Knockmany Hill once formed part of the Cecil Manor Estate. The Department of Agriculture bought the land in 1911, demolished the William Farrell designed big house, and planted a forest. Cecil Manor was a great box of a house, with that spare wall-to-window ratio typical of the architect’s august output. The wooded climb up Knockmany Hill makes the views from the top all the more exhilaratingly revelatory. Far below, from a distance Clogher Valley looks like a giant two-tone green quilt.
“Ireland is a staging point beyond Europe and the New World,” Professor Finola O’Kane of University College Dublin told us. Nowhere does it feel more so than in Donegal. A place of wild geese: the constant iterative of land carries a long shadow. A depth of field. Like its distant neighbour Castle Grove, Rathmullan House has been a hotel for more than half a century now. The house was originally built in the 1760s by the Anglo Irish Knox family (really Scots Irish as they hailed from Scotland but the term Anglo Irish is liberally applied to Plantation settlers). Anglo Irish: aristocrats | no portmanteau | universally accented | no translations. Rathmullan House later became the country retreat of a Belfast merchant family. The Batts doubled the size of the house in 1870.
Its long Victorian stuccoed façade is anchored by a central canted bay window and one at either extremity. This proliferation of projections is rivalled only in the Province by Benvarden House in Ballymoney with its two bows and two canted bays. At Rathmullan House they act as framing devices, freezing the corrugated surface of Lough Swilly below the tattered theatre of a thundery sky mid afternoon. Honeycomb punctured vertical bargeboards peek out from the side elevation dormers, silhouetted against a sky turned powder blue. All changes again with the descent of a crimson tinged sunset: bloody inland.
An enfilade of five antique filled commodious yet intimate rooms stretches across the façade. “Almost all the furniture was auctioned when the Batts sold the house. There are just two original items. My grandmother bought the tub chair and the painting of Charlotte Sarah Batt was bought by a lady who discovered it was too big for her home so returned it to Rathmullan House!” says Mark Wheeler who runs the hotel with his wife Mary. “Henry McIlHenny bought much of the furniture for Glenveagh Castle.” Luscious plasterwork, some polychromatic, adds richness to the rooms.
In 1966 the first generation of the current hotel owners, Mark’s parents, employed the architect Liam McCormick to add a dining room extension with tented ceilings. “Liam was a great sailor,” explains Mark, “and the ceilings are hung with the silk used for yacht sails. Their shape was inspired by the Indian arches in the Rajah Room.” The dining room is formed of interlocking octagons, pagoda-like structures taking the Victorian chamfered bays to their logical geometric conclusion. “The hotel is a popular wedding venue for architecture students,” smiles Mark, “ever since Liam McCormick’s Burt Church won building of the year!” He also designed a smattering of cuboid holiday pavilions in the wooded grounds.
Rathmullan House was a departure from his oeuvre. Before his death in 1992, Liam would complete 27 churches in Ireland. Each is recognisably by his hand: with one sweep he felled the cluttered gothic norm with a spare modernist form. Abstraction wasn’t Dr McCormick’s primary goal, “I wouldn’t say it’s studied. My resolution of problems tends to have a sculptural end. I grew up in a physically dramatic countryside; this sort of background inevitably comes into play when I design, and the churches have nearly all been in a rural setting.” The stark white shapes are as integrated into the Donegal vernacular as whitewashed cottages, their outlines as distinctive as Muckish Mountain. The closest of Liam’s seven Donegal churches to Rathmullan are Donoughmore Presbyterian to the south and St Peter’s Milford Catholic to the west.
Enough waxing lyrical taxing diction. Pizza awaits us in the vaults of Rathmullan House. A stone oven baked base piled high with wild and exotic mushrooms, fior di latte mozzarella, marinated friarielli, garlic, parsley and aged Pecorino to be precise. And then a moonlit walk along the two mile beach at the end of the garden. A rare curlew’s forlorn and faintly human sound assumes an eerie resonance across the still sand. The freedom of the country, far away from the London vertigo.
