The museum café boasts of having “the best view in Ireland”. It might well but only for at most 364 days a year: for much of today any view can only be measured in metres not kilometres. A swirl of fog and mist and rain blows in from the Atlantic Ocean. There’s far flung and there’s Dunree Head – next stop Malin Head, the most northwesterly tip of Ireland meriting a mention on the Shipping Forecast. And after that, next stop Iceland. Dunree Head juts into Lough Swilly, one of County Donegal’s many waterways.
In Irish “Loch Súilí” means “Lake of Shadows”. It is one of three glacial fjords in Ireland and is flanked on both sides by hilly peninsulae: Fanad to the west, Inishowen to the east. Dunree is in the Parish of Desertegney, Inishowen. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, Parishes of Donegal I, 1833 to 1835, record: “Lough Swilly, though not the most frequented, is the best and safest harbour on the north coast of Ireland. It is, from its conflux with the ocean to Ballyraine Bridge, by the ship’s course, about 23 Irish miles and a half long. Mariners allow that it would afford secure anchorage to the whole British Navy. It is encumbered with but few rocks without the tide mark and these, except Swilly Rocks, are out of the ship’s course in and not dangerous. The bottom from the very entrance is clean sand. It holds well and ships may anchor almost anywhere within it, but the most secure anchoring places are Buncrana Castle or off the river in (according to the size of the vessel) from two to eight fathoms, or at Rathmullan.” One of the most significant events in Irish history occurred on the opposite side of the lough at Rathmullan. In 1607, the Flight of the Earls marked the end of the Gaelic order in Ireland and paved the way for the Plantation of Ulster by English and Scottish settlers.
Lough Swilly continued down the ages to be the setting for high drama on the high sea. Fanad Lighthouse was built following the wrecking of HMS Saldanha. In 1911, this Royal Navy frigate struck rocks near Fanad Head, at the northwest tip of Lough Swilly, and ran aground at Ballymastocker Bay. All 250 or so men on board drowned including the 29 year old Captain William Pakenham. Six years later, SS Laurentic, a British ocean liner of the White Star Line built by Harland + Wolff (the greatest shipyard of all time) in 1908, the same year as Titanic, stopped off at Buncrana to allow a number of passengers with yellow fever symptoms to disembark. The Laurentic had been converted to an armed merchant ship at the beginning of World War I. It was bound for Halifax, Canada, and carried 479 naval officers and a secret cargo of gold, payment for munitions from Canada and the United States. She departed Buncrana for Fanad Head amidst a storm. Captain Reginald Norton sailed on regardless, despite the weather and reports of U boat sightings in Lough Swilly earlier that day. The Laurentic struck two German submarine laid mines and sank within the hour. Out of 475 passengers, 121 survived including Captain Norton, many rescued by local fishing trawlers. Over the rest of the 20th century, salvage operations recovered some of the bars of gold but an estimated £2 million worth remains in the watery grave of the wreckage, 40 metres beneath the waves.
The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland, Parishes of Donegal I, 1833 to 1835, record: “Dunree Fort is strikingly situated on the coast of Lough Swilly immediately opposite Knockalla Battery. It stands on a little rocky peninsula whose isthmus is a mass of rocks having a natural arch below, through which t sea flows, and a chasm 25 feet deep by nine feet wide. The fort occupies the whole of this peninsula and is inaccessible except by a drawbridge thrown over the chasm. It is an irregular four sided figure measuring about 650 feet round the inside of the walls and parapets, and presents a fire of nine 24 pounders on traversing carriages, and three others can be mounted in embrasures if required… A company of men and officers can be accommodated in the barracks with all the usual requisites for infantry soldiers, and the fort possesses a fine spring which issues out of the rock. Dunree Fort was built in the years 1812 to 1814 under the superintendence of Captain Spicer, Royal Engineers… Its present garrison is a master gunner and seven artillerymen detached from Buncrana. Mr Edgar of Buncrana contracted for the building of Dunree and the other five forts in Lough Swilly.”
Fort Dunree marks the spot where Wolfe Tone was captured by the British army in 1798 and subsequently sentenced to death. He died a short time after in prison, likely by suicide. Wolfe Tone was a Protestant revolutionary figure and one of the founding members of the United Irishmen, a Republican organisation that rebelled against British rule in Ireland. In the 19th century the fort was rebuilt. Control of the fort was transferred to the Irish Free State just before World War II. Fort Dunree Military Museum opened to the public in 1986 and includes a military museum and underground bunkers within the walled enclosure. Timber buildings – the gunners’ canteen, officers’ mess, gymnasium and so on – are scattered across the hillside of Dunree Head, gently crumbling in the wild weather. The museum café “with the best view in Ireland – except for at least one day a year” is going strong.
In the field of tourism branding, hymnal inspiration must rank among the more original, if not the unique. It certainly was a good excuse to transform a concrete viewing platform into an artwork. Local artist Andrew Garvey-Williams designed a mosaic floor which incorporates images of the hymnwriter John Newton’s ship The Greyhound, the words “Amazing Grace” copied from his handwriting and broken chains symbolising the end of the transatlantic slave trade.
