Monday, 24 August 2020

Storied Homes of Ulster – Lissan Rectory

 The following is part of a series of articles which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph in 1953 under the pen name 'Fina'.


Lissan Rectory

THE wild roses froth pink and white along the hedge on the road that leads from Cookstown. The scent of new-mown hav drift* from the June meadows and the deep heart of Ireland is quiet with summer stillness. Bush and briar were heavy with the year's green, even the song of the blackbird had a soft and lazy trill, on the afternoon that I took the winding lane to Lissan Rectory.

The drenching sunshine showed this house of Nash's at its best, for, here at Lissan, Nash the light-handed, the careless and the socially successful, chose to design in the Italianate manner.

Not for the Rev. John Staples, far whom the dwelling was built in 1807, a house heavy in the Gothic manner of Killymoon Castle, or ponderously palatial as for George IV at Buckingham Palace but as exquisitely airy and dazzling white villa that is as appropriate in its green Irish setting as it would be under a Mediterranean sky.

Yellow roses caress the slender columns of the high and rounded arches of the loggia in front of the drawing room. Here, in the first decade of the nineteenth century, the Rev. John Staples' wife doubtless entertained her friends to tea whilst the hot June sunshine cast those same entrancing lavender shadows along the white walls.

There was wealth at the Rectory in those years, for the Rev. John could afford to spend £1,500 on "chaise-hire." The £1,300 odd that he spent on his lovely rectory was probably well within his means.

What a different picture is presented in the little church where the Rev. John must have preached his Sunday sermon! Here, on a hill that commands a view of half Ireland, all is quiet dignity and simple grace. Here the summer sun distils a rosy light through the chancel window dedicated to that Vicar of Lissan who became Governor of Londonderry in 1689, and died at the Battle of the Boyne.

There have been vicars of Lissan since 1440. Not always has June stillness brooded over this place for a tale is told that in 1642 the Vicar was murdered. No more seems to be known than this bald fact, but is it mere coincidence that in this same year Lady Charity Staples and her four children were seized at Lissan House by Neil Oge O’Quinn and taken prisoner.

The known facts are intriguing. Sir Thomas had gone to Cookstown where he had purchased some property the previous week. We conjecture: Did he leave his Lady and their four children, "all his pretty chickens and their dam" in the charge of the good Vicar knowing the rebel O'Quinn was in the district, yet fearing not to complete his business in Cookstown lest Mrs. May return to Dublin and sell her property in another?

And did the good Vicar lose his life in defence of Lady Charity and those four children? Did he, before he died, influence O’Quinn so that eventually Lady Charity and her children were released and were able to join Sir Thomas in Londonderry? Or did the rebels seize the man of God in his own church?

We do not know: and the church and the still meadows that clamour to us so loud of
the evanescence of things material, are silent on these points.


Next week – Hillsborough Castle.

Belfast Telegraph, 24 June 1953.

Storied Homes of Ulster – Southwell Schools, Downpatrick

The following is part of a series of articles which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph in 1953 under the pen name 'Fina'.

Southwell Schools, Downpatrick

TO the casual traveller Downpatrick must seem a very uninspiring county town. To the pilgrim seeking the essence of Ireland there comes a very different impression.

Beyond the blatant modern shopfronts of the main street is Georgian English street. Its tall windows and elegant doorways with their graceful fanlights speak to us moat eloquently of a more leisurely past.

The cloistered stillness at the far end of the street, where the cathedral stands, is disturbed only by a chaffinch singing in the flowering chestnuts, by the far-off cawing of rooks and the distant noise of traffic. Here a Celtic cross points upwards to the four spires of the square tower, soaring heavenwards in stone song.

There also stands a lonely monument to the memory of a man whose ideas were far in advance of his time — the Southwell schools and almshouses, founded by Edward Southwell in 1733.

A portrait of Mr. Southwell reveals to us a generous good-humoured mouth, strong nose, full, shapely eyes and broad forehead — a kindly countenance, outward sign of an inward grace.

This eighteenth century philanthropist could be firm, however. This is shown in the somewhat acid correspondence which arose between Mr. Southwell and John Trotter, the first Steward, on the one side, and the Dean of Down on the other. Controversy arose because the Steward, upon his employers instructions, had dismissed a schoolmaster without first consulting the Dean.

