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Dorinda The Honourable Lady Dunleath Baroness Mulholland + Killyvolgan House Ballywalter Down

Life and Times

Dorinda loved discussing the many Irish country houses she knew well. “I could write a book about my experiences in country houses. Maybe you should for me!” One of her earliest memories was visiting her uncle and aunt, Major Charlie and Sylvia Alexander, at the now demolished Pomeroy House in County Tyrone. Dorinda also enjoyed visiting Springhill in County Londonderry (now owned by The National Trust) – she was married from there in 1959. There was a painting of Springhill in the sitting room of Killyvolgan House. It was her Great Aunt Mina’s home. Mina Lenox-Conyngham was the last owner of Springhill. “Staying at her house was always enormous fun.”

“I remember aged six being taken against my will to dancing lessons at Lissan House. It was absolutely freezing! I lay on the ground screaming and kicking my feet in the air. Such a dull house, don’t you think?” She was great pals with Diana Pollock of Mountainstown House in County Meath and recalled good times there with Diana and her sisters. “I could never love Mount Stewart. Dundarave has an interesting vast hall but the reception rooms are plain. I remember the auction of Mount Panther’s contents. Everyone was standing in the entrance hall and up the stairs when the staircase started coming away from the wall! Cousin Captain Bush lived in Drumhalla House near Rathmullan in Donegal. He’d a parrot and wore a wig. I remember my cousin threw his wig off when he went swimming in the cove end of the garden. I was absolutely terrified to jump in after him!”

One of Dorinda’s most memorable stories combines several of her loves: country houses, fashion and parties. “It was the Sixties and I had just bought a rather fashionable tin foil dress from a catalogue. I thought it would be perfect for Lady Mairi Bury’s party at Mount Stewart. It was so tight and I was scared of ripping it so I lay down on our bedroom floor, arms stretched out in front of me, and Henry slid me into it.” She gave a demonstration, laughing. “Unfortunately I stood too near one of the open fires and my dress got hotter and hotter. So that was the first and last time I wore it!” Dorinda always managed to look stylish, whether casual or formal. Her suits were the envy of fellow Trustees of the Board of Historic Buildings Trust. Her ‘off duty’ uniform of polo neck, sports jacket, jeans and boyish shoes was effortlessly chic.

When it came to finding her own country house after her tenure at Ballywalter Park ended, things proved challenging. “I searched for two years for a suitable property. There’s a country house for sale in Keady. Nobody lives there! I’d be driving up and down to Belfast non stop!” Eventually Dorinda would build her own house on a site just beyond the walled estate of Ballywalter Park. At first, she wanted to rebuild the double pile gable ended two storey three bay house occupying the site called McKee’s Farm but when the structure proved unstable, a new house was conceived. Despite being known as a modernist, Belfast architect Joe Fitzgerald was selected to design a replacement house of similar massing to McKee’s Farm, adding single storey wings in Palladian style. Like its owner, Killyvolgan House is understated, elegant and charming. She was pleased when the council planners described Killyvolgan as the ideal new house in the countryside. It displays a distinguished handling of proportion and lightness of touch.

“I bought the Georgian grandfather clock in the entrance hall from Dublin. I’m always slightly concerned at how fragile my papier mâché chairs are for ‘larger guests’ in the drawing room. I guess the chairs were really meant for a bedroom? I’ve painted all the walls in the house white as the shadows on them help me see around.” And then there was the urn in the courtyard. “The Coade stone urn I found in the 19th century barn was much too grand. So instead I bought this cast iron urn on the King’s Road in Belfast. Fine, I will leave the Marston and Langinger pot you have brought me in the urn so that I remember that colour. Oh, Farrow and Ball are very smart! They’re very clever at their marketing.” In the end, the much debated urn would remain unpainted. “Henry wouldn’t deal with snobs. That’s why I liked him. Henry took everything he got involved in very seriously. Henry was the only Alliance Party member in the House of Lords. He strongly promoted the Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1974 which provided greater parity across the sectarian divide.” Later, “Oh how exciting, is it full of good restaurants and bars? Great! I’ll be an authority now on Ballyhackamore.”

