Ballywalter Park History
here to see the family tree
Park has been in the ownership of the Mulholland family for over
150 years, since my great, great, great grandfather, Andrew Mulholland,
bought it from the Matthews family in 1846 for the, then, princely
sum of £23,000.
the time, the Estate consisted of a demesne of around 250 acres,
with a two-storey over basement Georgian House called Springvale.
Andrew and his brothers had made their fortune from owning cotton
mills, which, after a major fire in 1830 were rebuilt as linen mills,
becoming, as the York Street Flax Spinning Company, the largest
linen mills in the world. Andrew found the existing Georgian house
too modest for his ambitions, since he had also become Mayor of
Belfast at the time of his purchase, and so he commissioned the
architect and fellow Belfast City councellor, Charles (later Sir
Charles) Lanyon, to build something more in keeping with his perceived
result is the Victorian Italianate Palazzo that you see today, arguably
the finest of Lanyon's country houses. Lanyon was responsible for
much of Northern Ireland's finest built heritage, including the
main buildings of the Queen's University and the Customs House,
both in Belfast; Ballyscullion Park, in Co Londonderry, and two
other great houses, Drenagh, near Limavady, and Dunderave at Bushmills
on the North Antrim Coast. As County Architect, he was also responsible
for the magnificent Antrim Coast Road. Construction took about six
years, with the works being completed in around 1852. The original
Springvale House was not demolished but was included within the
structure of the new house. Indeed, some of the original door lintels
and arches can still be seen in the basement and cellars of the
brief, Lanyon added two bow wings to north and south of the original
house; repositioned the front door from the south front to the east,
adding an immense porte cochère, to protect arriving visitors
from the winds gusting off the Irish Sea and, finally, adding a
third nursery floor to the main existing building.
Intriguingly, the eminent architect, Ptolemy Dean, recently identified
some of the doors on the top floor as being of Georgian origin,
thus being thriftily re-used in the nursery bedrooms.
the same time as the building of the house, Andrew also undertook
a prodigious planting programme, and in the winter of 1846/7 put
in no less 93,500 trees & shrubs. This was shortly followed
by further plantings of shelter belts to provide protection from
the easterly winds.
The original Springvale Georgian stable block, with its central
pigeon house was left untouched by all the renovations and stands
to this day. From there, a roadway leads to the walled garden, passing
the Albany - a two-storey building, probably built in the 1860s,
with carpenter's shop and gamekeeper's quarters on the ground floor,
and with bedroom accommodation above for servants of visitors staying
at the Big House. Again, and according to Ordnance Survey maps contemporary
to the time, the walled garden probably dates from Springvale days,
but the two ranges of glass houses are almost certainly Victorian,
dating from the late 1850s to early 1860s.
was recalled to Ballywalter to construct the Gentlemen's Wing, comprising
the Billiard Room and Smoking Room, as a single-storey honey coloured
stone extension at the north west corner of the main house. The
wing culminates in a magnificent Conservatory, complete with central
glass dome. Whether Andrew or his eldest son, John was responsible
for this wing is unclear for, although some commentators say that
it was carried out in around 1863, the initials formed in the fretwork
above the windows are JM, those of John, whereas Andrew lived until
1866. Perhaps Andrew had made the house over a few years before
his death or maybe he had given John responsibility for building
the wing but we shall probably never know, for very few of the early
records survive. Certainly, Charles Brett, in his book Buildings
of North County Down, states that, in 1879 the rateable value
had been increased to £265 "to allow for the new billiard room,
kitchens, etc" but he does not give a date for the previous valuation.
