A fascinating look behind the scenes at the opulent balls of Antrim Castle - and thrilling tales of bravery as it burned

A DELVE inside the British Newspaper Archive has revealed more details about the interiors and opulent balls held at Antrim Castle, on the 100th year since the historic structure burned down.

On October 28, 1922, Antrim Castle was destroyed by fire.

And 50 years later the walls were finally pulled down in a short-sighted ‘health and safety’ move, leaving just the Italian tower and Barbican gate.

Sadly, few buildings in Ulster had more historical interest or contained more valuable mementoes of the past.

Among these were portraits of Charles I and Charles II and the Speaker's chair and mace from the Irish House of Commons.

For three centuries, the castle had been the seat of the Clotworthy-Skeffington-Foster-Skeffington family. Sir Hugh Clotworthy, came to Ulster with Essex in 1573.

The Clotworthys were later granted a plot of land in Antrim called Massereene, which had been confiscated from the O’Neills of Shane’s Castle - which was torched by the IRA in 1922.

When Sir John Clotworthy, who built Antrim Castle, died without a male heir in 1665, the title Viscount Massereene, descended to his son-in-law, Sir John Skeffington.

Through the marriage of a Clotworthy to John Foster, the second Viscount Ferrard, the titles Massereene and Ferrard were merged and the family became the tongue-twisting ‘Clotworthy- Skeffington-Foster-Skeffington’.

Old titles like the Northern Whig and Ballymena Observer, along with papers which have survived the years, like the News Letter and Belfast Telegraph, recorded the big occasions which were held at the castle.

Many of those pieces have not seen the light of day in almost a century, but can now be reproduced thanks to modern technology.

One report described a ball held in honour of the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle in 1856 - in slightly more flowery language than you will find in today’s Antrim Guardian!

The piece told of how a special covered approach was constructed from the railway station to the castle, to protect the clothing of the attendees from the weather.

Banners, flags and floral arches were ‘tastefully arranged’ from buildings and houses in the town to welcome the Earl and other guests along the main street, which was lit with gas lights.

The report continues: “The grand hall of the castle was fitted up as a supper room and laid out with great taste and elegance. The large dining apartment was used as a refreshment room

“The Oak Room is fitted up with antique Irish oak furniture, richly carved with the upholstery being done in scarlet Utrecht velvet, the walls being beautifully wainscotted with Irish oak

“In the niche of this splendid apartment, a throne in placed, former of the chair used by the Speaker who last officiated in the Irish house of commons. This was the Right Hon John Foster, grandfather to Viscount Massereene

“The golden mace of the Irish Legislature is laid on this throne.”

The report continues: “The grand drawing room, one of the most superb apartments in the North of Ireland. It presents a cheerful and beautiful appearance, the walls and ceiling being of a light colour, picked out in gold.

“Around the room are a large number of the most costly mirrors, mounted in golden, carved and ornamented frames. The furniture is all of the newest designs, the wood work being entirely gilded and finished in the first style of art.

“Nothing can be more handsome or tasteful than the upholstery of this room, the entire of which is exquisitely worked in embroidery

“The whole of this splendid suite of apartments has been lately furnished and the drawing room has been just completed by Messrs Thomas Scott and Co, of High Street, Belfast

“It has elicited the warmest admiration of all who have had an opportunity of inspecting it. and certainly reflects the highest credit on the taste and workmanship of that respectable establishment

“In the front of the drawing room and immediately adjoining it, there was erected a temporary gallery, for the accommodation of the band of the Royal Antrim Rifles.”

There was also a string quartet, and the report describes the arrival of guests at 10pm, with dancing beginning at 11pm.

At 1am the company proceeded to supper in the grand hall, which ‘appeared of the most sumptuous and delicate description’.

There was even a ‘varied and successful display of fireworks made by Professor Johnston’, which was enjoyed by the whole community.

“It continued for about an hour and a half on the lawn and at the side of the castle.” said the report

“Some of the set pieces were most effective and the rockets went up in a right good style

“The night was very favourable to the display and a large number of the general inhabitants had assembled in the immediate neighbourhood of the pyrotechny, and seemed to enjoy the ‘holiday mimicry of fire’ with great enthusiasm, as every discharge was hailed with bursts of cheering.”

The guest list at the ball was made up of nobility and gentry - including knights, lords, ladies, earls, colonels, generals, captains, majors and sergeants.

Among the other names that will surely still resonate with readers were the Anketells, Clarkes of the Steeple, Chaines of Springfarm and Ballycraigy and Montgomerys of Birchill.