Surprisingly Tyrella House isn’t covered by Burke or Brett. Lavender’s Blue gladly fill the gap, plug the hole, step ointo the breach. Surprising, that is, considering it’s a roomy building of historical, architectural and social significance, twice as deep as it’s wide, lumber rooms uncounted, holding court amidst low lying greenery. First glimpse (through a verdurous vista) from the sweeping driveway past the hillside sham fort (every entrance should have one) is of a squarish main block five bays side on, four bays frontal. A neoclassical beauty; architecture’s acme: Augustus’s vision and Maecenas’s taste and Dostoevsky’s nuances set in stone. The house’s character changes when viewed from the garden. The far side, which will be moonlit later, is elongated by a long lower less imposing wing. This arrangement has adapted well to Tyrella’s 21st century modus operandi. The main block is open to paying guests under the gilded parasol of The Hidden Ireland while the owner, David Corbett, lives to the rear. Another of the group’s seaside properties, almost dipping its toes in the water of Woodstown Bay, is the supremely suave Gaultier Lodge, where the owners live most of the year below the guest rooms in a lower ground floor. “Houses in The Hidden Ireland,” explains David, “must be owner occupied.”
Princess Diana famously quipped “three’s a crowd” but clearly squires of 18th century Ulster disagreed. Tripartite windows were all the rage. Their legacy is a series of glazed triptychs framing views of the countryside. And draughts – ménage à froid. The entrance front of Tyrella has pearly twin sets. Fellow Mournes mansion Ballywillwill House likewise has four. Clady House Dunadry has five; Glenganagh House Ballyholme, six; Drumnabreeze House and Grace Hall Magheralin neighbours, eight; Craigmore House Aghagallon, 10; Crevenagh House Omagh, numberless. Tyrella’s windows are even more special, stretching head to toe, and like Montalto’s, skirt the driveway. Standing in the regal dining room is like “Hardwick Hall more windows than wall”. Soon, silverware will sparkle in the candlelight. Pictures and conversations will merge. Sitting in the princely drawing room is like being immersed in Elizabeth Bowen’s description of her home, “The few large living rooms at Bowen’s Court are, thus, a curious paradox – a great part of their walls being window glass, they are charged with the light, smell and colour of the prevailing weather; at the same time they are very indoors, urbane, hypnotic, not easily left.” Lying on the queen size bed as the internal pale transitory colours of the hour fade, dreams past and future are present. Outside, framed by the curved sashes of the half oriel window, across silent lawns, the tamed headland lies submerged in shadow, the ridge of the Mournes melting into silver drifts of cloud alight with gold, lilac, mauve and pink lining.
The original architect isn’t known but whoever he was, the outcome is a meeting of métier and form, augmented and mellowed through the ages. According to illustrious architect John O’Connell, “This is a very accomplished Georgian box, as they used to say.” Architectural aficionado Nick Sheaff reckons it is “an incredibly elegant country house, and in some ways it reminds me of James Gandon’s Abbeville”. Better known as Charlie Haughey’s old gaf. Charles Plante, the celebrated director of Charles Plante Fine Arts, says, “I love the front dripping with ivy and the chic Regency bow window.” Three arched openings – a window on either side of the entrance door, are framed by a slim Doric portico celebrating the triglyph’s verticality, the architrave’s horizontality and the proportional totality of the order. Not dissimilar really to the central arrangement of Clandeboye’s garden front. “It’s Tuscan Doric,” confirms Country Life contributor Dr Roderick O’Donnell. “Tuscan is rural, countrified, perfectly correct for this type of house. The window proportions are dictated by the portico. That’s particularly attractive.” A stained glass window of the Craig family crest in the study is a leftover from previous owners. Notable family members included the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Sir James “Not an Inch” Craig (1st Viscount Craigavon) and his architect and yacht designer brother Vincent who combined both his skills at the Royal Ulster Yacht Club Ballyholme. The 3rd and last Viscount, Janric Craig, born in 1944, sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords. A retired accountant, he has a handy flat on Little Smith Street, Westminster.
