Fire, Fire, Fire: The Irish Country House in the Revolutionary Period

antrim castle    Shane's castle


Campaign of Intimidation. During the revolution, the landed elite experienced a level of intimidation that had not reared its ugly head on such a scale since the land agitation of the 1880s. Burnings were a national phenomenon, perpetrated by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), carried out not only on the Protestant Ascendancy, but also on Catholic informers. During the War of Independence (1919-21) few country houses were burned. With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on 6 December 1921, the campaign was stepped up a gear and was further intensified during the Civil War, a period that saw the most intense levels of intimidation, when both Shane’s Castle and Antrim Castle were reduced to skeletons of their former selves.


antrim castle2

Shane’s Castle: An Unexpected Burning. On the night of the 20 May 1922, Shane’s Castle, Lough Neagh fell victim to an IRA attack. As soon as the servants became aware of the fire they alerted the family, the O’Neills. Lord O’Neill who was now ‘in his 83rd year, and to a large extent an invalid…had to be carried down stairs by some of the servants.’[1] Without the gallantry of the servants that night, the family may have faced a very different and more severe fate. The O’Neill’s were held at gunpoint while the house was raided and burned. After the fire was eventually brought under control, it became clear just how much damage had been done, all but the kitchen wing had been destroyed. The cost of the damages was hefty at approximately £100,000. In terms of ‘who dunnit?’, it was quite clear to all that this was the work of a ‘Sinn Fein gang’.[2] This burning in particular came as a shock to the local community, due to the benevolence of Lord O’Neill.


antrim castle2

Antrim Castle Down’: A Party to Remember[3]. The burning of Antrim Castle in the early hours of one morning in October 1922 was particularly dramatic. This was the home to Viscount and Viscountess Massereene and Ferrand. On the night of fire they had held a lavish ball for guests including senior military and political figures or those related to these men, one of whom, Miss d’Arcy jumped ten feet from her bedroom window in order to escape the fire.[4] In some cases, residents of the household were given time to escape before the house was set alight, therefore avoiding human cost, however on this occasion twenty two year old maidservant Ethel Gilligan died from suffocation.[5] Despite the tragic loss of this young life, newspapers tended to focus more on the loss of the historic building which had been established in the seventeenth century and was most famously known for being the Speaker’s Chair to the Old Irish House of Commons.[6] Interestingly, the cause of this fire was the source of much speculation. The burning of Antrim Castle was presumed to be an accident, possibly caused by the faulty heating system or a fire that had started in one of the chimneys.[7] However, it was alleged that a one of the servants, being a supporter of Sinn Féin, purposely failed to fill the water tanks and fled once the house had been set alight.[8]


A Boost to the Story of Decline. The campaign of burning and intimidation of the big house is only one chapter in the story of landed decline in Ireland, however the campaign did increase this trend. In most cases, many of the country houses that had suffered an attack were reduced to ruins. The devastation was twofold. In the aftermath of the fire, families were faced with the difficult process of claiming compensation. For one, it was hard to attain compensation and secondly, clause 10 of the 1923 Compensation Act acted as a further push factor for many of the landed elite. This clause enshrined that compensation should be reinstated into either restoring the building or building on a site nearby. However, many landowners, still plagued by feelings of insecurity after the campaign had died out, decided to cut their losses and go![9]

by Josie Richardson, Queen’s University Belfast

[1] Belfast News-Letter, 22 May 1922.

[2] The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 22 May 1922; Belfast News-Letter, 22 May 1922.

[3] The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 30 October 1922.

[4] O. Purdue, The Big House in the North of Ireland: Land, Power and Social Elites, 1878-1960 (Dublin, 2009), p. 148; The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 30 October 1922.

[5] Ballymena Observer, 3 November 1922.

[6] Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1922.

[7] Belfast News-Letter, 30 October 1922; The Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 30 October 1922.

[8] Purdue, The Big House, p. 148.

[9] T. Dooley, The Decline of the ‘Big House’ in Ireland: A Study of Irish Landed Families, 1860-1960 (Dublin, 2001), pp. 197-201; G. Clark, Everyday Violence in the Irish Civil War (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 78-80.

