Driving uphill out of Newry through Bessbrook suddenly on the righthand side behind a stone wall is a brilliant flash of mustard between the thinning greenery and vibrant orange of late autumn. Aha! It’s Derrymore House, a cottage orné on a grand scale. And a very charming one at that. John Richardson, its last private owner, donated the unfurnished house and its demesne to The National Trust in 1952. In that era of architectural freezing in aspic, a sympathetic three bay extension containing an entrance hall with a central fanlighted doorcase was demolished. The early 19th century extension filled the gap on the north elevation to complete a courtyard. Derrymore was returned to its original late 18th century magnet or long C shape. A purist approach indeed.
There are two canted bay windows: one with 82 small panes; the other, 90. At first glance, this would seem extravagant for Isaac Corry was responsible for introducing the Window Tax in Ireland. But he would have benefitted from a loophole that any window could be considered as one for taxation purposes if it was divided into portions less than a foot (30.5 centimetres) wide. Commercial pressure and building regulations dictating design are not a new phenonomen.
Derrymore is the forerunner to a spate of single storey (or at least just one level over basement) modest country houses erected in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in mid to south Ulster, especially around Rostrevor. A thatched roof draws Derrymore closer to cottage than country house in appearance although not in scale. Hugh Dixon explains in An Introduction to Ulster Architecture, 1973, “Occasionally the two traditions merge into a picturesque, Georgian vernacular style which is Ulster’s alone… undoubtedly the most ambitiously developed example of the type is the house built by Isaac Corry at Derrymore near Newry in County Armagh. Adopting both traditional materials and ‘architectural’ features like quatrefoil windows topped with label mouldings, the building is arranged as a series of small units round an open court.” There is a formality to the elevations, especially the symmetrical southwest facing garden front, at odds with the provincial roof material. A classic cottage orné combo.
Ever since, there’s been an unstoppable love of the lateral when it comes to self building in Ireland much to local planning authorities’ ire.
Before he died in 2005, Sir Charles Brett, architectural commentator and contributor to Ulster Architect magazine did a U turn on his view of bungalows in Ireland. As Chairman of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, he was a strong advocate of terraced houses. But in his later years, Charlie declared bungalows in many ways to be the rightful Irish vernacular, or at least an inheritor of the traditional cottage form. That is, single storey, rectilinear, narrow, practical.
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?”
Braving Storm Ciara, on a blustery photogenic winter’s day, architect John O’Connell and his client Managing Director David Wilson lead a two-to-two private tour of Montalto Estate: The Big House; The Carriage Rooms; and the most recent addition, The Courtyard. It’s an extraordinary tale of the meeting of minds, the combining of talents, a quest for the best and the gradual unveiling and implementation of an ambitious informed vision that has transformed one of the great estates of Ulster into an enlightening major attraction celebrating old and new architecture, art and landscape, history and modernity. And the serving of rather good scones in the café.
Philip Smith has just completed the latest book in the architectural series of the counties of Ulster started by the late Sir Charles Brett. Buildings of South County Down includes Montalto House: “Adding a storey to a house by raising the roof is a relatively common occurrence that can be found on dwellings of all sizes throughout the county and beyond. But the reverse, the creation of an additional floor by lowering the ground level, is a much rarer phenomenon. This, however, is what happened at Montalto, the original mid 18th century mansion assuming its present three storey appearance in 1837, when then owner David Stewart Ker ‘caused to be excavated round the foundation and under the house, thus forming an under-storey which is supported by numerous arches and pillars’. Ker did a quite successful job, and although the relative lack of front ground floor fenestration and a plinth appears somewhat unusual, it is not jarring, and without knowledge of the building’s history one would be hard pressed to discern the subterranean origin of this part of the house.”
The author continues, “Based on the internal detailing, Brett has suggested that William Vitruvius Morrison may have had a hand in the scheme, but evidence recently uncovered by Kevin Mulligan indicates the house remodelling was at least in part the work of Newtownards builder architect Charles Campbell, whose son Charles in September 1849 ‘came by his death in consequence of a fall which he received from a scaffold whilst pinning a wall at Montalto House.’”
