Wednesday 31 August 2011

The House of Downshire, 1600 to 1868. (part 2)



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A Sketch of its History from 
1600 to 1868,


Dedicated to G. G. Tew, Esq., 
Manager of the Lisburn Branch of the Ulster Bank.

This interesting and valuable work comprises some 130 pages, and in addition to the history of the House of Downshire contains details of the founding of Tenant-right in Ulster.

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EXTRACTS (Continued.)

In 1603 Lord Deputy Montgomery paid some high compliment's to the commanders of the troops, as well as to the soldiers under them, for the heroism they had displayed in their endurance of hardships which, he added, were sometimes more difficult to fight against than the weapons of the enemy. Colonel Moyses Hill, having been knighted, was thus raised in civil rank to the same position held by his brother-commanders. For some time, however, the royal troops made little progress in the campaign, the followers of the O'Neills, the Magennisses, and the O'Hagans fighting every inch of ground with the bravery that has ever distinguished the Celt in the battlefield. But, after years of struggle, the military education of the royal army, the superior discipline and experienced power of concentrating forces, finally overcame the Irish soldiers, and left the English commanders in full possession of Antrim, Down, and a great portion of Derry. The aged Queen had then been gathered to her fathers, and James the First wielded the royal sceptre. He was greatly overjoyed at hearing of the victories in Ireland, which his ministers and himself hoped would prove a total discomfiture of the Ulster Chiefs. But the Celtish Princes were not utterly cast down; they had all the sympathies of the natives on their side, and fleeing with the remnant of their armies into the wild fastnesses of Derry and Tyrone, they found safe refuge there for the time being. Ample estates, forfeited by the Chiefs who had repudiated English rule in Ireland, were handed over to the triumphant commanders of the King's soldiers. Sir Arthur Chichester, who in Elizabeth's day boasted that he had laid waste the dwellings of native farmers and the cabins of labourers for twenty miles, on each side of Carrickfergus, was presented with an entire tract of country which had some time before been wrested from Sir Thomas Smith, and was granted him by royal patent; Sir Fulke Conway received the entire Manor of Killultagh as his reward; and Sir Moyses Hill got about forty thousand awes of land in Down, besides nearly two thousand acres of property in Antrim. Nor did the Crown gifts end with these presentations. The former-named commander was appointed Lord of the Castle of Belfast and Governor of the Fort; Sir Fulke Conway was made military chief of Ennisloughlin; and Sir Moyses Hill a few years before had been raised to the dignity of Governor of Olderfleet Castle and its fortifications.

The gallant warrior resided for the greater part of his later days in an ancient building not far distant from Carrickfergus, and in 1597 married a Celtish beauty, Alice MacDonnell, of Dunluce Castle. That lady died before the end of twelve months, leaving an infant son named Peter. Some years afterwards Sir Moyses commenced the erection of a mansion and stronghold at an extreme point of his Down estate, and on a piece of rising ground situate at a picturesque spot not far distant from the hamlet of Lisnagarvagh. The work, as ultimately completed by his grandson Francis, was constructed after the design of an old baronial hall in Devon, and when finished, with its castellated turrets, high-peaked gables and loop-holed towers at each end, it was said to be one of the most picturesque castles in Down. The walls were of great strength, and the interior finish of carved oak panelling gave the character of both gloom and grandeur to the principal apartments. According to the architectural philosophy of that age, the windows were high and very narrow, as if the great object of those who designed plans for dwellings had been as much as possible to build out the light; even pure air seemed to have been placed under the ban of the architect. Around the mansion there was erected a high wall, on the top of which a number of cannons were placed. Two very powerful guns were placed in either side the archway that formed the grand entrance, causing the whole erection to appear as a powerful fortress. A broad range of tall elms surrounded the Castle, and through these there was hewn an avenue leading to the rude roadway that skirted the hillside. The structure was called Hill's Court, after the name of the mansion which, more than two hundred years before, was owned by the Right Honourable John Hill, of Devon; but the country people gave it the title of the Hall of the Hills, and hence arose the name Hill Hall, by which a large district in that part of Down is distinguished, and is still famed as being the home of sturdy men and handsome women. A portion of the well which formed the outer defence that surrounded the stronghold may yet be seen; but as there does not appear to be any care taken for the preservation of that remnant of the old Hall of the Hills, hardly a vestige of it will likely remain in a few years hence.

One of the most beautifully situated, as well as one of the healthiest summer retreats, is to be found at Hillhall House, the old home of the Malcolm family. It is said the entrance hall and staircase of this rural mansion had been designed from an old painting that represented the hall of Hill's Court. The site of the house is known to have been a portion of the pleasure-grounds attached to the old stronghold, and within the recollection of some of the older farmers of the district not long passed away there had been still standing at the commencement of the present century several ancient oaks planted by Francis Hill. In very few inland districts of Ulster could there be seen so much of the beautiful in natural scenery, or such glorious sunsets, as may be looked upon from this section of the pleasure grounds of the old Castle.