She recalled an early drama at The Park. It was a tranquil Sunday morning in 1973 and unusually Dorinda was at home rather than at Holy Trinity Church Ballywalter. “Henry was singing the 23rd Psalm at Eucharist when he heard six fire brigades go by. Poor people, he pitied. I’d warned our butler not to interfere with the gas cylinders of the boiler, but he did, and the whole thing exploded, lifting off the dome of the staircase hall like a pressure cooker. The billiard room disappeared under a billow of smoke and flames. I rang the fire brigade and said, ‘Come quickly! There’s a fire at Ballywalter Park!’ The operator replied, ‘Yes, madam, but what number in Ballywalter Park?’” The estate of course doesn’t have a number – although it does have its own postcode.

“A spare room full of china collections fell through the roof. Well, I guess I’d always wanted to do an archaeological dig! It was so sad, really. As well as the six fire brigades, 300 people gathered from the village and around to help lift furniture onto the lawn. Fortunately the dome didn’t crack. Isn’t life stranger than fiction? The Powerscourt fire happened just one year later. Henry was philosophical and said we can build a replacement house in the walled garden.” In the end the couple would be responsible for restoring the house to its lasting glory. Ballywalter Park is a mid 19th century architectural marvel designed by Sir Charles Lanyon.

“I arrived over from London as a young wife and suddenly had to manage 12 servants. I used to tiptoe around so as not to disturb them. There was a crazy crew in the kitchen. Mrs Clarke was the cook. Billy Clarke, the scatty elderly butler, mostly sat smoking. Mrs Clarke couldn’t cook unless he was there. I was too shy to say anything!” Dorinda once briefly dated Tony Armstrong-Jones who would become the society photographer Lord Snowdon. “We met at pony club. He got me to model sitting next to a pond at our house in Widford, Hertfordshire.” One book described Dorinda as being “very pretty”. When questioned, she replied, “Well, quite pretty!” She was more interested in her time bookbinding for The Red Cross. In those days The Bunch of Grapes in Knightsbridge was Dorinda’s local. “Browns Hotel and The Goring were ‘safe’ for debutantes. After we got married we went to the State Opening of Parliament. We stayed in Henry’s club and I haled a taxi wearing a tiara and evening dress. Harrods was once full of people one would know. We would know people there. ‘Do you live near Harrods?’ people would ask. I’ve heard everyone now lives southwest down the river, near the boat races. You need some luck and then you’ve just got to make your own way having fun in London.”

As ever with Dorinda there were always more great stories to relate. “I bought the two paintings from the School of Van Dyke in my dining room for £40. I knew they are rather good landscapes so I decided to talk to Anthony Blunt about them. We arranged to meet in The Courtauld for lunch. Halfway though our meal he disappeared for a phone call. He was probably waiting for a message, ‘Go to the second tree on the left!’ He never reappeared. Next thing I heard he was a spy and had gone missing! I think he turned up in Moscow. I’ll remember other interesting things when you’re gone.” Occasionally colloquialisms would slip into her polite conversation. “The funeral was bunged! That was completely mustard!” One of Dorinda’s catchphrases, always expressed with glee, was, “That’s rather wild!”

“I called up to The Park. It was so funny: for the first time in history there were three Lady Dunleaths including me all sitting chatting on a sofa! One lives in The Park; the other, King’s Road and I don’t mean Belfast!” Dorinda made steeple chasing sound so exciting. A dedicated rider and breeder, she was Chairman of the Half Bred Horse Breeders Society. The Baroness’s contribution to Northern Irish culture and society is unsurpassed. She was Patron of the Northern Ireland Chest Stroke and Heart Association and the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, as well as being a Committee Member of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society. Dorinda was a Director of the Ulster Orchestra and a founding member of The National Trust in Northern Ireland and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society. Along with Sir Charles Brett she laboriously carried out and published early ‘Listings’ of buildings in places such as Downpatrick, Dungannon and Lisburn. The Baroness’s legacy lives on in the Dorinda Lady Dunleath Charitable Trust. This charity was started by her late husband but after he died it was changed into Dorinda’s name and she added to it every year thereafter. It supports education; healthcare and medical research; the arts, culture, heritage and science; the environment; alleviating poverty; and advancement of the Christian faith. The Dorinda Lady Dunleath Charitable Trust continues to donate to charities that she would have liked, with a focus on Northern Ireland.