Parties, patronage, and people: Mount Stewart and the transition from the élite soirée to the family fête

Parties, patronage, and people: Mount Stewart and the transition from the élite soirée to the family fête


ms2The following blog posts aim to chronicle a significant shift in the purpose of the  Northern Irish Big House; one that can be seen clearly through the purpose of the grand parties held there since the late Victorian era. Mount Stewart will be used as a case study on this occasion, as it is most illustrative of this seminal conversion whereby the once indefinitely exclusive world of the Anglo-Irish élite became publicly owned. By the late 1930s, parties at the Big House were increasingly used as a means towards promoting community inclusiveness and cohesiveness with the rise of the (what I term) ‘family fête’, or otherwise, a public festival held in the gardens of a country house at which attendance was not dependent on social standing. Firstly, however, it is necessary to introduce the Londonderry family, and give a brief history of social functions held at their principal Irish seat.


   The Stewart lineage can trace its roots from one Alexander Stewart of Ballylawn and Stewart’s Court, Donegal, who was granted an estate on the Ards Peninsula in 1744; upon which he built a rather humble abode. The house and estate were then known as Mount Pleasant and would remain under that title until the turn of the nineteenth century. Alexander’s son, Robert, became MP for County Down, was made Baron in 1789, and subsequently Marquess of Londonderry in 1816. Robert’s son—named after his father—would become the household political figure, Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822), and would play an integral role in the conciliation of the European powers following the dismantling of the French Empire in 1815. The chairs upon which the delegates sat at the Congress of Vienna (at which Castlereagh represented Britain) would be given to him as a gift for his diplomatic contribution to the settlement, and remain in the dining room at Mount Stewart to this day; as does the table upon which the Treaty was signed.


   The current house—and to some extent the gardens—are the consequence of the architectural efforts of the 3rd Marquess and his wife Helen Vane-Tempest; the latter of whom was responsible for bringing the real fortune into the, until then, rather humble county family through her father’s ownership of extensive coal mines in the north-west of England. It was thanks to this couple that the current classical villa now resides over the Lough—offering the appropriate stage for hosting important political banquets.[1]


[1]The Londonderry Papers: Catalogue of the documents deposited in the Durham County Record Office by the 9th Marquess of Londonderry (Newcastle, 1969), esp. pp 1-6; and also H. M. Hyde’s, The Londonderrys: a family portrait (London, 1979), ch. 1.


Saintfield House: An Introduction.

Saintfield House: An Introduction.

by Courtenay Mercer

Who and when?

Originally owned by the Hamilton family, Major General Nicholas Price of Hollymount bought the estate within the townlands of Killynure and Oughley, in 1709 for his 3rd son, also Nicholas.[1] He quickly sought to build a house on it, however this was later burnt during the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion.[2]sh3

The house and estate itself today is still privately owned, by Mr Tony Griffith, with his late Wife being the heir of the Price family.

The house has never left the ‘Price’ family line, although the name has slightly changed throughout the years, from the Blackwood-Prices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then Perceval-Price. Nonetheless, it is one of the few remaining ‘Big Houses’ within Ireland still privately owned and managed, and not used by the tourist or hospitality industries


sh1In regards to the style of the post-1800 house, it could be described as Georgian or neo-classical in nature. Revealing the typical 3-winged sectioned layout, it is quite equally symmetrical on the external, featuring a traditional demesne overlooking greenery and wood. The old servants’ “ha-ha” is still a feature today, conveying the typical neo-classical style that many Irish country houses made popular during the early-mid 19th century.

There also features a large pathway that leads straight up to the front demesne of the house, another typical feature of Irish country houses during this period.


Landowning heritage

Like many Landowning families during the 19th century, the Price family owned vast swathes of land throughout rural Co Down, in the North-East of Ireland. Not only did they own large parts of Saintfield town, and surrounding townlands such as Lisdoonan, Oughley, Killynure, Drumaconnell and Glassdrumman, but also further north in the county in townlands such as Ballyknockan, Lisbane and Comber. The also owned several plots of land in the Downpatrick area, further south of Saintfield. Therefore, the Price family’s influence as landowners, especially on rural Co Down society was great.


The Price family held a great influence within the town of Saintfield itself. Renaming it from the Irish Toughnaneave in 1712, Nicholas Price and his heirs set about creating Saintfield into a key market town within North Down, to not only encourage different trades, especially Linen, but also to develop the town.

They set about building not only their own Church of Ireland, but also 1st Saintfield Presbyterian church, which still stands today, and the Catholic chapel, which is now used as a youth club by the local Catholic parish.[3]sh5

In the 19th century, the Price family also set about helping to fund the building of a road from Belfast, through Saintfield and then onto Downpatrick, to increase trade to the area, and to allow for more exports of Saintfield goods and services.