John rose to political prominence through being elected a Conservative
Member of Parliament for Downpatrick in 1874 and was active on many
Irish Committees at Westminster. At the same time, he was also much
involved in overseeing the family linen business, which continued
to prosper, with an unexpected boost in the 1860s when cotton exports
from the United States were blockaded during the American Civil
other main interest lay in sailing for, in 1865 he had commissioned
the racing schooner Egeria, a vessel of some 153 tons, built by
Wanhill in Poole. With a crew of 12, John won over 60 major yachting
trophies, including four Queen's Cups, presented by Queen Victoria
John also stamped his mark on Ballywalter by reworking some of
the Principal Rooms within the house. He was responsible for the
wood panelling in the Outer Hall and he also replaced the original
stone-flagged floor with marble. He installed the Library, probably
in the late 1860's and almost certainly with the help of Lanyon.
As is the case in the Billiard Room, his initials JM can also be
found in the Library, in this instance above the fireplace over
His efforts in the Dining Room were less successful with this
room being panelled towards the end of his life in the mid 1890s.
The result was very overpowering and was not helped by heavy high-Victorian
furniture being commissioned to complete the effect. Fortunately,
Henry - the 4th Baron Dunleath - and his wife Dorinda, took the
enlightened decision to strip out the later additions in the early
1960s and to return the room to its probable original form, having
to acquire a marble fireplace to replace the ponderous timber one
that was removed. The only relic of the 1890s reworking is the Dunleath
coat of arms, which is now to be found above the chimneypiece in
the Outer Hall.
Arms and The Man
A Dunleath coat of arms, because, in 1892, John Mulholland was
raised to the Peerage as the first Baron Dunleath, for his services
as a Member of Parliament, on the recommendation of the outgoing
Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. With that, it could
be said that the Mulholland dynasty had finally 'arrived'. Joe Mordaunt
Crook, in his book The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches puts it
thus: "When he bought the (Ballywalter) estate for £23,000 (Andrew)
Mulholland was already Mayor of Belfast; by rebuilding the house
he turned himself into an Irish country-gentleman. His son, a Tory
MP and celebrated yachtsman, predictably becomes a nobleman - 1st
Baron Dunleath - in 1892".
The family's involvement at the cutting edge of industrial technology
was also reflected within the house. The house had initially been
lit by acetylene, provided by the estate's own gas works. This was
abandoned in the mid 1890's, when Ballywalter became one of the
first houses in Ireland to have electricity, supplied by a steam
powered generator. The steam engine, in turn, was replaced in 1920
by a Crossley gas engine, with a capacity not only to supply the
house but also the sawmill, a water pump and its own compressed
air unit for the purpose of re-starting itself. John died in 1895
and was succeeded by his second son, Henry, the eldest, Andrew,
having died on his honeymoon in Paris.
Henry had followed his father into politics, having been elected
Conservative MP for Londonderry North in 1885. However, he seems
to have been a quieter individual, perhaps overshadowed by his wife
Norah - known universally as Gogo - daughter of John's land agent,
Captain Somerset Ward, and granddaughter of Viscount Bangor of Castle
Ward. Henry and Gogo were responsible for the creation of the rockery
and water gardens and Gogo maintained a considerable aviary around
the stream, with many exotic birds, including flamingos and black
They had five children, four sons and one daughter. The boys all
became accomplished sportsmen and excelled particularly at cricket.
As a result, Ballywalter formed its own cricket XI, democratically
captained by the butler, and entertained visiting cricket teams
from England such as Free Foresters, I Zingari and MCC and also
a team called Na Shuler made up of players living in country houses
It seemed only natural to build a wing to house these visiting
teams and the Architect, W J Fennell was brought in to design a
Bachelors' or Cricket Wing, situated on the north east corner of
the main house. It was built in two stages between 1903 and 1908
but was not a success, being apparently so impossible to heat that
it was known as 'pleurisy passage'. In any event, it turned out
to be a white elephant since, only a few years on, the Great War
broke out and visiting cricket teams were never to return to Ballywalter.
The later part of this wing was demolished in the late 1960s with
the intention to remove the remainder in due course, to return the
house to the condition in which Lanyon left it.