One of the last heritage projects Dorinda supported was the restoration and rejuvenation of Portaferry Presbyterian Church, not far from Ballywalter. It’s one of the best Greek Revival buildings in the United Kingdom. “Prince Charles came to the reopening. I curtsied so low I could barely stand up again! Afterwards, a few of us had a very grand supper at Ikea to celebrate!” She voiced concern about the future of the organ at Down Cathedral. Music in May at Ballywalter Park was an annual festival of organ music started by the newlyweds. The Dunleath Organ Scholarship Trust was set up by her late husband and she continued to support it for the rest of her life, attending its concerts each year.

“It’s so exciting… I can’t say how exciting it is you’re here! Tell me, who is this David Bowie everyone’s talking about? I feel like I’m about 100! It’s like when my father asked me, ‘Who is this Bing Crosby?’ The House of Lords used to be full of country specialists like experts in bees or men who loved linen. They used to give the most marvellous speeches. Each generation must do something. It would be great to write this down.” Later, “Gardens should have vistas, don’t you think? They need focal points; you need to walk for an hour to a place of discovery. Capability Brown and Repton knew how to do it.”

In latter years, there were memorable times to be had at The Wildfowler Inn, Greyabbey. Those long, languid lunches. “Portavogie scampi? I’ll have the same as you. And a glass of white wine please. We can have sticky toffee pudding after.” Dorinda would don her yellow high viz jacket, pulling the look off with considerable aplomb. Her eyesight failing, she would claim, “It helps people see me in Tesco in Newtownards!” Much later, balmy summer afternoons in the sheltered courtyard of Killyvolgan House would stretch long into the evening. There was Darjeeling and more laughter. Those were the days. Halcyon days by the shore. Days that will linger forever. On that last evening at Killyvolgan, Dorinda pondered, “Who’s left who cares about architectural heritage?”

Art Fashion

Mary Martin London Fashion + Lissan House

The Most Beautiful Dress

Architecture Country Houses Hotels

Bel-Air Hotel + Equestrian Centre Ashford Wicklow + Ecclesville Fintona Tyrone

Wall Street | Behind Mansion Walls | The Writing on the Wall

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Driveway © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Is Ashford the Los Angeles of Ireland? No. But it does have its very own Bel-Air. Mansion, not zip code. Originally called Cronroe, Bel-Air in County Wicklow not surprisingly got its name from an early 20th century American owner, clearly feeling homesick. The original name lives on in nearby Cronroe Lane. Right from the get-go, it’s had a back yard for dilettantish partying. In the 18th century, fairs were held on the real estate. Tents erected, punch and whiskey sold, and a good time had by all. A forerunner of Glastonbury or Electric Picnic. These days, the party is more likely to be indoors for sure.

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Entrance Front © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Missing from Burke’s Guide, here’s the architectural summation. The current house harks back to 1890. Period. Typical of the twilight moments of the 19th century, extreme Victoriana is clearly on the wane allowing the early plainer trappings of Edwardiana to emerge. Red brick has given way to grey render. Detailing is concentrated on the entrance: a gabled campanile rising past the hipped roofs forms a pyramidal silhouette. The timber panelled double front door below a large plain fanlight is framed by floral capped columns. Segmental arched two pane sash windows are either single, in couples or threesomes. Some are set in canted or boxy days. Stepping inside, the timber staircase takes off with great gusto. Not quite Lissan House; nevertheless a flight of fancy.

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Drive © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It all really got going in 1716 when Sir John Eccles, the Collector of the Port of Dublin, rocked up. He was descended from the Scottish Barony of Eccles. Settling down, his son Hugh built the original house in 1750. An Eccles generation or two later, Cronroe was sold to Julius Casement in 1862. After it was burned down in the 1880s, Julius built the present house. His rather better known relative was his cousin Sir Roger Casement. Roger spent many summer vacations at Cronroe. Outbuildings and stables with light gothick touches appear to predate the house.

