Deceptively sumptuous in Co. Armagh . . . women and children first

Walter MacGeough Bond

Built by Walter MacGeough Bond in the 1820s along the banks of the River Blackwater in Co. Armagh, The Argory was the fourth National Trust property we visited during our recent tour of Northern Ireland.

The estate was in the family since the 1740s. The family name was originally just MacGeough, but Bond (the maiden name of the grandmother of Walter) was added by Royal Licence in 1824. Walter was the fourth child of Joshua McGeough of Drumshill. Because of particular restrictions in his father’s will, Walter did not inherit Drumsill House (now a hotel), so invested in expanding his estate at The Argory. It remained the family home until 1979, and its interiors have remained unchanged since 1900.

The main entrance on the west front

The east front entrance, used increasingly as there was better coach access

The hallway from the west entrance catches one’s attention immediately. There is a spiral cantilever staircase, one of the finest examples I think I have ever seen. A large stove dominates the floor space; electricity was a late introduction to The Argory.

Off the hall is the dining room, and a very fashionable drawing room off to the other side, with several pieces of outstanding furniture, including Italian marble top tables.

Upstairs, the landing is dominated by an organ.

In one of the bedrooms, a story about the second owner Ralph (Walter’s second son), also known as Captain Shelton, is captured in a painting (a copy of the ca. 1892 original by Thomas Hemy) of the sinking of HMS Birkenhead, a troopship that foundered off the coast of South Africa in February 1852. You can see it on the wall to the left of the bed.

Captain Shelton was on board – and survived. He is depicted as the officer on the right hand side carrying two small children. On the other side of the deck the troops line up in a disciplined way, allowing the women and children into the life boats, the first instance of ‘women and children first’ enshrined in what became known as ‘the Birkenhead Drill‘. Only 193 (out of almost 650 persons on board) were saved.

The Argory is a beautiful house, quite understated on the outside, but a feast for the eyes awaits within. We enjoyed our visit, having combined it with a visit to Springhill House earlier that same day. National Trust volunteer Rosheen was an excellent guide.

 

Linked by an Irish harp table . . .

We landed in Dublin just after noon, taking the M50 tunnel to cross the city northwards to Northern Ireland.

We were headed to Ardboe and the west shore of Lough Neagh, where we had booked a seven night stay at a guesthouse there. Our route north took us past three of the National Trust properties that were on our list for our week-long holiday. We initially intended just to visit Derrymore House, a few miles west of Newry in Co. Armagh, then head off to Ardboe. But we found that we could also spend a couple of hours at Ardress House. And, as it turned out, there was a loose link between the two properties.

Derrymore House is only open on five afternoons a year. The National Trust rents it out as a private residence, and only one room, the so-called ‘Treaty Room’ is open to the public on these days, although there is year round access to the grounds.

Derrymore House is an eighteenth century thatched cottage, ‘in a landscape demesne’, built on land inherited from his father by Isaac Corry, born in Newry in 1755, who became MP for that city in 1776 in the Irish House of Commons. At that time, Great Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) and Ireland were separate kingdoms until the Act of Union was signed in 1800, coming into effect on 1 January 1801. Corry was Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer and government spokesman for the Act of Union.

Cottages of this type were often built just for show, to enhance a landscape, to be used for recreation. It seems, however, that Derrymore was used as a residence on a continual basis. In fact, when Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, Corry introduced an unpopular window tax, and his coach was stoned by residents near Newry on the road to Dublin, he had a by-pass road built to avoid such confrontations.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the 1800 Act of Union was drafted in the ‘Treaty Room’.

There is a black and white photo among the National Trust’s information showing a fine Irish harp table, made by James Flood in 1799, which is purported to have some connections with the 1800 Act of Union¹. No longer at Derrymore, it now can be seen at Ardress House, less than 30 miles north, and which we visited that same afternoon.

Although photography is not normally permitted inside the house, I was given special permission (for which I am most grateful) to photograph this beautiful piece of Irish craftsmanship. It’s a feast for the eyes, with marquetry of the highest quality, showing the rose, thistle, and shamrock of England, Scotland, and Ireland, respectively (what about the poor Welsh?) inlaid in the table top. The support for the table is in the form of a shamrock, and an Irish harp is also part of that support.

Ardress House was a 17th century farmhouse, nestling in 40 acres of farmland, in the apple orchards of C. Armagh that was remodelled and embellished in 1760 by Dublin chief architect Charles Ensor. His family originally came from Coventry (some 35 miles from where I live in Worcestershire), and he married the heiress of Ardress, Sarah Clarke.

It’s quite easy to see the differences between the two phases of building: lower ceilings and smaller rooms in the 17th centry farmhouse parts; higher ceiling, Neo-Classical design in those from the 18th century.

But Ardress does have another interesting feature: a perfect traditional farmyard. Just like the ones I remember from my childhood when visiting my grandparents in rural Derbyshire.

Such was the start to our Northern Ireland National Trust adventure. The omens were good the following days!

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¹ There is no evidence it was ever used to sign the Act of Union. However, King George V signed the new constitution of Northern Ireland on this table in Belfast in 1921. For many years, it was ‘lost’ in storage in England, before being returned to Ardress House in 2006.