The Price family’s influence on the town was still prevalent in the early 20th century, when they helped to fund badly needed repairs to their own Church of Ireland in Saintfield, in 1915, during the Great war.[4]

sh6Even today, the heritage of the original Price family lives on. The local secondary school, Saintfield High School’s badge features the Price family’s coat of arms. Indeed, Tony Griffith and the estate still own several buildings within Saintfield town, including the local Orange hall.

Even in the 20th century, their landowning tradition lives on, and still helps to partly finance the estate in its modern form!



[1] Nicholas Price, Saintfield house to Bernard Ward and James Macartan, trustees for Roman Catholic congregation of Saintfield, Wallace papers, PRONI, T1009/191.

[2] Letter requesting repairs for the Church of Ireland property in Saintfield, Messrs. Martin and Henderson, Solicitors papers, PRONI, D1255/10/1B.

[3] Fee farm grant from Ann Hamilton, Tollymore, on the death of James Hamilton and selling of part of his estate to Nicholas Price of Hollymount, Earl of Ranfurly papers, Public Record Office Northern Ireland (PRONI), D235/7.

[4] (Accessed on 26th November 2016).


Northern Irish Country House wealth begins with the creation of its house and landscape

Chantelle Wylie

There is no escaping the grandeur and sheer scale of the Country House whether in the North or South of Ireland or on the mainland, these houses are built with one thought in mind, demonstrating the occupying family’s wealth.


The less well-known Favour Royal Manor situated in the Augher/Aughnacloy landscape, is built within the magnificent wooded, and arable landscape. Favour Royal does not fall short of being one of the most beautiful Tudor-gothic style houses which uses the landscape to its full advantage.

The iron gates and high stone wall which act as the main entranceway to the estate act not only as a boundary for the Manor’s extensive grounds but they blend into the scenery behind it. The curvature of the two walls creates a sense of them belonging to the natural landscape, they aren’t rigid manmade structures. To get a sense of the sheer size of this estate is the fact that there are numerous other entrance points, including a servants’ way showing the separation between the servants who worked in the house and the family who lived there and a driveway in from the south of the property, demonstrating how central these houses were to the surrounding area and easily accessible they were.

Being placed within a highly forested estate was used to the advantage of Favour Royal Manor. The driveway is framed perfectly with trees with an almost natural curvature leading up to the front of the house, which adds to the sheer scale and wealth that the building alludes to. Also worth noting, as seen in the picture on the left how the front porch is directly in line with the lane so coaches and other forms of transport is delivered straight to the front door, showing how efficient these house were in using the landscape to fit their needs.

Even the trees which are planted on the land around the house are a mix of local and the exotic, as is seen in the picture on the right, a monkey puzzle tree, known for their longevity and hardiness, a native of Chile, this exotic tree frames the front of the house which provides privacy but also because it has a longevity of life, seems to suggest that it was chosen as symbol, that the landlords’ believed their presence here would last as well. So it’s interesting the type of trees and shrubbery used is perhaps representative of the landlord’s own feeling about their position.


The design of the house is very much an extension of the landlord’s own personal taste. The manor very much demonstrates this call for perfection and an eye for detail in the architecture of the house. Built by the architect John Hargrave in 1825, is a rebuild of the fire-damaged 1670 structure, is a perfect balance of the tutor-gothic and the symmetry of the Palladian style. The dormer windows on all sides of the house are perfectly symmetrical with its partner window on the opposite side, the individual, patterned panes are a testament to the want of perfection and attention to detail taken by these men. The manor continues to allude to how important detail and craftsmanship were to adding personal touches to the house in order to make it unique but striking at the same time. One area to also note is the use of stone drain piping which connect to the expansive lead roof. Each half cylinder is constructed from the same stone as the house fixed together with stone joints. These pipes run the length of the house, the water from the roof feeding into cylinder basins which join the roof from the stone coping, all these sections work in harmony but they are practical this is lasting and functional as well as a statement of design.

Making a Big House work today: Ballywalter Park

Making a Big House work today: Ballywalter Park

Michael Burns

Ballywalter Park was built in the 1840s by Sir Charles Lanyon having been commissioned to do so by the Andrew Mulholland (1792-1866), who owned multiple flax & linen mills in the North of Ireland and was elected Lord Mayor of Belfast in 1845. His only son, John Mullholland (1819-1895) was a savvy business man as well as an active political member of the elite; becoming an MP for Downpatrick in 1874 and being made Baron Dunleath of Ballywalter in 1892. John (1st Lord Dunleath) was able to grow the family business and firmly established the family as one of the largest landowners in Co. Down, centred on their estate in Ballywalter.