Bel-Air Hotel and Equestrian Centre Ashford © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Wicklow © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Campanile © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Encaustic Tiles © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Estate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Stables © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Lawn © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Staircase © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In 1934 its American owner Nicholas Burns took over. Despite selling the house to the Murphy family just three years later, the name stuck. Tim and Bridie Murphy converted Bel-Air to a hotel and riding school with the help of their three daughters Ita, Ena and Fildelma. In 1980 Fidelma and her husband Bill Freeman took over. A third generation of siblings William, Aileen, Margaret and Noni now run the show. For our hosts it’s a full house party; no carriages required for guests. This house breathes us. Disco in the drawing room. Speakeasy in the library. Encapsulation of feeling in the bedroom. You’re either in the moment or you’re not.

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Gallery © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

William Murphy explains, “This is a home rather than just a hotel. It’s full of history too. There are ghosts – but they’re all good! The painting over the hall fireplace is of Lady Casement. She appears to be watching everything going on around her. My mother was redecorating a bedroom and uncovered Roger Casement’s signature under the wallpaper. She had his signature certified – it’s protected now in a glass display on the wall. Seamus Heaney was a regular at Bel-Air and spent time writing here. We’ve a 200 acre farm and 50 horses.”

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Lady Casement © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s still very much a country house so Bel-Air has done well for itself. Not even a modern extension. The same can’t be said for an Eccles manor north of the Black Pig’s Dyke. Ecclesville in Fintona, County Tyrone, was the seat of another branch of the Barony. Two refined neoclassical main elevations were placed at right angles to each other like Castle Grove: a six bay slightly asymmetric entrance front and a five bay symmetric garden front. Breakfronts between dentil corniced setbacks and ground floor windows set in blind segmental arches gave rhythm and subtle character. The interior was equally fine, especially the plasterwork in the interlinked drawing room and music room.

Bel-Air Hotel Ashford Fireplace © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The last owner of Ecclesville was the rather jolly cross-dressing multi-barrelled man-about-town Raymond Saville Connolly de Montmorency Lecky-Browne-Lecky. His chauffeur driven two toned green Austin 16 was often spotted around Fintona and nearby Omagh. Clad in his trademark mauve suits, his penchant for performing convinced him to convert a barn into a theatre. He died in 1961 aged 80, leaving his estate to the nation. Three centuries of heirlooms were auctioned by Ross’s Auctioneers of Belfast raising £23,500. No buyer was found for the house and after a stint as a nursing home, it was demolished in 1978. Traces of Ecclesville still remain. The name lives on in the Ecclesville Equestrian Centre built on the estate. Its entrance piers and sweep of railings are just about intact. A salvaged stone plaque of the Eccles family arms dated 1703 which was placed over the front door of the house, although surely predating it, is on an outbuilding.

Ecclesville Fintona Tyrone in 1905 @ Lavender's Blue

At the top of Church Street in Fintona, rising out of the overgrown cemetery is a statue of a female clinging to a cross. On its plinth are the words: “In memory of my beloved husband John Stuart Eccles of Ecclesville County Tyrone who died the 24th of April 1886 aged 38 years | Eldest son of the late Charles Eccles Esq who died the 4th of November 1869 | Also of my two infant boys. This monument is erected by his sorrowing widow. ‘Suffer little children to come onto me and forbid them not; for such is the Kingdom of God.’” The widow is buried beneath the statue: “This tablet has been placed here by Rose and Dosie Eccles in memory of their beloved mother Frances Caroline Eccles who died 12th February 1887.” A stone dog guards her final resting place. Bel-Air and Ecclesville: two houses, an overlapping family history, sashes and Casements, two fates.

Ecclesville Fintona © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Architects Country Houses

Lissan House Cookstown Tyrone + Nicholas Groves-Raines

Got Plastered | A Rendering

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On a recent visit to Polesden Lacey in Surrey the lawns resembled a scene from a Baz Luhrmann movie. In the sweltering heat, a jazz band serenaded hordes of picnickers, sightseers and sunbathers on the lawn. All that was missing was Gatsby romancing Daisy in the loggia. Another recent trip was to Calke Abbey in Derbyshire, once England’s least known country house. On a misty day, not only was the car park full but the fields had been turned into an overflow. Tours of the house were timed to avoid overcrowding.