“As long as life endures”
Sailing from Africa to England via Newfoundland was a long and dangerous voyage. For weeks during the spring of 1748, John’s ship was caught in a violent storm in the Atlantic Ocean. One sailor was instantly swept overboard. In his own words, “The sea had torn away the upper timbers… and made the ship a mere wreck in a few minutes. It was astonishing, and almost miraculous, that any of us survived. We expended most of our clothing and bedding to stop the leaks.”
When all hope was lost, “We saw the Island of Tory and the next day anchored in Lough Swilly in Ireland. This was the 8th day of April. When we came into this part, our very last victuals were boiling in the pot and before we had been there two hours, the wind began to blow with great violence. If we had continued at sea that night in our shattered condition, we would have gone to the bottom. About this time I began to know that there is a God that hears and answers prayers.” He had realised God’s grace could save even a “wretch” like him.
“A life of joy and peace”
John stepped ashore in Buncrana a changed man. The viewing platform marks the spot. His crew received a warm welcome from the villagers, and local carpenters set about repairing the battered ship. While the ship was being repaired, he visited Londonderry, attending prayers at St Columb’s Cathedral twice a day. On returning to England, he was appointed captain of a slave ship. But as his faith grew, he jumped ship to join the clergy in Liverpool in 1764. It was while he was Curate at Olney Parish Church that he wrote Amazing Grace to illustrate his 1773 New Year’s Day sermon. John was promoted to Rector of St Mary Woolnoth, London. He preached at this Nicholas Hawksmoor designed church in Bank for the last 27 years of his life. During this period, he mentored the politician William Wilberforce and together their combined efforts battling slavery were successful.
The slave trade was abolished in the spring of 1807. John died the same year, four days before Christmas. He had written almost 300 hymns such as the real belter Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, but historically Amazing Grace wasn’t among the most popular. It really only gained status during the 19th century Christian revival which swept across both sides of the Atlantic. His words were attached to several traditional tunes until 1835 when the composer William Walker married the hymn to the tune New Britain.
Maidin mhaith. Tiree, Stornoway, Lerwick, Wick Automatic, Aberdeen, Leuchars, Boulmer, Bridlington, Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic, Greenwich Light Vessel Automatic, St Catherine’s Point Automatic, Jersey, Channel Light Vessel Automatic, Scilly Automatic, Milford Haven, Aberporth, Valley, Liverpool Crosby, Valentia, Ronaldsway, Malin Head, Machrihanish Automatic. For the uninitiated that’s the pure poetry of Radio 4’s shipping forecast, a rhapsodic melodic episodic late night cruise circumnavigating the coastlines of the British Isles. Gotcha. The penultimate location, Malin Head, is the exposed most northerly point of Ireland teetering on the tip of the Innishowen Peninsula in view of the Aurora Borealis. The ultimate location in this neck of the island is Castle Grove. Unlike windswept Malin Head, next stop Iceland, this timid estate lies huddled off the Wild Atlantic Way in the sheltered mid southwest wiggle of Lough Swilly, the waterspace separating the peninsula from the mainland.
A mile long drive sweeps through 350 acres of bucolic parkland as composed as a Derek Hill landscape; a wave of anticipation rises, then behold, a house kinda four square, an abiding place of great and unsearchable things. Like two faced Clandeboye, the principal elevations stand proud at right angles to one another. Face to avenue, face to sea. Castle Grove isn’t like Edward Lovett Pearce’s poppet of Palladian perfection Bellamont Forest, Ireland’s Mereworth (currently on the market for less than £1 million, 1,000 acres included, the price of a two bed flat in Battersea), designed to be seen from every angle including a drone. Nope, it’s country house front, farmhouse back. The four bay façade with central Tuscan porch qualifies Castle Grove as an older rural cousin of Belvedere House, Drumbo, a “middling sized house” splash in Charlie Brett’s Buildings of North Down. Precious cornerstones, sure foundations.
Subsumed within its solid footprint dwells an older house dating back to 1730 and 1695. A radical makeover brought Castle Grove bang up to date for the swinging 1820s. As the Groves went up in the world, onward marching in the direction of the neoclassical vanguard, so did the height of their windows and ceilings. The resultant idiosyncrasies only add to the house’s charm. Four of the windows on the south facing entrance front are higher outside than in, highlighted when the shutters are pulled and a dark gap appears above them. A shuttered cupboard in the Samuel Beckett Room was once a window on the original east elevation. The shutters are set at a cute acute angle on one side of the dressing room (now en suite) windows of the replacement 1820s east elevation, maintaining symmetry. As do the two blind windows An antique porch astutely fills the vacancy of the central axis on the entrance front. A conservatory, the 19th century equivalent of today’s cinema room, was added to the side. Castle Grove now looks like “a beautiful Regency house” says leading heritage architect John O’Connell. It is a country house repurposed, just, as an airy hotel and restaurant. The eponymous erstwhile owners the Groves are long gone. The hospitable able hosts the Sweeneys are here to stay. Breezily braving the elements alone with nature – and paying guests.