170 years on from the completion of Ballywalter Park the political and economic landscape has changed quite significantly with many landed families dying off and still others losing their fortune and their land. However the Mulholland’s of Ballywalter have persevered and today Ballywalter Park is now home to the 5th Lord & Lady Dunleath and their family. However the house suffered over the years and according to a Belfast Telegraph interview with Lord Dunleath in 2014, there were serious issues with house with the entire 2nd floor uninhabitable until refurbishment took place and a friend joking that going to bed in the house was ‘like climbing in between sheets of wet cardboard’.


Extensive restoration has ensured the survival of the house, however times have changed in that the big houses of the past can no longer be maintained as purely private homes and so the Mulholland family have had to adapt to changing circumstances as seen in how they are able to make their big house work today. The house is now as a location for corporate events as well as a country getaway for groups who can experience duck & peasant shooting. Furthermore historical and cultural tours of the estate and grounds can be organised for private groups with the tours conducted by the Lord or Lady Dunleath themselves. As of 2014 Ballywalter House is also open on European Heritage Day in late September and indeed proves to be a popular event every year. They also reach out to the public through Lady Dunleath’s ‘Walled Garden blog’, which is a fascinating insight not only into her love of horticulture and the development of the gardens in Ballywalter but also of the history of the estate as well as the various activities and events run today.
The rise of popular period dramas such as Downton Abbey (filmed at Highclare castle in Hampshire, England), has seen a growth in demand for similar locations to film. Therefore a new and exciting use for the Big Houses and their estates are as film locations for many television shows or films, with Ballywalter Park among them. It has been used for a number of local and national television and film productions such as Christopher & his kind, 37 days & Hitler on Trial; with Ballywalter House aiming to ‘provide the ideal location that can be used for multiple scenes, thus giving a saving on transport costs, and to offer the Producer and Director a totally controlled and friendly environment in which to film’(

The continued and varied use of Ballywalter Park today is a prime example of the development and continuing purpose of the Irish Country House. The great landed families of the past can no longer live an isolated existence and indeed depend on the public to survive in many ways. Ballywalter Park is a ‘big house’ which works today in a very different world than the one in which it was built; as a home, events venue, visitor’s attraction & a film set.

Further Reading:


  • Dunleath Estate Papers in PRONI (1706-1972) – PRONI Ref. D1167
  • Personal Papers of 4th Lord Dunleath in PRONI (1933-1998)- PRONI Ref. D4179



Christmas: The Season of Influence

Christmas: The Season of Influence

“The 600 cards are to be made up as follows –

400 with the Mount Stewart address, and 200 with the address Wynyard Park, Stockton on Tees”[1]

by Ruby Buchanan

Christmas is a time of Joy and Kindness. It is a time of companionship – when you spend time with family and close friends and indulge in all of the luxuries that emerge at that time of the year. It is a time when the streets echo with carols and houses rumble with the excited squeals of children eagerly awaiting the visit of the one and only Santa Claus. However for others it has a different meaning.

For the landed elite Christmas was a time to establish yourself among influential people – politicians, royalty and anyone who held even a snippet of power. I suspect some of you are wondering what the ‘landed elite’ was. Before the political turmoil that unleashed itself upon Ireland in the nineteenth century and at the turn of the twentieth century (The Land Wars and Home Rule) there were people in Ireland who owned big houses and dominated the poorer classes. These people were Ireland’s politicians and owned a lot of land in Ireland. Very few people remain part of the landed elite today because many laws and events took this power away from them.

I am going to focus on an example of those at the very top of this pyramid of power; (which I have illustrated below) the Londonderrys and how they used Christmas to strengthen their position of power in a broader political sphere.  The quote that I have included at the top of the page is taken from the Christmas card lists of the Londonderry family in 1924. Nowadays, Christmas cards are sent to family members who tend to be forgotten about during the year; family members who only ever hear from you through the means of a Christmas card. In my house Christmas card lists are written on the back of an old piece of paper in haste so that the cards are sent out on time and the family members aren’t forgotten about.