2 Lissan House ©

A visit to Lissan House in Tyrone earlier this summer couldn’t have been more different. On a bright Saturday afternoon, the place was as deserted as when the last owner Hazel Dolling née Staples lived there alone. Wuthering Heights with neither Heathcliff nor Cathy at home. Is it a general Irish malaise about the gentry while across the water, brown sign hunters in their Hunters queue to see how the other 0.1% lived? Admittedly both National Trust houses mentioned are close to conurbations while Lissan House is miles from anywhere. The nearest town is Cookstown which reputedly has the widest street in Ireland. Population circa 11,000.

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“I hope you felt privileged to have it all to yourselves,” begins Nicholas Groves-Raines. His architectural practice was responsible for the recent restoration of the house. “Lissan is a hidden, secret place and that is part of its great charm. It is well off the main tourist routes, the M1 and M2, and away from the tourist centres such as the north coast and Belfast, making it harder to entice visitors. However it is used by the local community and on a number of occasions they have even had to employ overspill parking for events.”

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He explains, “The works recently completed at Lissan are only a first phase of a larger scheme to redevelop the demesne and bring all of the derelict buildings back into use as funds allow. In the next few years, it is hoped that Lissan will become a much more lively place whilst retaining its unique character. It would be good to firmly place Lissan House on the tourist map of Northern Ireland.” Lissan had its 15 inches of fame back in 2007 when Mrs Dolling fronted the campaign to win funding on the TV programme Restoration. In the end it lost out to Manchester’s Victoria Baths. Again a case of population density influencing situations.

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Witnessing early on in his career the needless destruction of historic town centres and buildings in the name of progress persuaded Nicholas to specialise in conservation. “I am now an accredited conservation architect but work on a variety of projects including new builds,” he says. Nicholas puts his money where his mouth is: Lamb’s House to be precise. That is his Grade A listed office, an early 17th century Scottish baronial pile in Edinburgh.

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Newhailes, just outside Edinburgh, is like Lissan,” Nicholas continues. “Now run by the National Trust for Scotland as a visitor attraction, it too was used as a family house until recently. Newhailes is a time capsule from the 18th century, having changed little from that period. Like much of Lissan, it remains pretty much as it was when the Trust acquired it. The house hasn’t been ‘restored’ as such, having only had essential repairs carried out to preserve it for the future.”

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The exterior of Lissan House has changed, though. Out, mostly, went the casement windows. Gone is the one shade of grey of the walls. Nicholas relates, “Early photographs show the house had sash and case windows until the late 19th century. A few sashes had been reused in the buildings, so we did have good examples of the original detailing to work from. The modern casements were constructed from inferior quality timber and were not weatherproof due to poor workmanship and rot. They were crudely fitted into the former sash boxes that were still built into the walls. The majority were beyond repair and so a decision had to be made about what form the new windows should take. Sashes were installed to match the originals. The few windows that are not now sashes were part of a late 19th century extension.”

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The cement based render also dated from the late 19th century. “It was in poor condition and holding dampness in the walls,” he says. “There was ample evidence of the original lime render and off-white limewash remaining in sheltered areas, backed up by early photographs that confirmed the house had previously been lighter in colour. The new lime render and limewash allow the walls to breathe and should protect the house for many years to come. Limewash helps to prolong the life of lime render.”

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Despite its size, the 28 bedroom Lissan House is somewhat vernacular rather than grand in nature. Davis Ducart may have been responsible for the ornamental bridge but not the house. “The Staples family were originally industrialists rather than landed gentry,” says Nicholas. “Early visitors to the house mention a noisy forge nearby where locally mined iron was worked. Lissan started out as a much smaller house that was extended again and again over the centuries as money and tastes dictated. Unlike many mansions it was not built in a single phase to the designs of a professional architect or master builder. It is an accumulation of its varied history.” Lissan House Trustees now look after the house and estate.

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Nicholas ends, “Lissan is unique and contains relics and remnants from all of its past, some of which are probably still hidden.” Visible charming quirks and quirky charms include the suspended glazed corridor to the rear resembling a train carriage mid air. The standalone bow fronted coachman’s room linked only to the front of the house by the arched canopy of the porte-cochère. The amber paned double glazed bay window bulging out of the side elevation. Best of all is the staircase which consumes all three-and-a-half storeys of the cavernous main hall with more dog legs than Crufts.

Lissan House © Stuart Blakley