According to the tradition respecting Sir Moyses' second marriage, he had frequently met at a friend's house in Carrickfergus Miss Anne Dobbin. He was then on the shady side of forty; the young lady did not exceed half that age; she was very attractive, of good family, and the usual finale of the old story wound up the affair. Sir Moyses had been the hero of many battlefields, and gained much military fame, but in this second love chase he surrendered, as readily as the most juvenile courtier would have done, and in a few weeks after his first introduction to the county belle he was carried away captive even to the foot of the matrimonial altar. The young wife entered on her household duties with something like matronly wisdom. Her step-son was three years old, and to that child she proved herself a mother indeed. Twelve months after marriage she had a son of her own, who received the name of Arthur. In the very heartiness of fraternity the lads grew up from childhood, and that affectionate feeling increased as they reached riper ages, Mrs. Anne Hill having always shown to Alice MacDonnell's orphan the same motherly attention she did to her own son.

Like all other Undertakers to whom lands had been granted by the Crown, Sir Moyses was bound to give his tenants good leases at reasonable rents, and also to build a castle and stronghold as places of defence, to plant the land with English settlers, and he was not to exact of them either "cuttings" or "cosheries;" that was, he should not, under certain penalties, force the tenants to entertain him and his servants on journeys, nor could he demand that his military followers, as was the case under the feudal Princes, should be free of the farmers' houses, nor should they carry off cattle except on paying the owners their value.

Sir Moyses induced a number of farmers to come over from Devon and settle in Down, and to each of them, as well as to the four hundred native tenants already occupying small holdings on the estate, he granted leases at from one to two shillings an acre, and the area of every occupier might be extended by whatever breadth of land he could reclaim from the wilderness that lay near his farm. As a condition of these advantages tenants were bound to erect farm buildings and improve the land at their own cost.

The gallant knight lived, as his successors have done, on the most friendly terms with his tenants. Their interest's in the soil they had improved, and in the farm buildings they had raised, he looked upon as second only to his own rights as owner in fee simple, and they had perfect liberty to dispose of each interests on the best terms they could command. In the good spirit of the feudal chiefs, Sir Moyses always celebrated holiday seasons at Hill's Court. The Yule log was burned at Christmas, the mistletoe had its special place in the Hall, and from that day until the new year set in there was open house is for all comers, with no lack of home brewed ale and ample sirloins of beef and barley bread. Easter festivals were maintained in all the spirit of the good old times, as kept up in Devon, and the Maypole was raised on the last night of April and handsomely decorated for the sports of next day. On each of these occasions the old knight joined with the people in their amusements, and for the time being all grades of rank were cast aside.

Sir Moyses Hill proved himself to be the patron as well as the protector of his tenantry of all classes and creeds. The farm stock and other property of the Roman Catholics, the Dissenters, and the Episcopalians who resided on his estates in Down and Antrim were held sacred as he considered the patent by which he was chief of those lands. The rents were duly paid, and the grateful feeling which always accompanied the discharge of these obligations was highly appreciated by their landlord. After having for more than a quarter of a century enjoyed the pleasures of proprietorship the old warrior died at Hill's Court, Hill Hall, on the tenth day of February, 1630, and in the seventy-sixth year of his age. In an obituary notice of that event an ancient chronicler said:-- "Sir Moyses Hill departed this life full of years and honours, highly respected as a statesman, and very popular as a magistrate and a landowner." In course of his reign the old soldier had made several purchases of land from those native Chiefs who had either not joined in the local campaign against the English, or, having done so, laid down their arms and were pardoned. Several thousands of acres had thus been added to the original grant from the Crown, making the next heir one of the most extensive of Ulster's territorials.

Peter Hill, eldest son of the deceased, had, some time before his father's death, rebuilt the old castle that had formerly been one of the strongholds of the Magennisses. Immediately after his accession to the estates he set about founding a town on the mound which formed the site of the little village, consisting of mud-wall cabins built in the old and comfortless style of rude architecture, and some of which lacked the luxury of glass windows. A number of brick houses were erected, nearly all of the two storey high, and covered on the roof with slates or shingles. Such was the origin of Hillsborough, the capital of the Downshire estates. The first heir of the property did not long enjoy his baronial honours, and at his death an only son, Francis, who till then had resided at Hill's Court, Hill Hall, removed to Hillsborough, but soon afterwards went back to his parents' mansion. It does not appear from the very few incidents which have been preserved of this gentleman's biography that he ever showed any ambition either for the greatness of the Senate or the glory of the battlefield. He had no family, and no desire for travel, the length of his journeyings rarely exceeding the run from the Castle at Hillsborough to the rural fortification at Hill Hall.

Francis Hill died without male issue in March, 1655, and was buried in the family vault of the Lisburn Church, after which his uncle, the Right Honourable Arthur Hill, second son of Sir Moyses, founder of the family, became heir to the estate. This scion of the house inherited all his father's love of military life, and had joined the army when little beyond his boyhood. Having distinguished himself in the wars undertaken by Charles the First, he retired from the service with the rank of colonel. During the Protectorate he entered the English Parliament, and continued to attend his duties there until the Restoration, when he was appointed a member of the King's Privy Council.

(House of Downshire to be continued.)

(This article was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 31 August 1917 as part of a series which ran in that paper each week through 1917 and into 1918. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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