen from the outside world.
Contemporaneous improvements were made to the estate itself. In the 1840s the 2nd Earl – the Kilmoreys had climbed a rung or two up the aristocratic ladder when his father the 12th Viscount was made an earl for his services to the development of Newry – commissioned a ‘famine wall’. This was a method used at the height of the Irish Famine by many Big House families to create work and keep locals from starving. The cheaply constructed three metre high granite walls also benefitted the estate. The 2nd Earl built Tullyframe Gate Lodge, the third of four gatelodges, at this time. Whitewater Gate Lodge was built in the 1830s and Ballymaglogh Gate Lodge in the 1850s.
But it was the alterations of the 3rd and 4th Earls which gave MPH its Edwardian air. “It’s not fit for a gentleman to live in!” raged the 3rd Earl upon his inheritance. His gentrifications began in 1892 when he added rectangular ground floor bay windows to the garden front and continued up until 1904 when he built a single storey peninsular wing perpendicular to the back of the house. Long Room Passage leads to Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room and onwards to the dual aspect Long Room (four pairs of French doors face four sash windows) with its hammerbeam roof, the latter finished in time for his son’s 21st birthday celebrations. The 3rd Earl completed the estate buildings in the 1890s with Green Gate Lodge, a two storey house finished in the same granite as MPH.
A century or more of each generation making their mark on MPH has produced a fascinating interior full of surprising variations in floor levels and ceiling heights and room sizes. The main block is arranged like three parallel slices of a square cake, each different in essence. The oldest three storey slice at the back of the house has low ceilings and small windows, some retaining their Georgian glazing bars. A row of rooms overlooking the stables is accessed off the Long Corridor on the ground floor, the Rosie Passage on the first floor, and the Servants’ Passage on the second floor. The middle slice contains the Hall, Inner Hall, Staircase Hall and Blue Room, opening off each other like first class railway carriages. The first floor bedrooms in the front and middle slice are clustered together off two lobbies except for the Best Bedroom which appropriately takes pride of place in the middle of the garden front and is the only one to be accessed directly off the landing of the Staircase Hall. The ground floor of the newest slice contains the enfilade of reception rooms: the Dining Room (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?), the Ante Room and the Drawing Room where Sir Malcolm Sargent had once played the piano. A low two storey kitchen and nursery wing parallel to the Long Room wing links with the stables to create a courtyard to the rear of the house. Room naming at MPH clearly follows the Ronseal approach (“It does what it says on the tin”).
All the ground and first floor rooms were open during the auction preview weekend. We began the tour that we’d gone on a decade earlier, only with a printed rather than personal guide and without the troop of 13 Persian cats that had followed us around the first time round. “Come on, get out now!” Julie Ann had bellowed as she shut the door of each room. “Otherwise you could be locked in for a year or two! It’s not as if the cats even catch mice; they just watch them race by.” Now people were talking in mellow hushed murmurs as if at a wake, respectfully leafing through issues of The Connoisseur in the Estate Office, thoughtfully gazing at caricature prints in the Rosie Passage.
The Hall, dressed like a long gallery with paintings hung on pale painted (Farrow + Ball’s Wimborne White?) panelled walls, is the first in a processional series of spaces which culminates in the Staircase Hall, MPH’s most exciting interior moment. The staircase was extended between 1919 and 1921 to stretch out in the direction of the new entrance while the original flight accessed through an archway into the Inner Hall was retained. Above, more archways and apertures afford tantalising glimpses of corridors filled with shadowy ghosts. MPH, a Mary Celeste in granite.
Close to the new entrance, Lord Kilmorey’s Study has an air of formality in contrast to the intimacy of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room tucked away in the far corner of the house. A seven metre long oak bookcase, used as a temporary display cabinet for the preview (sold for £3,000), and a chesterfield sofa (sold for £800) completed the butch mood of the good Lord’s space. On the other hand, the feminity of Lady Kilmorey’s Sitting Room was enhanced by the delicate double arched overmantle (sold for £1,000) and the 17th century Chinoiserie cabinet on a carved giltwood stand (sold for £11,000) similar to those in the State Drawing Room of 11 Downing Street. Outside, a life size marble garden statue of Ulysses and His Dog by Lawrence MacDonald sold for £110,000. HOK auction staff were making last minute notes on a pile of books in the middle of the kitchen floor. The house no longer felt private.
The main reception rooms were quintessentially Edwardian. Chintz sofas and family portraits mixed comfortably with period pieces. Shabby chic, to use another Eighties cliché, sprung to mind. Decades of decadence had descended into decay, where once the Ascendancy and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) had whiled away halcyon days. In the Billiard Room (or Morning Room), a corner timber and brick chimneypiece defiantly declared this room to have been decorated in the early 20th century. Paint (Farrow + Ball’s Calke Green?) was peeling, curtains were crumbling. An air of faded grandeur pervaded the Long Room. Triumphal flags now in tatters and coloured wall lamps dulled by the passage of time poignantly hinted at past glories and forgotten parties. A suite of oak bookcases had been supplied by John McArevey of Newry to fit between the rows of window openings. One pair sold for £3,000. The kitchen had lost the lived in look that we remembered. It was neater now with rows of copper jelly moulds and tin pots arranged museum-like along the painted pine dressers. The rows of ceiling hooks for hanging game had gone. High up on the wall above, the clock had stopped.