The First of the Best Two Days
It was the poster boy of the 1970s, gracing the covers of various publications. Half a century later, a new generation of aesthetes is falling in love with the romantically named and romantically styled and romantically positioned Killymoon Castle. Richard Oram and Peter Rankin included a sketch of the south elevation on the cover of their Ulster Architectural Heritage Society Listings for Cookstown and Dungannon. “The Nash block is of ashlar, a strong roll moulding surrounding it at basement level. Behind, the earlier back-quarters are of rubble, castellated, buttresses added and certain windows enlarged by Nash, the roofs of graduated slates… Behind the house, a stable and farmyard, including a substantial two storey block with Gibbsian door surrounds.”
In another Ulster Architectural Heritage Society publication from last century, An Introduction to Ulster Architecture, Hugh Dixon, wrote, “Interest in the picturesque resulted in the Gothick castle style becoming a fashionable alternative to the neoclassical for country houses. Pioneered by Richard Payne Knight at Downton Castle, Herefordshire, the asymmetrical castle was made popular by the Prince Regent’s architect, John Nash, whose large practice extended to Ulster on several occasions. Killymoon Castle is clearly a sham unlike Gosford Castle (by Thomas Hopper, circa 1820) at Markethill, County Armagh, where really thick walls and correct medieval windows show a new more serious approach. Generally more popular in Ulster was the symmetrical castle, a type developed by Robert Adam in Scotland. Adam, indeed, remodelled Castle Upton in County Antrim (1788) in this style, although it has had later alterations. Among the best local designs are Necarne, Irvinestown, County Fermanagh (circa 1825) and the delightfully simple Dungiven Castle, County Derry (1839).”
Brian de Breffny included Killymoon in his Castles of Ireland and featured it on the dust jacket. “John Nash, the celebrated architect of Regency England, also designed a few buildings in Ireland, including some parish churches and four Gothick castles, two of which are Killymoon and Lough Cutra. Shanbally Castle, County Tipperary, which he built about 1812, was larger than either of these. The fourth castle, Kilwaughter, County Antrim, is a not very successful adaptation of an earlier house, and is now in a state of disrepair… Before he was engaged in radically transforming parts of London by such creations as Regent’s Park, Regent’s Street, Trafalgar Square and Carlton House Terrace, and before his work on Brighton Pavilion. It brought him other Irish commissions through the family connections of James Stewart, Member of Parliament for County Tyrone, the satisfied client… The house at Killymoon built by James Stewart’s father, William Stewart, who also built the nearby town of Cookstown about 1750, was largely destroyed by fire about 1800.”
Each publication has a different take on its castellation: the dressing of the original castle to complement the new building; the light hearted asymmetry; and the heralding of the architect’s popularity for designing castles in Ireland. Killymoon Castle was John Nash’s first – and finest – castle in Ireland. Dorothy Coulter, who lives in the castle with her husband Godfrey, knows its history well. “Killymoon Castle was built in 1671 by James Stewart who had bought the lease five years earlier from Alan Cooke, the founder of Cookstown. The Stewarts had come over from Scotland during the Plantation of Ulster. They set up two castles at that time: Killymoon and Ballymena Castle. Six generations later, the Stewarts left Killymoon in 1852. There are six houses built by the Stewarts still in Cookstown Old Town.”
The original building was mostly destroyed by fire in 1802. Dorothy reckons, “Colonel James Stewart built this castle a year later and it must have been a truly wonderful fairy tale to bring his beautiful wife Lady Molesworth to this romantic spot!” She points to his portrait in the central hall. “He met John Nash on his Grand Tour. James frequently visited London to gamble with the Prince Regent at Carlton House. Apparently he gambled Killymoon Castle one night with Prince Regent and lost it on the turn of the cards. I don’t envy him coming back to his wife after that! Fortunately the Prince Regent told him he could keep his ‘Irish cabin’. The other portrait is of his father William Stewart. He brought James back from the Grand Tour as he wanted him to stand for MP for Tyrone and he stood and he had the seat for 44 years. He was well liked. The estate changed hands several times after the Stewarts until timber merchant Gerald Macura bought it in 1916. He wanted to make railway sleepers from felling the trees.”
The Public Records Office Northern Ireland’s Introduction to Stewart of Killymoon Papers, 2007, sheds some light on Lady Molesworth, “In 1772 Stewart married Elizabeth Molesworth, daughter of the 3rd Viscount Molesworth. She was one of the survivors of a tragic fire in London in 1763, where she was living with her widowed mother. Lady Molesworth senior, two of her daughters and six of the servants were killed. Two other daughters were badly injured when they jumped from upper windows – one had to have her leg cut off after landing on the railings below – and a third was badly burned. Elizabeth Stewart became in 1794 a co-heiress of her late brother, the 4th Viscount Molesworth, and inherited a share of the Molesworth estates in Dublin City, near Swords, County Dublin, and in and around Philipstown, King’s County.”