Rewind a few decades and Mark Bence-Jones’ threshold work A Guide to Irish Country Houses describes Montalto House as follows, “A large and dignified three storey house of late Georgian aspect; which, in fact was built mid 18th century as a two storey house by Sir John Rawdon, 1st Earl of Moira; who probably brought the stuccodore who was working for him at Moira House in Dublin to execute the ceiling here; for the ceiling which survives in the room known as the Lady’s Sitting Room is pre 1765 and of the very highest quality, closely resembling the work of Robert West; with birds, grapes, roses and arabesques in high relief. There is also a triple niche of plasterwork at one end of the room; though the central relief of a fox riding in a curricle drawn by a cock is much less sophisticated that the rest of the plasterwork and was probably done by a local man.”
Some more: “In the 1837 ground floor there is an imposing entrance hall, with eight paired Doric columns, flanked by a library and a dining room. A double staircase leads up to the piano nobile, where there is a long gallery running the full width of the house, which may have been the original entrance hall. Also on the piano nobile is the sitting room with the splendid 18th century plasterwork. Montalto was bought circa 1910 by the 5th Earl of Clanwilliam, whose bride refused to live at Gill Hall, the family seat a few miles to the west, because of the ghosts there. In 1952, the ballroom and a service wing at the back were demolished.”
Books aside, back on the tour, David Wilson considers, “You need to stay on top of your game in business. Montalto House was our family home – we still live on the estate. It’s personal. You have to maintain the vision all the time.” John O’Connell explains, “The baseless Doric columns of the entrance hall draw the exterior in – they are also an external feature of the porch. The order is derived from the Temple of Neptune at Paestum. Due to the ground floor originally being a basement it is very subservient to the grandeur upstairs. There are a lot of structural arches supporting ceilings.” A watercolour of the Temple of Neptune over the entrance hall fireplace emphasises the archaeological connection.
Upstairs, John’s in mid flow: “And now we enter a corridor of great grace and elegance.” The walls are lined, like all the internal spaces, with fine art, much of it Irish. David points to a Victorian photograph of the house: “It used to be three times as large as it is now!” The house is still pretty large by most people’s standards. Three enigmatic ladies in ankle length dresses guard the entrance door in the photograph. Upstairs, in the Lady’s Sitting Room which is brightly lit by the canted bay window over the porch, David relates, “the plasterwork reflects the original owners’ great interest in flora and fauna”. John highlights “the simple beauty of curtains and walls being the same colour”. Montalto House can be let as a whole for weddings and parties.
Onward and sideward – it’s a leisurely walk, at least when a storm isn’t brewing – to The Carriage Rooms. While John has restored Montalto House, finessing its architecture and interiors, The Carriage Rooms is an entirely new building attached to a converted and restored former mill. “In the 1830s the Ker family made a huge agricultural investment in Montalto,” states David. “They had the insight to turn it into a productive estate. The Kers built the mill and stables and powered water to create the lake.” White painted rendered walls distinguish John’s building from the rough stone older block. The Carriage Rooms are tucked in a fold in the landscape and are reached by a completely new avenue lined with plantation trees.
“I didn’t want to prettify this former industrial building,” records John. “It needed a certain robustness. The doors and windows have Crittall metal frames. Timbers frames would not be forceful enough. The stone cast staircase is a great achievement in engineering terms – and architectural terms too! The new upper floor balcony design was inspired by the architecture of the Naples School of Art. Horseshoe shaped insets soften the otherwise simple balustrade.” In contrast the orangery attached to the rear of The Carriage Rooms is a sophisticated symmetrical affair. “It’s where two worlds meet. This gives great validity to the composition,” John observes. Much of the furniture is bespoke: architect Anna Borodyn from John’s office designed a leaf patterned mobile copper bar. A formal garden lies beyond glazed double doors. The Carriage Rooms can be let as a whole for parties and weddings.