Relations between church dignitary and landowner were little better some thirty years later, although the union referred to in the following extract from a letter to another Mr. Southwell, written by John Trotter’s son, may have sweetened matters:— "You will smile when I tell you that tho' I dislike this man (the Dean) much, his daughter and I have settled the preliminaries of a bargain for life ... I am determined that I will have the girl, tho' without one shilling — the little I shall have will he a competence for the extent of my own desires, and I will trust her, that she will not add to them."

The almshouses form the long centre portion of the building, the schools and master's and mistress's residences being at either end. Unfortunately the road fronting the facade has been raised, and its full elegance is no longer evident at first glance. Nothing, however, can detract from the beauty of the rosy brickwork, mellow and mossy with age, and the creamy stone which enhances it.

Edward Southwell's conception of a home for his twelve aged and Protestant persons is quite twentieth century, in effect the almshouses form a block of flats. Six little dwellings lie on either side of a high vaulted archway, guarded by commemorative gates.

Each one has a tiny sitting room with a little bedroom leading from it. First there are two small homes, one above the other, then, through an adjacent door, two more dwellings lie on each side of a common staircase, this plan being repeated on the floor above. The old men and women once had a common meeting place in the chapel-like room that lies beneath the tower.

Beyond the cobbled inner courtyard on to which the almshouses face, are small gardens, each with its square, clipped hedge to divide it from its neighbour. Once the
gardens were shaded by a linden walk, but the lime trees have been felled, and now only a few branches, growing here and there amongst the hawthorns, tell tales of past glories.

From the miniature gardens one can see the Grove of which John Wesley wrote in his Journal on June 13, 1778:— "I took my stand in the middle of the Grove the people standing before me on the gradually rising ground, which formed a beautiful theatre; the sun just glimmered through the trees, but did not hinder me at all. It was a glorious opportunity. The whole congregation seemed to drink into one spirit."

The trees are larger and more beautiful than ever; the natural theatre is as lovely: we lack nothing, here in the shadow of the cathedral, save the glorious spirit of those who once trod these paths.


Next week — Lissan Rectory, Co. Londonderry.

Belfast Telegraph,  17 June 1953.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Storied Homes of Ulster – Clogher Palace

The following is part of a series of articles which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph in 1953 under the pen name 'Fina'.

Clogher Palace

PASSING through Clogher I had the feeling that, somewhere in the flowering Tyrone countryside, I had left behind all the mundane things of to-day, and had found instead, all the charm of 18th century Ireland.

The square-towered Cathedral on the hill, the gracious palace standing next to it, the gay, yellow washed cottages with their many-paned windows and the half-doors from which one steps directly into the road  all these things worked a magic around me, and I should have felt little surprise if the modern chariot in which my journey had begun had changed, quite suddenly, into a phaeton drawn by a fat pony.

The Italianate splendour of the present Palace at Clogher, with colonnaded loggia and
imposing entrance, is in great contrast to the jolly cottages that confront it from across the street.

The edifice itself is as lordly as the names of the Bishops who saw the start and the finish of its erection. Begun during the tenure of Lord John George Beresford, it was completed in 1823 whilst Lord Robert Ponsonby Tottenham Loft us held the Bishopric.

One feels that the Palace this splendour replaced had possibly an appearance more in keeping with its surroundings. Mrs. Delaney wrote of that Palace:

"The house is large, and makes a good showish figure; there is a great loss of room due to ill-contrivance within doors. It is situated on the side of a hill so steep that part of the front next the street is underground. From that to the garden is 50 steps The garden is pretty; there is a fine, large sloping green walk to a large basin of water on which sail most graciously four beautiful swans."

Alas, the pretty garden is sadly reduced; the fine large basin of water" is now separated from it by more than one meadow.

Another of Ireland's writers to visit this place was Dean Swift. He was an intimate friend of Bishop Ashe, who held the office in 1697, and of the Bishop's brothers Dillon (Dilly of the "Journal") and Tom. The Dean had a name for this trio, he called them The Three Ashes."

