In England, thanks to Pall Mall the noun “mall” (rhymes with “Al”) conjures up images of grand boulevards lined with majestic buildings. In America, it’s an out of town covered shopping centre (rhymes with “all”). In Ireland, it’s something else altogether. While alumni of University of Ulster may remember The Mall as being the wide corridor linking the main lecture theatres of the Jordanstown campus, it is more recognisable as a street name in town centres.
The Mall in Ballyshannon is definitely at the lower key end of the Irish variety. It begins to the west of Upper Main Street with a variety of late 18th century and early 19th century townhouses and, passing Mall Quay, gradually peters out further to the west into a semirural lane looping round the Erne Estuary. Parallel with The Mall to the north is the even more informal Back Mall. The arched laneway abutting Dorrians Imperial Hotel at the most easterly end of Back Mall is a nerve wrecking few millimetres wider than the average car.
The town is built on a hill rising up from the north bank of the River Erne. A smaller portion of the town lies to the south of the river including a series of distinguished villas backing onto the Erne Estuary. The oldest surviving building is the long low former Barracks dating from 1700. This is a well disguised (being converted into miscellaneous shops) relic of a colonial past. Main Street splits into Upper Main Street and Castle Street to form a loop round the town centre.
One of the most prominent buildings in Ballyshannon, highly visible in long distance views of the town, is the former bank with a clock and bell tower on Main Street. It reaches the equivalent of eight storeys in height: a skyscraper in relative terms for County Donegal. Scottish baronial crow step gables – a little bit of the Highlands on the Wild Atlantic Way – add more drama to its silhouette. Opened in 1878, the building is constructed of rubblestone with cut ashlar details. A single storey wing in a surprisingly neoclassical vein fronts Castle Street. Paired Corinthian columns in front of corresponding pilasters frame entrance doors and support a pediment flanked by an arch headed window on one side and an archway on the other.
When it comes to ecclesiastical buildings Ballyshannon doesn’t do wallflower architecture. This is the bold and proud northwest. It is a strategic location in south Donegal close to Counties Fermanagh and Leitrim and in more recent times the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Church of Ireland is spectacularly positioned to the west of Main Street high above Erne Estuary with far reaching views of Tullan Strand to the west and Ben Bulben Mountain in County Sligo to the southwest. The former Presbyterian Church, now vacant, is lower lying on The Mall. To the east of Main Street, St Patrick’s Catholic Church looks down on the town. All of them grey in hue, St Patrick’s wins the award for architecture as topography. Surely it was hewed and chiselled not designed and built.
“St Patrick. A long stone church set sideways to the ridge of the hill. Primitive Norman detailing. Seven bay two storey. In the middle of the north side is a big square tower and spire, inscribed ‘Dan Campbell, Builder, 1842’. J J McCarthy added the polygonal chancel in 1860.” And finally, “Presbyterian Church. Jumbled Nonconformist Gothic. A three bay hall in stone with Y traceried windows, built for Dr James Murphy about 1840, and extended in a T plan at its west end.”
Camlin Tower is a distractingly striking landmark on a bend on the Belleek road just outside Ballyshannon. It is a battlemented gate tower attached to a grand gated archway which opens onto a lane leading to… a derelict cottage, a barn and a field full of shire horses. Camlin was once the seat of the Trendennick family from Bodwin, Cornwall; they bought the estate from William Connolly in circa 1718. The big house was rebuilt in 1838 to the design of John Benjamin Keane. It was a two storey five bay Tudor Gothic building similar to the same architect’s Castle Irvine in County Fermanagh. The estate was sold to the Land Commission at the turn of last century. The house was erroneously demolished as part of the mid 20th century Ballyshannon Hydroelectric Scheme works. It was thought the house would be submerged by the new reservoir but the water level never did reach the ruins.
It’s the most architecturally satisfying aesthetically appetising crossroads in County Tyrone. To the northeast, a coffeeshop. To the southeast, a church. To the southwest, a school, To the northwest, a country house. All oozing rural charm. Welcome to Gortin. The ‘t’ is pronounced “ch”. The main approach to the crossroads could hardly be more dramatic. An inland corniche snakes through the purple heather topped Sperrin Mountains in a downward spiral (Gortin Lakes on one side, Gortin Forest on the other) before plummeting into the valley of the Owenkillew River to arrive at the crossroads. Time to go for a wee dander. If the crossroads is considered the western end and St Patrick’s Catholic Church accessed off Chapel Lane the eastern end, that means Gortin High Street is the princely length of 585 metres long.
The Auld Bank Coffeeshop is a single storey dropping to two storeys to the rear three bay building facing the high street. “Auld” meaning “old” is pronounced “owl”. Its rough cut stone and brick quoined exterior is more associated with east of the River Bann villages such as Hillsborough and Moira. Ulster Bank closed its branch in 2015 and the building owner, Blakiston Houston Estates Company, converted it into a coffeeshop. A very popular one at that, serving the best panini west of the Bann. The bank was built in 1845 with a gabled porch added in 1980. In true late 20th century style, the fanlight and sidelights surrounding the entrance door have a post modern feel to them. The interior has been opened up; simple ceiling mouldings provide an unpretentious backdrop to the café.
Beltrim National School is a long single storey white rendered with slate roof building looking across the road to the cemetery. A juxtaposed case of early life meets everlasting life. To either extremity of the façade is an entrance (one for boys, one for girls) separated by six tall windows. Both entrance doors are painted farm shed red with a school name plus date plaque (1899). Completely symmetrical, the former school turned youth club portrays provincial architectural perfection. So contained, so uncontrived.
There’s nothing castellated about Beltrim Castle. Alright, remnants of an early 17th century bawn are integrated in the garden wall. Tyrone people call country houses “castles”. Locals refer to nearby Baronscourt (firmly in the country house category) as “the castle”. Alastair Rowan believes the current appearance of Beltrim Castle dates from the 1820s and notes its overhanging eaves. The house is incredibly attractive in an understated Ulster way. The five bay entrance front has a fanlight over its entrance door as big and grand as one on any Dublin townhouse. To the rear, Beltrim Castle’s return wing is nearly as long as Gortin High Street or at least a terrace lining it. The estate is privately owned by the Blakiston Houstons but the gardens are occasionally open to the public.