Vincent clearly employed his skills closer to home as well. At home. Tyrella features his signature idiosyncratic fenestration. No fewer than four oeils de boeuf grace the garden front. Charles Plante reckons, “The garden front is charming. The bull’s eye window in the gable is really special.” Most extraordinary of all, amidst the blaze of Arts and Crafts stained glass, is the first floor upper casement window which projects at an acute angle to appear permanently ajar. Zany stuff. “Vincent more than likely introduced the ceiling beams and light fitting to the hall,” suggests David. “And he designed the hall fireplace. It’s very Malone Roadsy!” This airy space is painted a deep ochre which Charles Plante calls “John Fowler orange”. Upstairs Free Style panelling looks suspiciously Vincentian. A bit of Cadogan Park here, a bit of Deramore Park there. So does the recently reinstated conservatory. “The conservatory is actually almost entirely new except for the brickwork. It took three years to recreate. The pale green paint inside is the original colour.” Maybe Tyrella House isn’t quite the chunk of Georgiana it first appears to be. “The middle bit behind the new Regency addition,” he explains, “is William and Mary.” The house used to be even bigger. “My father demolished about a third of the house – the cream room, jam room, butler’s pantry, the dark kitchen and so on.”
Tyrella was the seat of Reverend George Hamilton and his wife Ann Matilda (daughter of the 5th Earl of Macclesfield) at the close of the 18th century. Rural legend has it that the Reverend used the stones from the old local church to rebuild the house in 1800. Arthur Hill Montgomery bought the estate in 1831 aged 36. Six years later, Samuel Lewis records in his Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, “Tyrella House, the handsome residence of A H Montgomery Esq, is beautifully situated in a richly planted demesne of 300 acres, commanding extensive views over the bay, with the noble range of the Mourne Mountains in the background, and containing within its limits the size and cemetery of the ancient parish church.” Arthur was the fourth son of Hugh Montgomery of Greyabbey House down the road. Bill Montgomery, a great-great-something-great-grandson of Hugh, still resides at Greyabbey with his wife Daphne. Their daughter is the actress Flora Montgomery who’s married to the owner of 1 Lombard Street restaurant. “I hate to disappoint you,” David says on the subject of ghosts. “All the people have sold the house and went on to do something else. Spent money on it, changed hands. I don’t miss ghosts, wouldn’t want one.”
Descendants of the last owners, the Robert Neill and Sons Ltd dynasty, recall early 20th century life at Tyrella, in a Lavender’s Blue exclusive. Coline Grover says, “I lived in the house with my grandparents, and relatives various, from 1940 until they sold it in 1949, and moved with them to Old Forge House in Malone, south Belfast. Tyrella House was wonderful with a swing house underneath the nursery wing. It was incorporated into the property and had two marks on the ceiling where if you went high enough your feet touched the ceiling! And there was a rock garden with a two storey playhouse called Spider House.” Coline’s cousin-in-law Ian Elliott adds, “The Georgian house had a boudoir and some lovely Arts and Crafts additions – and that fabulous view to the Mournes. It was bought by the Neill family – brothers Jack, Samuel and William – as part of their businesses (coal, construction, farming etc) in the 1920s after the 1st World War. They already owned East Downshire Fuels in Dundrum as well as Neill’s Coal in Bangor, Kingsberry Coal and Bloomfield Farm (where the shopping centre is now). The family circle elected Billy Neill to live and farm there with his wife Vera. She was formerly Phelps from Kent, a direct descendant of Jane Lane who helped Charles II escape from the Battle of Worcester in the 1640s. They raised their three children (including Berry) there. The Corbetts (whiskey distillers from Banbridge) have owned it since 1949.” Coline’s brother Guthrie Barrett concurs that “Billy Neill sold Tyrella in 1949”.