According to Sheridan, son of Swift's great friend, it was this same Bishop Ashe whom Swift asked to discover the cause of his Stella's obvious unhappiness. Upon learning from the Bishop that Stella was distressed at the slander heaped on her because of her affection for him. Swift consented to marriage, stipulating that the ceremony was to be kept secret and they were to live apart as before.

There must be something in the Clogher air that is conducive to letters, for two of Ireland's writers were born in the district; William Carlton who wrote in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe, was born at Trillick in 1794, and Rose Cavanagh, whose poem, "The Black water" was praised by Yeats, was born at Clogher in 1859.

Before the might of the pen descended upon Clogher, however, the sword had held sway, for some of its Bishops had been known as "The Fighting Bishops of Clogher." Of these the most famous was John Leslie, who took up arms in the Royalist cause. He made his peace later with the Commonwealth to the tune of a grant of some 120 a year.

Now this Palace that stands upon ground that has seen so much of Irish history no longer belongs to the Protestant Church. By the Irish Church Temporalities Act it was sold to the Rev. John Gray. His descendants in turn sold it to the Roman Catholic Bishop of Clogher; to-day it is a convent, and in that garden where the lovely Mrs. Delaney walked, one sees, fenced off in a secluded corner, the pathetic graves of those women who have died within these walls.


Next week — Southwell Schools, Downpatrick.

Belfast Telegraph,  10 June 1953.

Storied Homes of Ulster – Jonathan Swift’s Cottage, Kilroot

 The following is part of a series of articles which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph in 1953 under the pen name 'Fina'.

Jonathan Swift’s Cottage, Kilroot

DOWN a country lane that divides two fields and alongside Kilroot railway station stands a curious oval thatched cottage, surely a prototype of the fairy tale gingerbread house. To this quaint dwelling place came Jonathan Swift in 1694 when he was twenty-seven years old, and it was here, towards the end of his service at Kilroot. that he finished his "Tale of a Tub."

Dissatisfied with his life at Moor Park as Sir William Temple's protege, his curious moral sense had made him feel justified in taking Holy Orders. Other employment had been offered to him in the form of a clerkship with the Master of the Rolls in Ireland, and thus the Church was not merely a last resort.

Swift had met King William the Third at Moor Park; the King had promised future favours, and when the prebend of Kilroot, in the Diocese of Connor, became available, the Lord Lieutenant exercised the Royal Patronage and bestowed the prebend upon Jonathan Swift by letters patent.

Beside Belfast Lough, among the dour fisher folk of Kilroot, Jonathan Swift, later to benefit the Irish in so many ways and to become the first settler to think of himself as Anglo-Irish, spent two bitter winters.

There were few adherents of the Church of Ireland in Kilroot, the fisher folk being mainly Presbyterian, and Jonathan Swift's church was usually empty. The unhappy young minister, nicknamed “the mad parson" by the Kilroot folk, would walk the shores of the Lough, his gown flapping in the wind, skimming stones into the sea.

Picture the scene as the wild-eyed young man carried great boulders into church followed by the wondering fisherfolk, then imagine their bewilderment when, having achieved a hearing Jonathan Swift locked the doors and delivered to his unwilling congregation a short and scathing sermon.

His sojourn at Kilroot was not one of unrelieved grimness. He had the attention of families like the Dobbs of Castle Dobbs, and, in Carrickfergus itself of the Clements and of Lord and Lady Donegall. Moreover his near neighbour was a Mr. Waring, a friend of his Trinity days, nephew of the Rev. Roger Waring, rector of Donaghcloney (Waringstown), where Swift's Uncle Adam had a house. Jonathan Swift met and fell in love with Mr. Waring's sister, Jane, whom he promptly re-christened Varina Valina, with a small income of her own, proved to be a rather calculating little flirt who put a number of difficulties in the way of marriage with Swift; she “enjoyed" ill-health; she feared poverty on the £90 a year that made up the stipend of the livings of Kilroot, Templecorran and Ballynure. Indeed, her prevarication quite cured her admirer of love, for he never again forgot himself in passion.

