Sunday, 21 March 2021

Storied Homes of Ulster – Belfast Castle

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


Belfast Castle

Autumn tints lend atmosphere to hillside mansion

From far below on the Antrim Road, Belfast Castle seems suspended halfway between the emerald gloom of the demesne's banked fir trees and the craggy top of Cave Hill, capped on a gold October day, with pearly sea-cloud.

The summer visitors are gone, and buses no longer run on the climbing road that leads to the Castle and its grounds, but just now, in the fall of the year, it is most rewarding to make the escent on foot.

A wide, grassy pathway winds round the hillside, fringing the edge of the demesne. Sunlight glints on woods that glow with all of autumn's richness, and in the sparkling air the tawny leaves are flecked with copper flame. Here and there, against the land's glossy green, the scarlet berries of the rowan trees hang jewel-like, and the tall plumes of the firs stir in the gentle wind.

It is only now, when summer’s profusion has passed, that we see the beauty of each separate leaf in the amber lace that clothes the branches.

The grey stone of the Castle, too, is warmed by the October sun, and the noonday brilliance dapples each pepper-pot turret with light. One thinks of Brunhilde and the Castles of the Rhine as one looks at the tall tower and pointed turrets of this place.

There is something of a fairy-tale quality in the curving stone staircase that leads to the first-floor reception rooms, and in the superb view of the Lough that one gains from the lawn fronting the dwelling. On a sunny autumn day, the sky’s deep blue is reflected in the sapphire waters of the Lough, which glisten like crystal as they are furrowed by harbour-bound vessels.

From this height, the city itself takes on a faery atmosphere as grey veils of smoke drift over it, making high gantries and upreaching chimneys rise, unsubstantially, from cloudy foundations.

This romantic building is little more than a hundred years old, its Scottish baronial style being typical of the Victorian era. Castle and grounds alike were bequeathed to the City by the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1934. The gift is characteristic of this noble family, which, in many ways, has been concerned in public service since the early 16th century.

The philanthropy of the seventh Earl is well-known. It is this hero of Victorian times, believing so passionately that life should be service to God, that we must thank for the humane reforms that came about during the second half of the 19th century. Lord Shaftesbury was the instigator of many of the Bills that reformed the Imperial Parliament, of the Mines Act that forbade the employment of women and boys underground, and of the Act that at last cured the evil of using child labour to sweep chimneys.

To the first Earl of Shaftesbury we owe our present system of Justice. He was the statesman who carried the Habeas Corpus Art through both Houses of Parliament, and who later introduced a Bill to render Judges independent of the Crown.


Next week – Bank of Ireland, Armagh.

Belfast Telegraph, Wednesday, 21 October 1953

Storied Homes of Ulster – Hillsborough Courthouse

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


Hillsborough Courthouse

Architectural grace in a Plantation town.

THE Courthouse at Hillsborough is a fine example of rural Irish Renaissance architecture, one of the many excellent public buildings that abound in the towns of Ulster. The building stands in an open space at the lop of the main street, between Government House and the old Fort.

The square centre of the Courthouse is flanked by two long wings, the space between their ends forming arcaded entrances which at one side face Government House and at the other the old Fort. These flanking wings are decorated with a “blinded" continuation of the central arcading, in a manner consistent with the Georgians’ obsession for symmetry.

Here are held the Courts of the Chairmen of the County or Quarter Sessions, which correspond to the English County Court Their origin, however, is of a much earlier date than their English counterpart. They were founded in 1794 in the reign of George III.

At Hillsborough, Quarter Sessions are held twice a year, and the Land Courts then taking place try all cases of dispute between landlord and tenant. Petty Sessions are held monthly and have jurisdiction over minor cases.

Hillsborough Courthouse was erected at the expense of the third Marquis of Downshire. Succeeding to his father's great estates at the age of 14, spoiled and flattered in a manner worthy of a reigning prince. Lord Downshire might have been excused had he succumbed to the profligacy of the age. That he did not reflects great credit upon the singular character of his mother, a woman who proved herself thoroughly capable of caring for the greet Downshire estate during her son's minority. Upon attaining his majority Lord Downshire interested himself in all that concerned the welfare of townsfolk and tenants.

The three years that followed his coming of age were years of high prices and great poverty, and he determined to improve the position of his tenants and the agricultural methods on his estates.

He it was who introduced ploughing matches to Ulster, the first of these being held at Hillsborough Park. In those days ploughs were mostly wooden. Lord Downshlre imported an iron plough from Glasgow, proved its superiority, then offered one of these ploughs and two sets of harness to the farmer in each townland who produced the finest crop of grain, flax, or potatoes.

For his time Lord Downshire had an unusual belief in the importance of education. He had studied the writings of that great educationist, Joseph Lancaster, who was introduced to him in Belfast. He was anxious that Lancaster should visit the schools he had built on his estate, but unfortunately the educationist had engagement in America which prevented him from so doing.

The Courthouse, school, market house end other public buildings erected by the Third Marquis form, at Hillsborough, one of the beet examples of a Plantation town.


Next week: Bank of Ireland, Armagh.

Belfast Telegraph, Wednesday, 28 October 1953