Northern Ireland

Castle Coole diamond party for 60 years of public access

Castle Coole
Image caption Castle Coole attracts 35,000 visitors a year

The Queen visited Enniskillen this week for a service of thanksgiving to mark her Diamond Jubilee, but she is not the only one celebrating a 60th anniversary in the town.

Castle Coole, the home of the Earls of Belmore, opened its doors to the public on 28 June 1952 after it was transferred into the care of the National Trust.

It was one of the first grand houses in Ireland to allow public access.

Image caption Sixty guests with connections to Castle Coole attended a diamond tea party

To mark the occasion, a diamond tea party was held in the grand hall for 60 guests who have had an association with the house over that time.

The decision to open the doors to the public may have been due to the cost of keeping the house (which then had no electricity) and the payment of death duties but the 7th Earl Belmore also shared the National Trust's vision.

'Great pleasure'

In its report on the opening in 1952, the Impartial Reporter quoted Lord Belmore saying: "I suppose that our country homes are the finest memorials we have of an age that has gone forever.

"Those days may have had their drawbacks, (but) at any rate they produced a standard of workmanship that we cannot even begin to compete with today.

"So it is obviously right... that everybody who wishes to should have the chance to see them.

"I very much hope that from now on Castle Coole will become a means of giving great pleasure to a very great number of people."

On the day of the opening, the weather was reported to be blowing a gale and raining heavily all afternoon. Sixty years on, there was a rumble of thunder as the 60 guests were served afternoon tea.

The guests included the 8th Earl Belmore, who believes his father's wish that the house gives pleasure to people has been fulfilled.

Lord Belmore said: "He would have been as pleased as punch. The National Trust has underwritten all the important work here with great professionalism. The park is a huge bonus for people who live in Enniskillen."

The property now attracts 35,000 visitors a year who come to tour the formal rooms of the 18th Century neo-classical mansion, to glimpse life of those who worked below-stairs in the basement and to walk through its 1,200 acres of woods, lakes and parkland.

Stonework restored

Maintaining a property like this is expensive, and the National Trust's decision to charge non-members for walking through the grounds this year angered some local people .

Castle Coole was built between 1790 and 1798 from Portland stone, shipped to Ballyconnell and carried by bullock cart to Enniskillen.

The whole facade had to be dismantled in the 1980s and the stonework restored.

Eddie McKibben worked on the project for more than seven years, making a daily return trip of 180 miles from Annalong, County Down.

"Every stone had to come down, marked off a drawing and then we had to cut nearly 70% new stones.

"I still love it, it's a beautiful building. After all the years we spent on it, they're talking about it lasting 200 or 300 years - I hope it lasts that long."

Another tea party guest was Nellie Scott, who worked in the house in the 1940s.

She arrived as a teenager to work as a housemaid and remembers scrubbing the stone stairs, before working her way up to become head housekeeper.

"It brings back a lot of memories. It's changed a lot from when I was here of course. When I first came it was hard work, I was 15 or 16. You had to wait until somebody left to climb the ladder.

"It's beautiful, it's gorgeous, it's well-kept, it's good to see Castle Coole going on so well."

The National Trust is holding a number of public events at Castle Coole this weekend to mark the diamond anniversary.

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