Their correspondence continued spasmodically after Swift's return to Moor Park; then, when Swift came back to Ireland to take his seat in St. Patrick’s Cathedral with an income now of some £200 a year, Varina wrote with greater ardour. Now it was Varina who was anxious for marriage, but a cold and angry letter from Swift, setting out his requirements from a wife and his own shortcomings as a husband, finished the correspondence.

Varina never married, and the next year Stella, now nineteen, came from Moor Park to Ireland — Stella whom Swift is reputed later to have married secretly in the Bishop of Clogher’s garden.


Next week — Clougher Palace.

Belfast Telegraph,  3 June 1953.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Storied Homes of Ulster – Dobbins Castle

 The following is part of a series of articles which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph in 1953 under the pen name 'Fina'.

Dobbins Castle, Carrickfergus

Of all the castles that McSkimmin listed in his history of Carrickfergus, Dobbin's is the most easily recognisable. To-day it is an hotel, but its low-ceilinged rooms and warren- like passages retain most of their sixteenth century character. Not many years ago, during alterations to the place, a cavernous fireplace, large enough to roast an ox, was discovered. The great oak beam that forms the chimney-piece of this monstrous hearth, is blackened by the heat of many fires. Adjacent to the fireplace is a cupboard behind which a secret passage runs to one of the bedrooms. This was, doubtless, a way of escape in more troublous times.

The name of Dobbin figures largely in the annals of Carrickfergus. Several of the family became mayors of the town. It seems that as early as the seventeenth century the castle was kept as an inn, although the Dobbins were of good and ancient family.

William Dobbin, who was mayor in 1576, 1580, and 1583, was a friend of that gallant Elizabethan, Sir Moyses Hill, founder of the Downshire family. Sir Moyses, a man of ancient lineage but no fortune, came to Ireland to serve under the Earl of Essex, and having proved himself a most able soldier was made governor of Olderfleet Castle. Around 1600 he was a frequent visitor to Dobbin's Castle, and there he met and fell in love with Anne, William Dobbin's beautiful daughter, then only twenty. This hard bitten soldier of over forty made such an impression on the lovely Anne that she married him, and for several years they lived at Dobbin's Castle. Anne proved to be a good wife and mother, both to her own son, Arthur, and to her little stepson. Peter.

It is interesting to trace the thread that links the Downshire family with this little pre-Elizabethan house in Carrickfergus, High Street. Sir Moyses had built himself a fortified manor in County Down, which he called Hill's Court. The locals re-named it the Hall of the Hills — now Hillhall, and it was to Hillhall that Sir Moyses brought Anne and his two young sons. In his thirty or so years of marriage with Anne he made the Hall of the Hills a happy well managed place. The forty thousand acres were well farmed, the tenants prospered, and the old baronial customs of a yule log at Christmas and a Maypole in the Spring were kept

Let us trace this linking thread a little further, for it takes us to the very heart of Ulster.

When Sir Moyses died, full of years and grace, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Peter, Anne's stepson. Peter rebuilt the old stronghold of the Magenisses, founded a town on the mound that formed the villages, and originated Hillsborough. Peter did not live very long and was succeeded by his only son, Francis. As Francis died without issue, the estate passed to Anne Dobbin's son, Arthur, the child that was born within a year of the marriage of the Carrickfergus beauty to the Elizabethan warrior.


Next week — Derrymore House, Newry.

Belfast Telegraph, 20 May, 1953.

Storied Homes of Ulster – Derrymore House

 The following is part of a series of articles which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph in 1953 under the pen name 'Fina'.

Derrymore House

ALTHOUGH built at a time of great classical influence Derrymore House, Co. Armagh, remains obstinately Irish, showing none of the Attic style. It is a quaint, one-storied dwelling built of granite although this is discovered only where the warm amber plaster has been chipped away.

The thick, gnarled stems of wistaria, planted long ago, have crept up the walls and embedded themselves in the shabby thatch that sits upon the house like a beloved and battered hat. A red rose brushes gently against the panes of the long, Georgian windows — the same windows through which Chancellor Corry and Lord Castlereagh might have been seen as they thrashed out the details of the 1801 Act of Union.

Derrymore means "great oak," these lands were probably at one time part of the primeval forest. It seems that for centuries there has been a house at Derrymore, for there are records that a Henry M'Shane O'Neill was living hereabouts very early in the 17th century as life tenant of the lands of Camlough.