Tráthnóna maith. The eclipse has come and gone; spring equinox is here. Snowdrops have disappeared, daffodils are in full bloom, primroses on their way. It’s time to talk to Mary Sweeney, châtelaine of Castle Grove since 1989. She and her husband Raymond bought the house and estate from Commander Peter Colin Drummond Campbell and his wife Lady Moyra Kathleen Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn’s sister. Commander C inherited it on the death of Major James Grove. Incidentally (there are always lots of incidents in life) Lady M was one of Queen Elizabeth II’s five Maids of Honour at her Coronation. “The land steward and housekeeper kept Castle Grove in good shape. For the first year we lived in the house and opened it as a B and B. We wanted to develop it but not spoil it. The house, it was a real challenge. We wanted to keep the characteristics, the symmetries. We again looked and looked at it. In the end we pushed the entire house back into part of the rear courtyard. The stable wing was already lofted so we retained its front and added a corridor behind linking it to the main house. We didn’t want guests having to go out in the rain. The bedrooms in this wing are just as big as those in the main house. We reroofed the conservatory. We never demolished a wall in the original house. Instead we adapted windows as doors or indoor mirrors. I feel a great obligation to maintain Castle Grove.” This is not Grand Designs or Changing Rooms. This is heritage. This is history. This is Hibernia.
“When we applied for a dining room addition the planning officers wanted it to be a conservatory. But that part of the house faces northeast and rarely gets direct sunlight! It took a year to resolve, to get our sympathetically designed extension approved. We didn’t want the corner sticking out in views from the driveway so it’s chamfered. We turned the original sideboard recess into double doors under a fanlight. A local carpenter built the doors to match the 1820s double doors between the two main reception rooms. The fanlight is based on the one between the entrance and staircase halls. The original dining room is now the Red Drawing Room and next door is the Yellow Drawing Room. The marble fireplace in the new dining room is a replica from my old home. I jokingly asked Portadown Fireplaces if they could remake it based on a photo and sure enough they did!” The house is filled with modern Irish paintings. Appropriately there are seascapes and mountainscapes aplenty. “Buying paintings from young artists exhibiting their work on the railings of St Stephen’s Green in Dublin in summer stemmed our interest. Artists like Maurice Wilks, Liam Jones, Brendan Timmons. Derek Hill gave us his oil painting Donegal Late Harvest. Derek brought many guests here. Really such a humble man and so friendly.” The house is filled with antiques. “We have some stories to tell about auctions! Newark Antiques Fair is good. So is the Mill at Ballinderry. The bed in the George B Shaw Room came from Seventh Heaven outside Chester. The beds are unbelievable there! That bed was made for Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. When we bought the four poster in the Jonathan Swift Room we used saddle soap and toothbrushes to carefully clean it before using French polish. Beds and food – they’re so important!” As for the chandeliers, Sia would swing from them.
Saol maith. It’s time to talk to Mary’s daughter Irene who is managing reception (the former flower room). “The weather is unpredictable in Donegal or perhaps that should be predictable – it rains a fair bit! Donegal may be right off the Atlantic but we’re very inland here. The house has a warm, loving presence. It’s a very welcoming atmosphere. Whether this is us as a family, or the building, I’m not sure. The Groves were extremely good landlords, especially during the famine when they fed and educated local children in the long barn. Perhaps this generosity and goodwill has over the centuries seeped into the walls. There’s houses before you know the history, they’re chilling…”
If too long to serve undivided saw them in too; cover the open ends with a lump of paste and a cloth floured and tied close. The paste must be removed before being sent to table. Boil 1½ and 2 hours according to size. Put a ruffle of papar round each & serve in a napkin, with very hot toast. The marrow is spread on very hot toast & seasoned with pepper & salt.”
Raisins cleaned & minced 2 lbs. Sugar 3½ lbs. Salt 8 ozs, green ginger 8 ozs red pepper 2 ozs garlic ½ ozs. These with the exception of raisins & sugar to be separately well pounded then mixed. Add to them the raisins & sugar & lastly 1 bottle of vinegar. This quantity will make nearly 4 bottles. Fill & leave them in the sun in India but at home cook for about an hour.”
“White Milk Soup
1 onion. 1 carrot. 1 turnip. 3 cloves stuck in the onion. A little stock made of rabbit vial, fowl or mutton (best of the three first). Put the vegetables in the stock & boil for an hour and a half to two hours. Strain salt through a verry fine hair seive. Then warm 1 pint of new milk and add all these together. Season with pepper and salt. This soup must be made just before using as it will not keep – the vegetables turn the milk sour.”
“To Prevent Bed Sores
10 grains of the nitrate of silver, to 1 oz of water, to be applied by means of a camel hair brush over every part exhibiting the highest appearance of inflammation, 2 or 3 times a day, until the skins has become blackened, afterwards only occassionally [sic].”