Ballywalter thrived as a centre of entertainment whilst Gogo was
chatelaine with grand house parties, shooting weekends and dances
as well as cricket weeks featuring on the social calendar. Unlike
many Irish country houses, the social round was resumed after the
Great War, in spite of Henry and Gogo's eldest son Edward (Teddy)
being killed at Ypres in the opening months of the War, whilst serving
with the Irish Guards. In July 1924, Ballywalter was visited by
the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth),
who played tennis on the grass court - now long gone - to the front
of the house. The only other Royal Visit recorded was that of the
Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, who stayed in December 1935, and
took part in the then renowned wild duck shoot on the family's lands
at Downpatrick. Gogo was remembered with affection by her grandchildren,
who stayed in the nursery bedrooms on the top floor. To them, it
must have seemed that these golden days would last forever but,
with Henry's death in 1931, followed by that of Gogo in 1935, it
was the end of an era and, all too soon, her grandchildren went
off to fight in the 2nd World War.
A New Incumbent
Their second son Charles succeeded to the title and then to Ballywalter.
In 1920, he had married Sylvia Brooke, following in the footsteps
of his younger brother, Harry, who had married Sylvia's sister Sheelah,
both daughters of Sir Arthur Brooke of Colebrooke and sisters of
Basil, later 1st Viscount Brookeborough. Sadly, a little over a
year after they were married, Sylvia died and Charles did not remarry
until 1932 when he wed Grace, the daughter of Charles D'Arcy, Archbishop
of Armagh and Church of Ireland Primate of all Ireland. They had
one child, Henry, born the following year.
During the 2nd World War, the demesne at Ballywalter was used
by the Royal Air Force as a bomber repair base, with aircraft being
landed on the sand field adjacent to the shore and then towed across
the coast road into the former golf course field at the front of
the house. The house itself was not requisitioned this time around,
as had been the case in the 1914-1918 war when it was used as a
Military Hospital. However, various military units were stationed
in the stable block and outbuildings where regimental graffiti from
the Staffordshire Regiment and the Royal Ulster Rifles can still
be seen on the walls. The Billiard Room score book records matches
which Charles played with various officers who must have been billeted
nearby, most of which he seemed to manage to win.
When the war ended, it was a case of retrenchment and consolidation,
with the day-to-day running of the house becoming well- nigh impossible
due to the reluctance of people to enter into domestic service.
As my predecessor, Henry, wrote in the UAHS guide "...we were down
to only a butler and two footmen, a cook, two scullery maids, and
two housemaids. The pressures placed upon them were well-nigh intolerable
with one footman having to double up as a valet, another as a hall
boy, while one of the housemaids had to take on the duties of lady's
maid in addition to her normal function". No wonder Charles felt
that the end of the road for Ballywalter Park was approaching. He
considered abandoning the house altogether, and building a new house
in the demesne and he subsequently commissioned the architect Sir
Albert Richardson to draw up plans to remove the top floor. He made
a start on dismantling the conservatory but got no further than
removing the heating pipes.
Whilst he may not have added to the house, his contribution to
the gardens was considerable. He established a notable collection
of rhododendrons, shrubs and conifers which remain and give pleasure
to this day. He did much experimentation in the crossing of rhododendrons
and perhaps his most successful hybrid was Rh Lady Dunleath, a winter
hardy cross between Arboreum var. Kermesinum and Elliottii
which carries striking deep red flowers from late February through
to the end of May and beyond.
Charles died in 1956 and left Henry with a rather uncertain inheritance.
Henry had been led to believe that Ballywalter was a Victorian monstrosity
and shared his father's view that the house should either be abandoned
or else much reduced in size. In 1959, he married Dorinda, daughter
of General Arthur Perceval and, whilst they were pondering what
to do with the house, fate, in the shape of John Betjeman, came
to tea in around 1961. He was enchanted with the house and said
that the conservatory was an essential element in Lanyon's original
concept for the rear elevation and should be preserved at all costs.