“I haven’t been back to Tyrella House since 1949,” says nonagenarian Beresford Neill, otherwise known as Uncle Berry. He lives in Malone now. “A most wonderful childhood. Absolutely beautiful. Tyrella was completely and utterly the back of beyond. For goodness sake, it was completely feudal. There were no neighbours. We had our own entrance into the church next door and our own pew.” Berry’s on a roll: “My father got married in February 1917. He bought the estate: 300 acres; a 3.5 acre walled garden; 48 rooms.” Althorp has 90 rooms. Although what constitutes a room is a moot point. Lumber rooms, anyone? “There was no electricity. In 1906 a gas heating machine was installed. It had huge pipes and a great big cage in the kitchen. There was no telephone until 1933. How mama coped I don’t know. We’d a cook, housemaid and three gardeners. There were three bathrooms – one for staff, two for the family. We always had dogs – mostly Labradors. There was a large wood to the side of the house and a rock garden. The rocks were transported in 1890 from Scrabo to Tullymurry by train, then by horse and cart. It was a tremendous effort!”
Berry reminisces, “In 1944 I enlisted as a private soldier in the Rifle Brigade. It’s now called the Rifles. It was a very swish regiment. After the War I got transferred to Ballykinler Camp. I spent the whole of 1946 there. I’d a marvellous time! I could walk over the fields from Tyrella to Ballykinler in 10 minutes.” Life wasn’t uneventful, even at isolated Tyrella. “We had the most enormous beech tree but a storm split it down the middle. It was sawn up by a gardener of course but a stump remained. One quiet Sunday afternoon I decided to blow up the remains of the tree. I thought I was the last word in explosives! I got seven anti-tank mines, made a fuse, and set them off. Bang! The birds stopped singing. Silence. Then… tinkle tinkle. The windows shattered. Sheer bloody stupidity! I should’ve opened the windows first!”
“We don’t usually open to paying guests in November,” signs David, due to ignorant comments about temperature levels inside the house midwinter. Some people really don’t get it, do they? First of all, welcome to Northern Ireland. The clue is in the first part of the Province’s name. Mind you, Huntington Castle in the south of Ireland suffers from the same issue. Secondly, if you want over-insulated overheated rooms check into a hotel. Don’t stay in an Irish country house. They don’t do double glazing or underfloor heating. But they do have lashings of character, history and art; uncompromised aesthetics; and endlessly entertaining hosts. What about open fires in marble surrounds? De rigeur. Like those other majestic Hidden Ireland gems, Hilton Park and Temple House, heavy curtains and concertina shutters in Tyrella’s guest bedrooms put to sleep any worries of chilly discomfort. A newly installed biomass boiler also helps. “I’ve still kept the 1906 boiler with its original instruction manual. It’s beautiful – like a beast of a furnace on the Titanic.”
And bags at dawn. Peering over the bedroom landing, the oval staircase resembles a gargantuan pencil sharpening, a bannister bordered carpeted curlicue, a variation on the Fibonacci spiral. Downstairs, breakfast is laid out country house style – buffet on the sideboard. “I do recommend Lindy Dufferin’s Greek Style Yoghurt,” says David. Distinguished historian Dr Frances Sands announced recently at 20 St James’s Square: “Breakfast was the only meal of the day you served yourself. That’s why there is side furniture in the breakfast room. If there is no separate breakfast room, really then the dining room should be referred to as the eating room. There was a huge fear of odour in Georgian times. The eating room would’ve had no curtains, carpet or silk wall hangings. Seating would’ve been leather.” The dining room or should it be eating room was once the billiard room according to the host of Tyrella House.
It is impossible to leave Tyrella without mentioning the beach. The Mountains of Mourne thrillingly tower over miles of unspoiled golden strand between Clough and Killough (interchangeable townlets after a G+T). “It is no secret that Northern Ireland is home to some of the world’s greatest writers,” brags the local tourist board, “Lavender’s Blue,Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel, Louis MacNeice and of course, C S Lewis.” This part of County Down was C S Lewis’s childhood holiday destination and provided literary fodder for Narnia: “I have seen landscapes, notably in the Mourne Mountains and southwards, which under a particular light made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise its head over the next ridge.” Coline Grover concludes, “Tyrella Beach never changes of course.”
Credits Guthrie Barrett, David Corbett, Ian Elliott, Coline Grover, Berry Neill