Justifiably lower key is the design of The Courtyard, a clachan like cluster of single and double storey buildings containing a café, shop and estate offices. It’s next to the 19th century stable yard. John’s practice partner Colin McCabe was the mastermind behind The Courtyard. Unpainted roughcast walls, casement rather than sash windows, polished concrete floors and most of all large glazed panels framed by functioning sliding shutters lend the complex an altogether different character to The Big House or even The Carriage Rooms. The Courtyard harks back to the Kers’ working estate era. “We wanted to create a sense of place using a magical simple vocabulary,” confirms John, “and not some bogus facsimile”. A catslide roof provides shelter for a barbeque. An unpretentious pergola extends the skeleton of the built form into the garden.
“We have over 10,000 visitors a month and employ 80 people,” beams David. The 160 hectares of gardens and woodlands have entered their prime. A new timber temple – a John O’Connell creation of course – overlooks the lake. Contemporary neoclassicism is alive and very well. The Beautiful. The Sublime. The Picturesque. As redefined for the 21st century. Montalto Estate hits the high note for cultural tourism in Ireland, even mid storm.
There are two distinguished Georgian houses along the Causeway Coast with unusual fenestration. Rockport Lodge just beyond Cushendun appears to have missing windows on the canted flanks of its outer bay windows on the south elevation. Mount Druid high above Ballintoy appears to have the middle windows missing in its two bay windows on the north elevation. Forget the wild weather resistance of yore: a modern sensibility would be to capture from all angles such a view sweeping down to the incredibly untouched Ballintoy Harbour. Mount Druid’s mildly idiosyncratic face to the world (the entrance front is actually the more regular five bay south elevation looking into the hill) is austere – an attribute noted by writers as being highly suitable to this bare landscape. White painted walls against the dark hill add to the stark grandeur of Mount Druid. Waves lap up to the white painted walls of Rockport Lodge. It too has a more conventional entrance front, four bays facing westwards inland.
Five Big Houses of Cushendun is a smaller book written by Sir Charles Brett. It includes Rockport Lodge: “The handsome white painted house, hugging the shoreline, can be dated with some accuracy to 1813. It does not appear on William Martin’s conscientiously detailed map of 1811 to 1812; but Ann Plumptre, who was here in the summer of 1814, wrote that Cushendun ‘is an excellent part of the country for game; on which account Lord O’Neill, the proprietor of Shane’s Castle’ [in fact, his younger brother] ‘has built a little shooting box very near the shore, whither in the season he often comes to shoot’. It stands between Castle Carra and the sea. The south front facing across the broad curve to the village, consists of three canted bays, set in a zigzag under the wide eaves, leaving triangular recesses in between: five 16 pane windows on the ground floor; three more, and two oculi, in the upper floor. The entrance front, of four bays, has wide Georgian glazed windows and a pleasing and unusual geometrical glazing pattern in the recessed porch.”
The entry for Mount Druid in Buildings of County Antrim reads, “A remarkable house, on an extraordinarily prominent (and exposed) hillside, looking out due north across the North Channel to the cliffs of Oa on Islay. The house is of two storeys, on a generous basement, with tiny attic windows in the gables; in principle, seven bays wide, with generous canted bays facing north – but the central face of each bay is blank – as Girvan says, ‘giving a very bleak effect, not inappropriate to the inhospitable position.’ Between the bays, a tall round headed window lights the upper part of the staircase, an oculus above and below. The remaining windows are 15 pane Georgian glazed. There are six chimneypots on each stack; the doorcase in the square porch in the entrance front facing south is modern.”
