George Robinson Memorial Lecture by Primrose Wilson

Historic Buildings: Antiques to be treasured or millstones?

It is very fitting that the Craigavon Historical Society has dedicated its members' night lecture to George Robinson. George was a devoted member of this society and an excellent chairman. No-one who attended the annual outings organised by him will forget how interesting, well-planned and good fun they were. He knew Ireland so intimately that he always took us to see unfamiliar places in the most familiar of locations.

Tonight, before moving on to the topic - Historic Buildings: Antiques to be treasured or millstones? - I want to pay tribute to George by speaking about his contribution to the conservation of Northern Ireland's built heritage. This would not have been possible without assistance from Marion Meek, Ian McQuiston and Dick Oram. I am deeply indebted to them for sharing their memories of working with George.

From 1962 - when he started working with Historic Monuments (as this section of the DOE was known at the time) - until his retirement in 1985, George worked on the conservation of historic buildings and monuments all around NI. He also facilitated archaeological excavations like the one carried out at Eamainn Macha, a huge undertaking.

In the 1960s it was still possible to find skilled craftsmen to work on specific projects, but as the state acquired more monuments and these skills became more scarce, George saw the need to build up a direct labour force to care for them. The event which crystallised his thinking was the acquisition of a number of monuments in Hillsborough. On the lime walk which leads from the main street towards Hillsborough Fort, George set up a temporary structure housing a blacksmith's forge and a stonemason's shop. There, work on the various gates - including the famous ones removed from Richhill Castle in 1936 - and stone cutting for monument repairs was carried out.

However, the need for a permanent home for the skills being practised at Hillsborough was clear - and so the yard at Moira came into being. Later, the station master's house and grounds at Moira came on the market and George persuaded the DOE to purchase it, more than doubling his operational base. Incidentally, he managed the removal of the signal box at Moira to its site in the carpark when NI Railways declared it redundant.

In the yard, he burnt lime for use on historic buildings and monuments. George was one of the very few to recognise at the time that cement was an unsuitable material to use in the conservation of historic structures. He also believed in apprenticeships, and all around NI there are people who learned their trade in the yards at Moira and elsewhere under his guidance. He believed in the principle of self-sufficiency and encouraged his apprentices to make their own tools.

George's finest hour was probably his work on Newtownards Town Hall, which he and his workforce were contracted to reface. The original Scrabo stone was spalling, probably because the original stonemasons failed to obtain stone of sufficient quality to bed it properly. Ian McQuiston, who was the administrative head of Historic Monuments and Buildings Branch at the time, describes how this came about: "George told me he needed to source good Scrabo stone - even if a quarry specifically for the purpose had to be reopened. I did a little homework and George and I set off to walk around all the old Scrabo quarries. But we were particularly interested in one at Ballyalton, which happened to be owned by the Water Service. When George saw the stone and the thick bedding he enthused: 'This is the one Ian - when can I start?!' It took a little time to get planning approval for a three year reopening but once that was gained George worked enthusiastically, carefully prising out the rock rather than shattering it with explosives. He removed large pieces to Moira, where the stone saw and the masons expertly prepared each stone to fit its place on the town hall. Ballyalton stone was pretty uniform in colour, being pale grey to white, and at the end George's efforts resulted in a town hall which looked better - and still does - than when it was first built".

Dudley Waterman, the archaeologist, was George's line manager for many years, and the two men worked well together. They shared a vision of caring for State Care monuments but also of contracting work from the public and private sector - jobs like Newtownards Town Hall for example. But Dudley's premature death brought changes of direction and now the yard at Moira is a shadow of its former self. However, the private sector is stronger now and many who worked in the yard are carrying on his good work as a business, including - for example - Dan McPolin, who owns and runs Narrow Water Lime.

Narrow Water Castle

After George retired he became involved in a small building company called Heritage Repairs Limited. We travelled together to meetings and site visits and I learnt a lot from George. One of the projects was Moneypenny's lockhouse where Heritage Repairs was employed with Keith Gilmour to convert one section into a lockkeeper's museum and the other into residential use for the museum manager. Another project was to carry out a holding operation on Lyttle and McCauslands warehouses in Belfast until a new future could be found for the buildings. Erected in 1867-8 the warehouse have fine stonework by Michael Fitzpatrick believed to be Ireland's finest working sculptor in the second half of the nineteenth century. Ruskin said that it is 'ornamentation which distinguishes architecture from a wasp's nest, a rat hole or a railway station'. By this definition they are architecture indeed. I am pleased to say that a new use for the buildings was found and they now operate as the McCausland Hotel.

Another project carried out by Heritage Repairs was the re-roofing of the Klondyke building on the Belfast Gasworks site. This was a major task but it succeeded in securing the building until a new use was found.

Gosford Castle

Now I want to move to the topic of my lecture Historic Buildings - antiques to be treasured or millstones? These slides show Gosford castle - currently for sale. According to the local newspapers an US company is proposing to convert it into a 250 bedroom hotel and casino at a cost of $500 million US dollars. They want to establish an 18 hole championship golf course and suggest that they will create up to 3,000 jobs. Is this what we want for Gosford Castle - one of the only Grade A listed buildings in Co Armagh?

An Taisce - the National Trust for Ireland - in their Spring 2002 Newsletter wrote of such developments. "The difficulty with these schemes is that, in being attracted to the historic and landscape character of the country house locations which they target, the effect of the development is to destroy the quality of the place. Major hotel and conference facilities are very difficult to insert adjoining an historic house or in a sensitive landscape. The design and layout of a golf course is not compatible with an 18th or 19th century landscaped parkland. All of the schemes are accompanied by profitable housing units, either courtyard or detached, which have a huge visual and traffic impact and ultimately a suburbanising effect."