A castle is not a castle without a ghost. Dorothy relates, “Gerald Macura’s 97 year old daughter came to visit us a couple of years ago. She’d such fond memories of the castle and told me how as a six year old child she used to hear ghostly footsteps going up and down the secondary staircase. She had that story built up in her head all those years. I said to her, ‘But there only is one staircase!’ We went on a tour of the house and upstairs she showed me something. There were so many different layers of paint over the door you could only see the shape of the frame so when we looked into that cupboard there was this other door that opened into a set of stairs that went up to James’s room in the top of the circular tower! He had a whole big bedroom suite that went out onto the balcony. She said it was really just the joy of her life getting back to Killymoon; she died not long afterward.”
Dorothy reveals, “My husband’s great grandparents lived over the bridge past those trees and these grounds came up for sale. His great grandfather John Coulter bid £2,000 on the grounds but all the bids were rejected. So six months later the Bank of Ireland put it up for sale again and he increased his bid by an extra £100 and this time it was to include the castle. He was successful so everyone thinks it was a great deal as he got the castle for £100! They moved in with their two sons Tommy and Jacky at the end of 1921.”
A suitably long drive winds through parkland and farmland, past the château-like 18th century stable block to one side, until the porte cochère of the castle finally appears. And there it is, the castle in all its glory, one of the great architectural moments of early 19th century Ireland – still unrivalled in early 21st century Ireland. The genius at work: rectangular, elliptical and polygonal components of varying heights fitting together like the pieces of an intricate three-dimensional puzzle, unified by Gothick windows, Romanesque detailing and a castellated roofline. John Nash added buttresses to the adjoining remaining portion of the old rubble stone castle and remodelled some of its windows to be more in keeping with his cut stone architectural masterpiece.
The interior is equally ingenious. A slender row of stairs connects the porte cochère to the tall spacious central hall. The piano nobile is elevated by a raised basement. “That’s the Stewart and Molesworth coats of arms in the stained glass over the front door,” highlights Dorothy. The central hall is linked by a Gothick arch to the staircase hall with its cantilevered stone stairs flying off in opposite directions like the wings of a dinosaur. John Nash knew how to deliver drama! Another great spatial flow running parallel with the inner halls is formed by an enfilade of four adjoining reception rooms overlooking the sloping lawn and field down to Ballinderry River. The variety of room shapes seems endless. Apses and niches and balconies and vestibules show such a grasp of spatial acuity. Oak detailing and ornate plasterwork define and refine the interior throughout. Window shutters concertina out from hidden cavities in the external walls. One of the reception rooms has 1800s wallpaper which survived a major flood.
Dorothy continues, “American soldiers occupied the estate from December 1943 to February 1944. Officers stayed in the castle while paratroopers were housed in Quonset huts. It was the 82nd Airbourne Division that was stationed here. We have retained one of the brick huts built near the river as a cottage for holidaymakers. One of the castle bedrooms has been restored as an officer’s room with militaria and uniformed mannequins. The cellars are now a military museum with a permanent signal post, muster station and officers’ mess. There was a German prison of war camp at the top end of the town. We’ve a lot of letters from the American and German soldiers – they’re all down in the cellars. Killymoon is part of the heritage of Cookstown. It needs people in it to keep it alive.”
“We decided whenever we got married to restore the long end of the castle in the 1970s. Tommy lived down in the back end of the castle.” She continues the tour, “In 2000 we restored the big upstairs library. This room was in ruins – the ceiling was completely down, there were trees growing in it. I said to the builders there’s a ceiling like Nash’s original one here in Kildress Parish Church. They were able to copy the church’s ribbed plasterwork ceiling. The timber floor is new too. The only original features to survive are the windows which date back to the 1600s. One of the bedrooms had no ceiling as well. It was like the planetarium where you could look right up to the sky!”
“We started to restore the roof lantern over the staircase in 2014,” Dorothy recalls. “It had been badly damaged when the Golf Clubhouse was bombed in about 1989.” Since 1889, part of the estate has been Killymoon Golf Club. “Eventually we did get help with the restoration of the roof lantern: the Northern Ireland Environment Agency were very good and we’ve worked with Cookstown Council. Our architects, builders and craftsmen have all been local – real godsends. We’ve been very blessed and are very thankful. Recently, we’ve been working with the Tourist Board promotion ‘Embrace a Giant Spirit’. We won ‘Best Maintenance of a Historic Building or Place at the 2021 Heritage Angel Awards Northern Ireland.”
She adds, “In 2016 we opened the tearoom. On our first day the queue of people stretched down the drive! Our candlelit Christmas dinners have proved a real success. We’re sold out already. It’s a family affair – the grandchildren get their dusters out and we light all the fires. When you see the castle being used for different functions, it brings it to life. We’ve had people visit here from all over the world. We are very busy with group tours too.” Today, afternoon tea is served in the east and south facing Lady Molesworth’s morning room with views (once admired by Queen Mary, wife of King George V) across the 122 hectare estate. Under the shallow dome laced by a patera frieze, potato and leek soup is served in china cups on saucers. Grandfather clocks tick and chime to the passing of time.