There’s more: “The vestry minute book for the parish contains the following uncommonly useful entry: ‘There was 40 acres granted by Alexander Thomas Stewart Esq of Acton to Reverend Robert Traill and his successors, Rectors of Ballintoy, in perpetuity, for a glebe, in the townland of Magherabuy on the ninth of August 1788. Rent £25.5.0. In May 1789 Mr Traill began to build a Glebe House and got possession of it on the 14th November 1791 – changing the name of the place from Magherabuy to Mount Druid, on account of the Druid’s Temple now standing on the Glebe.’ Unfortunately, despite this wealth of documentation, there is nothing to say what builder, mason, carpenter or architect was involved: no payments appear in the vestry book since Mr Traill evidently paid for the house out of his own pocket.” The similarities between the two houses may not be entirely coincidental. Charlie wondered if Rockport Lodge could be the work of the same architect or skilled builder as Mount Druid?
Dr Roderick O’Donnell, author and Country Life contributor, considers Ashbrooke House in County Fermanagh to be “a very successful Regency country house”. Kimmitt Dean notes that “this seems to have formed part of a lucrative commission for the architect, there being many buildings of similar form in the vicinity…” Such a shame the late Sir Charles Brett didn’t come west of the River Bann in his riveting series on the buildings of Ulster. It would have been interesting to hear what Charlie thought of Ashbrooke. Would he have classified it as middling or large? The front elevation stationed above a grass bank is simply divine. Aha, a haha. Five bay bliss. Formality | solidity | proportionality | materiality.
“A five bay, two storey front with big windows and a projecting solid porch with Tuscan columns. Above, a tripartite sash window. Shallow hipped roof, like the big house, but here supported on an eaves cornice with projecting stone mutules. The house has only one regular front, with a long wing behind. A plaque, in the stable yard behind, has the legend, ‘Built by Sir Henry Brooke Baronet, for the use of his tenants in the year 1830’.”
The 3rd Viscount and Viscountess Brookeborough have restored and revived and rejuvenated and reinvigorated and refurnished Colebrooke. “The house was cement rendered in the early 19th century,” notes the Viscount, Lord Lieutenant of Fermanagh and Lord-in-Waiting to the Queen. An 1891 photograph shows the south elevation in that state: the polygonal conservatory has since gone; the sunken garden was yet to come. An unpeeling revealed the rugged reddish sandstone underneath. Vast (seriously large – if anything, William Farrell got scale) reception rooms with Victorian wallpaper (and umpteen bedrooms) make it the ideal setting for shooting parties. Two paned sash windows frame uninterrupted views across the parkland.
In the family plot in Colebrooke Church of Ireland graveyard (a cornerstone dates the church 1765), one tombstone reads, ‘Here lies the body of Brigadier General Henry Francis Brooke eldest son of the late George Frederick Brooke of Ashbrooke and of the Lady Arabella Brooke born 13th August 1836 killed in action 15th August 1880 aged 44. He fell while commanding the sortie against the village of Dehkhoja during the siege of Kandahar, south Afghanistan, in the noble endeavour to save the life of a wounded brother officer Captain Cruikshank R.E. Greater love hath no man that this. That a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15.13.’
Amanda, a talented ceramicist who has exhibited at the Royal Ulster Academy, has turned her artistic hand(s) to decorating Ashbrooke House. It is available for parties or as a holiday let. All four reception rooms, eight bedrooms, six bathrooms and one kitchen (with Aga). The tack room and rabbit man’s cottage, outbuildings behind the main house, are now artists’ studios.
Hidden from the public for almost 200 years, now is the time for Ashbrooke House to be revealed. Literarily, not literally. Nestling in the 1,000 acre Colebrooke estate, it’s always going to be exclusive. The building is T shaped: a drawing room and dining room on either side of the entrance hall in front of an older lower wing. This arrangement allows for lots of light and airy dual aspect rooms. “I don’t like subdivided rooms so en suites are in former dressing rooms and other minor rooms,” explains Amanda. With typical 19th century disregard for convenience, the kitchen was originally located at the tip of the return. That is, as far as possible from the dining room. Not anymore. The new kitchen is next to the dining room and the old one is now a bright sitting room with exposed stone arches. Guests who can’t cook won’t cook never cook can rely on catering by French Village.
