Cribbage by Candlelight

Four carriages, a baggage car and a curate on horseback are just about to set off from Mount Panther in south County Down for a visit to Hillsborough in the north of the county. Join Mary Delany, learned lady and wife of the Dean of Down on this excursion to meet Wills Hill the Earl of Hillsborough and find out about this influential character and the town and castle he created.

The Ruins of Mount Panther

The view of Mount Panther today is a sorrowful one and yet even though the roof and once famous plasterwork of its interiors are lost, the fine front façade still stands proudly atop a drumlin in south County Down. As the last of the window frames rot away they appear as the dimly-lit eyes of this noble old soul. They once saw a gathering of carriages prepare for a journey north on 26th September 1758 organised at the behest of Mrs Mary Delany.

Mary Delany, oil on canvas by John Opie, 1782 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Mrs Delany was a learned lady despite contemporary prejudices against women being educated; the death of her first husband four decades her senior gave the opportunity to engage with London society’s cultural elite. Anglo-Irish politician and theorist Edmund Burke described Mrs Delany as ‘the highest bred woman in the world, and the woman of fashion of all ages’. Her second marriage to Dr Delany the Dean of Down brought her to Ireland and the couple chose Mount Panther as a base for part of the year, instead of Dublin. Through Mount Panther’s windows Mrs Delany’s entourage would have been seen setting off at 9am. A motorist today might expect a travel time of forty-five minutes to Hillsborough to the north of County Down though Mrs Delany did not arrive until 1.30pm!

Wills Hills, Earl of Hillsborough and First Marquess of Downshire

The enthralling nature of researching Hillsborough’s past is in part because of the many mysteries; gaps in understanding which may or may never be filled. One such uncertainty is the year the first phase of the castle was built. The meticulous diary Mrs Delany kept strongly suggests that the house she visited in 1758 was the Hillsborough Castle of today. Here she met the man responsible for its construction, “Lord Hillsborough is very well bred, sensible, and entertaining, and nothing could be more polite that he was to all his company”. The party of twelve sat down to dine at 3.30pm, Mrs Delaney described Lord Hillsborough as both handsome and genteel. He was very merry and said a great many lively, comical things.

The State Dining Room at Hillsborough Castle © Historic Royal Palaces

The measurements Mrs Delany gave for the dining room, which had been recently added, match with the Red Room, before an internal wall was moved. In recent times this was where HM The Queen first met Mary McAleese President of Ireland. On that September evening in 1758 Mrs Delany and the other lady present were asked “to command the house”, a hint for them to go through to the drawing room to prepare the tea. Evidence suggests that the State Dining Room was then the drawing room in which candles were lit, the tea-table prepared and cribbage played. They had supper at 10pm and went to bed at 11pm.

The western façade of Hillsborough Castle © Historic Royal Palaces

Mrs Delany had taken a little step out to see the garden that day to look at the prospect, “but the weather soon drove us back”. She described the house as not extraordinary, but prettily fitted up and furnished. Based on her descriptions it can be said that the central part of the western façade is the oldest and that the first of the extensions to the south had been added by 1758. The building was originally stuccoed; finished with a fine decorative plaster before the sandstone was added in the nineteenth century.

The lake in the small park © Historic Royal Palaces

Fortunately the weather had cleared up the following morning and after breakfast at 9am Mrs Delany walked around the gardens with Lord Hillsborough and commented on the improvements he had made including a gravel path two Irish miles long, woods, nurseries, shrubs and flowers along with a “pretty piece of water with an island in it”.

Lord Hillsborough told Mrs Delany that he intended to give his house to the Bishopric of Down and build a larger house in a finer situation. The most likely location was within the Large Park, an area which had been enclosed by a demesne wall, “if he lives to accomplish his good scheme he will certainly do it” said Mrs Delany. Lord Hillsborough never finished his plan and the second house was never built. His legacy is therefore not a castle standing proudly in a vast estate, but one which sits cosily in a town square.

Wills McNeilly, Assistant Curator

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