Finola had always wanted to visit Mussenden Temple and the ruins of the nearby great house on the Downhill Demense: it’s only a few stones’ throws from Nead an Iolair, so off we went on a stormy Sunday – the first day of October.
The house was built by the eccentric Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803). Being the third son of the even more eccentric Lord John Hervey, he did not expect an inheritance and tried law (unsuccessfully) before entering the church. His eldest brother George was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1766 and, although he never set foot in the country, he managed to engineer Frederick’s appointment as Bishop of Cloyne then, shortly afterwards, Bishop of Derry, one of the wealthiest Irish sees. While in this post Frederick had the notion to establish a huge estate (apparently with the help of Diocesan funds) on a windswept clifftop overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Dunbo, County Londonderry – now Northern Ireland. Dunbo derives from the Irish Dún Bó, meaning ‘fort of the cows’.
It looks bleak today, and must have been in the Bishop’s time, although his plans for the new demense included classical landscaping and the planting of 300,000 trees: there’s not much sign of them now on that windswept terrain.
Both of Frederick’s older brothers died without leaving heirs and, in 1779, he found himself the Earl of Bristol and in control of a considerable fortune which helped greatly in the realisation of his plans for the Dunbo project, which he named Downhill Demense.
Everything about the Earl Bishop and Downhill Demense is ‘over the top’. Even though it is now a ruin, cared for by the National Trust, its former splendour is obvious. The residence was huge and grand, and Frederick went through a number of architects (beginning with Michael Shanahan of Cork) and including Placido Columbani from Milan, who was supervising plumbing and the installation of water closets – a considerable innovation at the time.
One of the most striking surviving buildings at Downhill is the Mussenden Temple, based on the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, near Rome. It was built close to the cliff edge, but with enough land to enable a horse and carriage to be driven around it. When we looked out of the windows facing the sea we were shocked to see that the building is now teetering right on the cliff edge! Also, a railway line runs right underneath it near sea level, over 100 feet below – you can see the tunnel entrance in the header picture above.
The Temple was an ‘overflow library’ to the house, some distance away. It was constantly heated by a fire always burning in the basement room below, so the books didn’t get damp. The Earl Bishop was a great traveller and collector, and in its heyday the house was full of paintings, statuary and furniture. Students of the Northern Regional College together with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the University of the Third Age and the Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group have put together a wealth of information and some reconstructions of the house, included here. Their website is a mine of good information.
Reconstruction by the Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group of the Temple dome (upper picture) and (lower) the ‘raw’ brick dome visible today
It’s sobering to stand in the driving rain – as we did today – on this deserted site and imagine the treasures that were once on display in this great edifice. On the Earl Bishop’s death the Demense passed to his cousin. It stayed in the family and survived a devastating fire in 1851, although restoration was not completed until 1876.
Upper picture – Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group reconstruction of the main gallery in the house and (lower) poignant piles of rubble on the site today
The family left the house in the 1920s and in the 1930s the house was empty and had been stripped of furniture. During World War 2, Downhill was requisitioned and occupied by the Royal Air Force. In 1946 a request was made for permission to demolish the building, thus avoiding a large rates bill. Consent was refused because …the castle is of general local interest… A tenant was found – Mrs Belgrave – who was the last person to live in the house – but briefly; by October 1949 the entire property had been gutted and the windows and roof removed. The building was listed in 1977, and was acquired by the National Trust in 1980 which has been engaged in continual efforts to preserve the remaining fabric ever since.
Upper picture – Earl Bishop Heritage Trail Group reconstruction of the Temple interior and (lower) today the Temple is a significant landmark on Northern Ireland’s main tourist route
Wherever you are on the island of Ireland it’s just a hop and a step up to the North: the coastline is stunning, and a journey there will be punctuated, as always, with fascinating history. Well worth a visit!
An excellent detailed article by The Irish Aesthete on the Earl Bishop and his Downhill Demense can be found here