“The house had barely changed in 40 years,” she records. “But in restoring it we haven’t gone for the ‘interior designed’ look.” A more organic approach was taken: relaxed country house chic. With a few family heirlooms thrown in for good measure. A portrait of Eugene Gabriel Isabey dominates the drawing room; Reverend James Ingram guards the dining room. Architectural detailing is restrained in keeping with the exterior. The drawing room timber and marble fireplace was salvaged long ago from the ruinous Corcreevy House in Fivemiletown. Vintage fire extinguishers and milk churns marked ‘Colonel Chichester, Galgorm Castle, Ballymena’ are recycled as lampstands. There are one or two inherited colour schemes. The last Dowager’s choice of mustard walls in the dining room for instance. “That’s my late mother-in-law’s wallpaper,” smiles Amanda pointing to the trellis design zigzagging across the walls and ceiling of the blue bedroom. “Not the best for hangovers.”
Over dinner, distinguished Fermanagh architect Richard Pierce waxes lyrical about Ashbrooke: “The proportions are beautiful. The scale is beautiful. The setting is beautiful. You approach Colebrooke from above. You first see Ashbrooke from below. It’s very austere except for the porch. There’s a tremendous counterpoint between the centre and the rest. I like the fact it’s not showy. It’s quiet good taste but very good taste. What I feel about Ashbrooke is that it has a sense of neoclassicism you’d find in a St Petersburg dacha.” Amanda agrees, “There’s a purity to the design.”
“These houses aren’t museums,” Christopher believes. “They have always been sources of employment. They need to be run like businesses to survive.” He should know. He has turned Galgorm Castle outside Ballymena, another family property, into a thriving enterprise employing around 300 people. Gatelodges on the Colebrooke Park estate are holiday lets. Historically, the triumphal arch, still the main entrance to the estate, was a less successful venture. It was built for the arrival of Queen Victoria but at the last minute, she pulled a sickie. The Baroness was not amused.
It’s spring at Ashbrooke House. Dewy drumlins sprinkled with a dusting of daffodils and bluebells by day. And lambing by night: after dinner a midnight jaunt beckons across the estate to a barn full of Zwartbles sheep and lambs gambling amok. “Zwartbles sheep are very friendly and make great mothers,” observes Christopher. This Dutch breed has a distinctive blackish brown fleece and white forehead streak. Sure enough, in the wee small hours one gives birth to twin lambs. “It’s a far cry from Clapham Junction,” observes Amanda. She used to live near Lavender Hill.
This isn’t a tale of two pities. At last! A country house in Ireland not being converted into flats or a hotel or worst of all abandoned? Rather, being returned to its original use? Well, that is a good news story. Ok, it’s a country house historically if not geographically cause it’s plonked in Ballyhackamore, Belfast’s very own East Village, off a busy dual carriageway, but still. Restoration is ongoing – already, correctly detailed skylight windows in the stable block and proper cleaning of the sandstone suggest it’s all going to be terribly smart. Consarc are the architects of its revival. Ormiston House had a narrow escape. Planning permission was granted in 2010 to carve it up into 20 frightful flats. Thank goodness for a knight and madam in shining white armour in the form of the owners of Argento Jewellers. Past distinguished owners include Sir Edward Harland of Harland + Wolff fame.
With a burst of turn of the century optimism, the Northern Ireland Assembly bought Ormiston for a whopping This Boom Will Never Bust £9 million. Late 20th century uses had included a boarding house for nearby Campbell College and a police station. The final sale price to Peter and Ciara Boyle was a few quid over £1 million. Scottish architect David Bryce’s 1860s baronial pile is back in town. A grand 57 square metre staircase hall accessed through north and south lobbies sets the tone. Back of country house essentials such as a pastry kitchen and boot room aren’t forgotten. The four staircases will be put to good use, linking two floors of formal reception rooms, informal entertainment suites and bedrooms to a turreted top floor of two airy eyrie guest rooms.
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