The Londonderrys’ Christmas lists took planning and were a tactic in their strategy to uphold their political cause. Christmas card lists? I hear you ask, how can Christmas card lists be used to exert political influence? Christmas was important to the Londonderry’s to show people that they were important to them and to prove their loyalty.  These lists included influential figures such as the Duke of Abercorn and Sir James Craig. I’m sure you can imagine how special you would feel if you sent a Christmas card to a leading politician and got a response. Well this was the norm for people like Lady Londonderry who was in charge of writing these Christmas lists and making sure that nobody had been forgotten about. Can you imagine the scandal if you forgot to send a Christmas card to one of your closest political allies?

The unionist world (yes the Londonderrys were unionist) was a web of mass communication. In an era with no mobile phones and no Wi-Fi to send a quick email, letters and cards were important methods of contacting your friends and cohorts. By sending a Christmas card to those within the elite, the Londonderry’s could be sure that everyone was aware that they were still part of the unionist cause and hadn’t converted to the other side. So just remember, when you are scribbling your Christmas list this year, that in previous times they had a much more significant purpose.

[1] PRONI D2099/12/11

The rise of the House of Mulholland

The rise of the House of Mulholland

Ballywalter Park is home to Lord and Lady Dunleath and has been passed down through their family for 170 years. The Mulholland family, who would later boast of several Lords Dunleath were unique as they were not originally part of the prestigious elite that country house owners usually hailed from. Although not the first owners of the estate, they grew to hold considerable influence over society.

A relative of the Mulhollands, E. Holmes, wrote in 1907 that, “There were several families of the name of Mulholland in Belfast at the end of the 18th century but the one which has risen to a very high degree of worldly distinction and to whom Belfast is probably more indebted than any other for its unexampled progress is that of Thomas Mulholland.”[1]

While the family’s early history is limited, Thomas Mulholland (1756-1820) married Ann Doe in Belfast in 1784 and had 11 children, including four sons: William, Thomas, Andrew and St Clair. The family is believed to be of relatively humble origins. They entered the thriving cotton industry by purchasing a mill around 1815. While Thomas Sr. died in 1820, the business continued its expansion with his sons building a spinning mill near York Street in 1822. However, disaster struck in June 1828 when a fire almost completely destroyed this mill. Time would prove this to be a most fortuitous catastrophe for the family.

The brothers, Thomas, Andrew and St Clair, decided to rebuild the mill for the spinning of flax instead of cotton due to the cotton industry’s growing economic problems. It was with this business that they began to scale the social ladder. The York Street linen mill was opened in 1830 and by 1856 it could be described as one of the largest mills of its kind. Mill-owner Hugh MacCall wrote that the mill’s production “gave a new impulse to the manufacture of linen … Belfast can never forget how much she owes to the house of Mulholland.”[2] He was also impressed by the Mulhollands’ vast profits that, according to him, were far beyond their imagination.

The family was also active in civic affairs. St Clair was a J.P. for County Down and a High Sheriff of County Louth and in 1865 donated money towards a new wing at what would later be known as the Royal Victoria Hospital. His older brother, Andrew was elected Mayor of Belfast for the year 1845. He built Ballywalter Park but is best known for having provided the Ulster Hall with its grand organ in 1862. Andrew’s only son John (1819-95) attended the Royal Academy in Belfast and assumed control of the family interests which grew to include 13,500 acres of land in County Down and 1,000 acres near Cookstown, County Tyrone. John also had political ambitions and was elevated to the peerage in 1892, becoming Baron Dunleath of Ballywalter, by recommendation of the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury.

Although Ballywalter Park, the Dunleath family’s base, had a different origin (the Matthews family), most of the Ards estate came from the Blackwood family of Clandeboye, Bangor. The head of that family, later known as the 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, became seriously mortgaged to the 1st Lord Dunleath, whose acquirement of the Dufferin estate, to the north of Ballywalter, was a matter of foreclosure. Through Ballywalter Park, his existing estates, the newly attained Dufferin land and his significant wealth and philanthropy, John Mulholland’s status as an established gentleman was secured. His will in 1895 illustrates the family’s growing affluence. The gross value of personal estate amounted to £583,266 with assets in Ireland adding up to around £65,783. It also discusses his ‘contingent interest in [his] villa in Cannes’.[3] In less than a century the Mulholland family had successfully elevated to the landed class and were playing a significant role in the political and public sphere.

Amy Lyttle, Queen’s University Belfast

[1] (Notebook): Family annals collected and arranged by E. Holmes, 1907, PRONI: D3739/6

[2] (Summary): Dunleath papers, 1706-1972, PRONI: D1167

[3] (Will): Rt. Hon. Baron John Dunleath, 1 Feb 1895, PRONI: LPC/14