Gosford Castle is probably perceived by DARD as a millstone around their necks but will a commercial company turn it into an antique to be treasured or a theme park?

Markethill CourthouseNot far away from Gosford Castle is Markethill Courthouse designed by Thomas Duff in 1852. Here, a sensitive scheme has been carried out by Markethill District Enterprise, a local group, with funding from Heritage Lottery Fund, International Fund for Ireland and others. It is used as a restaurant, nursery and day care facility and has transformed an eyesore into an asset.

This random selection of slides shows a variety of churches:

  • St John's in Moira built in 1722-6
  • St Luke's, Mullaghglass, erected in1833 and designed by either William Farrell or Joseph Welland
  • St John's Church, Lisnadill, designed by Thomas Cooley for Archbishop Robinson.
  • St Brigids Glassdrummond, Creggan, erected in 1928-30, has an interesting history.
  • Ravensdale Park designed by Thos. Duff in 1840 was burnt in 1922 and the stone was used to build the new church. Sir Charles Brett points out "that it is a good cross-border joke that in 1988 it was described as one of the vanishing country houses of Ireland; whilst, all the time, just over the border, it had reappeared in the guise of a church".
  • St Colman's College Chapel, Newry, built in 1938 has a beautiful interior by John J.Robinson of Dublin and
  • St Peters Church, Lurgan, designed in 1867 by Ashlin & Coleman and extended in the 1890s by JJ. McDonnell, Belfast.

I suggest that we would all regard these churches as antiques to be treasured for they are amongst our most distinctive landmarks. However, I was alarmed to read an article recently which indicates that a leading cleric sees their maintenance as a millstone hampering the work of the church. On 2nd March 2002 the Archbishop of Canterbury was reported in the Daily Telegraph as calling for an end to the "scandal" of the Church having to devote a sixth of its annual budget on maintaining its historic buildings on behalf of the nation. Dr George Carey said the Church's ministry was being hampered by having to devote £120 million of its £750 million annual expenditure to keeping cathedrals and churches in good repair... and said the country would have to come to the help of the Church, which had to be "freed of the burden of the nation's heritage". However the burden of VAT was been reduced recently from 17½% to 5% for repair and maintenance on listed places of worship.

The slides I showed just now were of churches that remain in use as places of worship. But what is the solution when landmark buildings such as this lighthouse on Wicklow Head become redundant? Designed in 1781 by John Trail it stands 95 feet high and was originally topped by an eight-sided lantern. In 1836 it was struck by lightening and in 1866 the protective brick dome was added. The Irish Landmark Trust leased this building that many regarded as an eyesore and has converted it for use as holiday accommodation. It is a wonderful place to stay; the kitchen is on the top floor, 109 steps from the front door! The views from the building are spectacular and it is a popular venue with visitors from Ireland and overseas. The Trust is about to convert some of the lighthouse keeper's dwellings at Blackhead in County Antrim to holiday properties that will be available for letting in approximately a year's time. The work of the Irish Landmark Trust is truly turning millstones into treasured antiques for the enjoyment of all.

This signal box at Belcoo once functioned as part of the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties Railway. The owner lives in the station building and has restored the up platform and the signal box. It is a small structure but she takes her books, newpapers and knitting up there when she wants some peace and quiet! It is good to know that there are public-spirited citizens prepared to restore aspects of our industrial heritage that might otherwise crumble away.

My next slides are of three thatched cottages - the first two owned by Margaret Gallagher in Belcoo and Mr Curry in Derrylin are treasured antiques; the third at Mullalelish Road, Portadown looks as if its owners regard it as a millstone. Margaret inherited her house from her father and maintains it carefully in its original condition; she lives happily in the cottage in the traditional way, without electricity or running water. Mr Curry's house in Derrylin is a rare example of a mud-walled cottage with a thatched roof supported on an unusual cruck structure. The dwelling was deemed to be unfit as it did not have a bathroom but additions were difficult because of the mud-wall construction. However Hearth Revolving Fund negotiated a compromise and a new annex containing a modern detached kitchen, bathroom and bedroom were added in a traditional linear fashion.

I want to conclude by looking at some mills. The first is Ballydugan Mill, near Downpatrick, built in 1792 to grind wheat grown in Lecale; it became redundant in 1857 and was bought by a local man in 1987. A talented joiner and stonemason, he has spent years of his life painstakingly restoring the building and it is now open as a restaurant with rooms. The next two are major mill complexes in Scotland - Stanley Mills in Perthshire and New Lanark. The former on a beautiful location on the river Tay has been converted to residential accommodation. The New Lanark Mill complex has shops, offices and a hotel. In both cases derelict and redundant industrial buildings have been transformed into local assets generating economic activity and breathing new life into their localities. However these mills have all lost most of their internal machinery unlike this mill at Dyan in County Tyrone which Edward and I are restoring gradually. Perhaps one day the millstones will turn again - reinstating the water course and the mill dam has brought that prospect a step closer!

Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe that with only a few rare exceptions historic buildings are antiques to be treasured and not millstones and I think that George would have agreed with me. John Ruskin gave a good practical rationale for cherishing our historic buildings when he said:

"What we ourselves built we are at liberty to throw down, but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over it does not pass away with their death, still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors".

Thank you.

Primrose Wilson


  • Brett, C.E.B., Buildings of County Armagh. Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, 1999.
  • Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in association with Environment and Heritage Service, Buildings at Risk, Some Options and Solutions and a Review, U.A.H.S., 2000.
  • An Taisce, Newsletter, April 2002.
  • Wilson, P., Buildings at Risk with a bright future. Historic Buildings Council for Northern Ireland 1994-7 13th Report. Crown Copyright 1997.

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