If only the whole house, as originally designed, he went on, could
be preserved for another 25 years, it would become a mecca for architectural
historians and enthusiasts. Betjeman was so far ahead of his time
that it was hard to know if he was being serious. Time, of course,
proved that he was, and it was fortunate indeed that Henry took
him at his word and accepted his invaluable advice about the house.
The long-awaited repairs commenced with work to the conservatory
and the porte cochère. This was followed up by a long programme
of generally making the house weather-tight, with major works to
the roof - reslating parts of it and replacing the lead, rebuilding
chimneys, replastering and eventually redecoration. In this they
were hampered by seemingly endless outbreaks of dry rot and a near
disastrous fire in 1974, caused by a faulty gas cylinder in the
kitchens. However, progress continued with all the major Principal
Rooms being renovated, the last being the Drawing Room in 1991.
Meanwhile, following the fire, the opportunity was taken to greatly
enhance the external appearance of the house, when the windows all
had their glazing bars reinstated - they having been taken out and
plate glass put in at the end of the 19th Century.
Henry and Dorinda were also active in the gardens. More shelter
belts were planted, overgrown areas were cleared, vistas opened
up, rhododendrons and shrubs propagated and the open areas of the
pleasure grounds mowed on a regular basis.
Following Henry's death in 1993, there was a temporary lull in
the restoration works, although major upheaval was caused when the
insurers insisted on the house being completely rewired. The title
had passed to my father, Michael, Henry's first cousin, but, at
nearly 80, it was impracticable for him to take up the mantle of
living in and running Ballywalter Park.
In the interim, I had commissioned the conservation architect,
Alastair Coey, to carry out a condition survey and compile a Report
identifying priorities for the restoration programme. My father,
in turn, died in 1997 and I moved into Ballywalter Park shortly
after. The Report highlighted a number of areas that gave cause
for concern. In particular, these involved the exterior of the building,
where the plasterwork was in poor shape and had to be replaced.
The outer slopes of the roof were in need of reslating, the windows
and rainwater goods needed overhauling and the working chimneys
had to have their flues lined. When this was complete, the whole
of the exterior needed redecorating.
At the same time, I identified the need for additional bedrooms
and, in particular, more bathrooms within the house. The kitchens,
which had been partly modernised following the fire, were also in
need of upgrading and the decision was taken to install an Aga,
which would also provide much needed warmth in that area!
In order to increase the bedroom capacity, the decision was taken
to bring the top, former nursery floor, unused since the 1930s,
back into operation. This would provide five much needed bedrooms,
each with its own bathroom, together with a further single bedroom
and shower room. A completely independent central heating and hot
water system was provided for this floor. The main contractors,
McGimpsey & Kane started work in May 2000, and this major programme
of restoration was very successfully finished on schedule some 60
weeks later in July 2001.
Outside, I have tried to continue the programme of maintenance
and improvement to the gardens. We have almost completed the restoration
of the glasshouses in the walled garden; The rose garden has been
totally redesigned and replanted; 24 defective brick pillars in
the rose pergola have been taken out and rebuilt; paths have been
regravelled and overgrown shrub borders cleared and replanted.
There still remains work to be done. Lanyon's Gentlemen's wing
requires complete internal restoration, with the first phase being
to install central heating. Thereafter, we need to look to the possible
demolition of the remainder of the ill-fated Cricket Wing, subject
to the necessary permissions. A constant programme of maintenance
is also required, to prevent costly major repairs in the future.
Already, the Conservatory, the subject of the first stage of restoration
all those years ago, is in need of attention.
Overall though, Ballywalter Park is looking good for its 150 years.
Perhaps this can be summed up best in Charles Brett's words in his
book Buildings of North County Down; "At the date of
writing (2001), the house has just come through a 57 week programme
of refurbishment and renewal in which everything that needs repainting
has been painted; everything is delightfully fresh, sparkling and