A Hymn to the Lost Pastoral World of the Anglo Irish
Top Irish architect John O’Connell knows Cushendun well. “Clough Williams-Ellis represents his era correctly,” he affirms, “using a fine palette. His architecture is so reticent. There is an early German flavour to it. He was blessed with a prudent patron at Cushendun.” Clough was a strong believer in contextualism, commenting, “How often one may see new houses that are like swaggering strangers… that have insolently plunked themselves down on the edge of a cosy little gossip party and been properly left out in the cold. They have made no gesture of salutation, no concessions, no effort to make themselves agreeable to the architectural traditions of the place, and in return the old village just will not, cannot, know them.”
Belfast based architectural historian James Curl wrote a seminal feature on Cushendun titled “Antrim’s Discreet Holiday Resort” for Country Life in 1976. “The area known as The Glynnes, or Glens, of Antrim comprises the northeasternmost part of Northern Ireland. This article will describe the character and development of Cushendun, a small village on the shore at the eastern end of Glendun, one of The Nine Glens of Antrim. The coastal regions of The Glens are in sight of Kintyre and Islay, and from the earliest times there has been a close relationship with the lands across the Moyle. Yet The Glens are essentially Irish in character. Gaelic was spoken in the valleys until comparatively recently, and the area is rich in its own legends and history. From these glaciated valleys an adventurous people set out to establish rule over much of what is now Argyll, and the first kingdom of Dalriada was established. The hardy, independent nature of the Glensmen ensured prolonged resistance to Elizabeth’s generals in the 16th century, while the territories’ isolated position left language and religion relatively intact.
Taken as a whole, The Glens contain some of the most beautiful scenery in Ireland. While each has its own champions, Glendun inspires its own partisans, for it has a gentle charm quite unlike its more spectacular sisters. To the west, it is narrow and wooded, where its river tumbles over dark stones seta mong mosses, heathers, and ferns. It widens at its eastern end, and becomes a lush landscape of small fields with hedges that in summer are aglow with wild fuchsia.
Until just over a century ago, Glendun was one of the most inaccessible of The Glens, but this was dramatically changed when the Royal Military Road was constructed in 1833 to 1834. This road brought tourists to the fashionably romantic landscapes, and, ultimately, to enjoy the newly approved bathing in the wide and lovely bay that joins Glendun to the sea. Thus, from the reign of William IV, Cushendun developed as a discreet holiday resort, in a landscape of ravishing beauty. In 1817, R S Dobbs could describe the hamlet of Cushendun as ‘handsome’ and having ‘some very romantic spots in it’, including the curious caves of conglomerate rock that lie south of the village proper, and through which access may be had to the Caves House, formerly the home of the Crommelin family. Although tiny, Cushendun is the nearest port to Great Britain in Ireland, and it was this that prompted the Crommelins in 1830 to commission a design from John Rennie for a harbour known as Port Crommelin. However this scheme never materialised. Today, there is a modest harbour at the mouth of the river, and the natural features give us a clue to the name ‘Cushendun’, for the Irish Cois-abhann-Duine means ‘the end of the brown river’. The stone bridge at the western end of harbour was constructed in 1860 and recently has been inelegantly widened…
The building of the churches, the opening of The Glens, the fashion for sea bathing, and peace helped Cushendun to prosper, and sturdy dwellings replaced the humbler huts of the past. The architecture of Cushendun is mostly of a traditional 19th century vernacular type usual in Irish villages. The main street of Cushendun leading from the bridge to the parish church has its post office and shop, while McBride’s Pub, near the river, provides a convivial focus…
To the west of Main Street is the first group of outstanding character. This is known as The Square, and consists of two storeyed terraces planned symmetrically around a courtyard garden that is entered between massive gate piers. The terraces are linked by arches at the corners. An elliptical slate tablet in the central gable is inscribed with a date and the initials ‘RMcN’ and ‘MMcN’ commemorating Ronald McNeill and his wife Maud who were largely responsible for the appearance of modern Cushendun. Maud was Cornish and ‘loved The Glens’, according to her tombstone under a Celtic cross in the Parish courtyard, and it was largely through her that Clough Williams-Ellis was commissioned to enhance the village, starting with The Square, built in 1912.
After the ‘bathing lodge’ was burned down, Williams-Ellis designed and built Glenmona House in 1923 for the McNeills in a pastiche Regency style. The architect then added Maud Cottages, by the Green, in 1925. These consist of two storey terrace houses, with the upper part slate hung in the manner of Cornish coastal villages. The contribution of the architect and the McNeills to the beauties of Cushendun cannot be overestimated.
Main Street, the church, Glenmona House, and the cottages are all to the north of the river. To the south is a range of hotels. Following the war years, the future of Cushendun caused concern. It was recognised that the village and its surrounding area were of great beauty and importance, and so in 1954 some 62 acres of Cushendun north of the river were acquired by the National Trust through the Ulster Land Fund, and further acres adjoining the beach were purchased in 1965 with the aid of Enterprise Neptune Funds. There is a considerable problem with erosion of the beach, not only through over-use by holidaymakers but through farmers removing sand for agricultural purposes. Boating interests are encouraged by the Trust with improvements to the harbour, while grazing rights on surrounding lands are leased on the conacre system.
The Trust, mindful of the desirability of encouraging a traditional way of life, lets cottages to local people rather than to persons requiring holiday homes. There were problems in upgrading the existing houses to comply with modern standards, but generally this has been achieved with little damage to architectural character. The Trust, by means of covenants, ensures that properties are adequately maintained, and more care than is usual in Northern Ireland has been taken over the design of 24 new dwellings for public housing. While covenants appear to work in the Trust’s own lands, proper conservation policies for Cushendun as a whole are necessary. A Conservation Area should include the Caves, the hotels, and the whole of the village, and enhancement of this national treasure should be the goal.”
So there it was and here it is. Four years after James Curl’s Country Life plea, the village and surrounding lands of Cushendun were designated a Conservation Area. The Caves have found new fame as a Game of Thrones destination. And yet, and yet. Randal McDonnell, Viscount Dunluce, son of the 14th Earl of Antrim, recently captured the underlying issue, “This is an extremely remote location hemmed in by The Glens.” He should know: his family used to own 133,000 hectares of Country Antrim: “Basically the top half.” A melancholic peace has descended upon Cushendun, these days a not so much discreet as forgotten holiday resort. The The National Trust’s Glenmona House is a little frayed round the edges. Cushendun Hotel and its once hospitable neighbours facing the harbour stand forlornly empty, the only visitor a grazing goat sporting a high viz yellow jacket.