The present house was built by Sir Isaac Corry, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the last Irish Parliament before the Act of Union. The story of the origination of the Act in this very house, of the special Dublin road made for Chancellor Corry, and of the Chancellor's duel with Grattan are too well known to be repeated here.

The dwelling is built round three sides of a square, the room known as the Chancellor's room, being at one time the entrance. As the Corrys became more powerful a more imposing entrance, complete with pillared portico, was made at the opposite end.

About the middle of the 19th century Derrymore passed into the hands of James Richardson, a member of the Society of Friends who had built a model village round a factory at nearby Bessbrook. Mr. Richardson believed wholeheartedly in total abstinence, and had built his model village to demonstrate his theory that when strong drink is absent there is need for no great force of police, and that there is as little use for the pawnshop and the moneylender as for the publican.

It is interesting to note that another great Quaker, Mr. Cadbury, visited Bessbrook before building his own model village of Bourneville.

To-day Derrymore House has been given to the National Trust and much work is being done to restore it to its original beauty. Workmen are busy in a patient re-building of the places that time’s fell hand has decayed. A new thatch of Norfolk reeds is to replace Derrymore’s present battered hat. When all is ready, this historic house will be open to view, complete with the furniture of the period. — Fina.

Next week:— Dean Swift's House, Kilroot.

Belfast Telegraph, 27 May 1953.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Storied Homes of Ulster – Florencecourt

 The following is part of a series of articles which appeared in the Belfast Telegraph in 1953 under the pen name 'Fina'.


AT the end of the eighteenth century Nash made a survey of the mansions of England, travelling on horseback. My survey of the mansions of Ulster has been made in far greater comfort. Whatever the differences in our mode of travel, I am convinced that Nash would agree that none of the lordly homes he surveyed was lovelier than Florencecourt.

Travelling from Enniskillen on a day when the sky was as tender a blue as an angel's eyes, when the blackthorn was starred with white, when every tree wore green lace and when every hedge and ditch was thickly clustered with primroses, I came to Florencecourt.

The house is in the centre of a green and fertile plain, surrounded by an amphitheatre of blue hills. It is said to be the finest mid-Georgian mansion in Ulster, but more than that, it is a beloved home, bearing the fragrance of a long and honourable past.

There has been little change in its appearance since the house was built about 1736. except that slates have replaced the original oak shingles of the roof.

Stately in the beauty of warm stone, the house overlooks a rolling demesne. A pair of toy cannon guard the great front door of pine on which gleams a fat brass knocker These cannon, taken from an American privateer, are fired to celebrate the coming-of-age of the heir.

The interior of the dwelling is cool and graceful. Many of the ceilings were decorated by Italian workmen; charming cherubs blow out their rounded cheeks on the dining room ceiling, and throughout there is the loving attention to detail found only when workmen are also craftsmen.

Florencecourt was built by Sir John Cole, who was the first Baron Mt. Florence.

Enniskillen owes much to the Cole family. Sir William Cole, who was Plain Captain Cole when the Commissioners of Plantation arrived in Enniskillen in 1609, so protected the town that he saved it from the horrors of the 1641 rising. Sir William, knighted in 1613, the year that he became first Provost and Warder of the Castle, was responsible for warning the Justices in Dublin of the intended rising of October 23, 1641.

It happened that a certain Captain Rory Maguire had invited Sir William, together with other prominent citizens to dine with him. It was Captain Maguire's intention to hold his guests hostages for the cession of Enniskillen. However, a relative of Captain Maguire, Brian Maguire, warned Sir William of the plot, whereupon he hastily departed.

The other guests sensing something amiss, departed also, and the plot was foiled. Sir William despatched a messenger to apprise (he Justices, but unfortunately there was a delay and the Justices did not receive the message until October 22, the day before the rising.

Negotiations are now on hand for the National Trust to undertake the upkeep of Florencecourt, so that there is a distinct possibility that at some time the public may be privileged to view its beauties.


Next week — Dobbin's Castle. Carrickfergus.

Belfast Telegraph – Wednesday, 13th May 1953