Sadly those days of opulence described in the newspapers of the 1850s were to come to an end - and all the rooms described in such exquisite detail were burned to cinders.

Reports from a series of court cases in 1923, where the Massereenes and some of their guests and their families tried to claim for damages after the blaze, have shed more light on what happened that night.

It was described how Lord and Lady Massereene were in residence at the time with some of their children. There were also about six guests, together with the servants. They all retired at about 12 o'clock on the Sunday morning.

Lord Massereene, before retiring, ‘took the precaution of going round the mansion to make sure that all the fires were out’.

It was noted that bridge party had been held during the Saturday evening in the library, but the fire in that room was extinguished before the company retired.

One of the guests, Colonel Richardson, was awakened by smoke and a choking sensation. He said he found a great volume of smoke coming into the room, and immediately raised the alarm.

Everything was done to arouse all the guests and servants, and to get them out of the building.

Lord Massereene came out of his room, and, on looking along the passage, found there was ‘roaring fire going through the well of the house’.

The smoke was thick, and the heat so intense that it was impossible to get out in that direction.

Lord Massereene ran to the other side of the house, and got down the back stairs with the idea of seeing what could he done to save the house - and those still inside.

Another guest, Lord Merriman, then discovered there was another fire in another part of the castle towards the billiard room.

Colonel Richardson next endeavoured to save some of the furniture, and broke into the dining room, going through to the Oak Room, where it is said that he found another independent fire.

Counsel for Lord Massereene explained that neither of the other two fires could possibly have started this third fire in the Oak Room.

The court heard that ‘a very elaborate system of water supply for the castle had been arranged’.

A cistern with a capacity of 1,800 gallon which had been filled to overflowing on the Saturday evening, was found empty when Lord Marrion and a footman tried to turn on the water to use the hose.

It was also alleged that the windows in the boot room and the larder in the basement had been badly tampered with.

These windows had been forced open, and the protecting bar inside of each was wrenched off.

Counsel called attention to the fact that about a period during 1922 when a great many castles and mansions had been destroyed.

In addition it was noted that it was ‘a curious thing that the police guard on the Castle had been withdrawn at the time of the fire’.

For considerable time there was a guard of ‘Specials’ on the Castle, but ten days before the fire the police ware taken away - in spite of the protests of Lord Massereene, who made every effort to have the guard retained.

It was pointed out that Lord Massereene had always taken a very prominent part in politics ‘on the side on which he thought was the right one’.

He was a prominent member of the UVF and a member of the Northern Senate.

In addition, Lady Massereene, about two three months before the fire, had got at least two or three threatening letters.

These letters threatened she would be ‘done in’, and also told her Ladyship to be prepared to ‘meet her Maker’.

The judge was also told of the disappearance of a quantity of paraffin oil, of which no trace could be found.

Counsel said: “The wood in the castle was not of the type that could boost alight with a cigarette earl. It was almost entirely oak.”

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard told the court that Antrim Castle belonged to his family from the early part of the 17th century.

Other reports to the court heard of how guests tore bed sheets together to lower themselves from the windows, while Miss d’Arcy had to jump from a window eight feet high, as the stairway was in flames.

However one of the occupants was not so lucky - 22-year old Ethel Gilligan, from Westmeath, a kitchen maid, was trapped in her quarters and could not be rescued.

Despite what might seem today as overwhelming evidence of foul play, Judge Thompson declined to grant compensation in respect of the burning of Antrim Castle, refusing, with costs, the application of Lord Maasereene and the trustees for a total of £90,000 damages.

Among the claims included one for £l00 by Colonel Neil Stewart Richardson, for damaged clothing, £317 claimed by Miss Harriett Grace D’Arcy for damage to clothing, £214, claimed by Miss Elizabeth C. V. for jewellery and clothing; Mrs. Elizabeth S. South, £1,520 for damaged furniture in the castle; Lieut.-Col. Watson for damage to clothing, and Mrs. C. F. Watson. £143 for damaged clothing.

There were also claims by Viscount Massereene for £50,000 for damaged furniture in Antrim Castle, and the same applicant for £3,000 for damage to clothing and other items.

Most tragically, Thomas Gilligan, of Packenham Hall, Castle pollard, County Westmeath, was refused £1,000 compensation for the death of his daughter, Ethel - just a fraction of what had been claimed for clothes and furniture.

Also in 1923, some of those who had helped in the gallant rescue efforts were rewarded for their bravery, including an attempt to save Miss Gilligan.

Said a report: “At Antrim Petty Sessions Wednesday. an interesting and pleasing ceremony took place, when the formal presentation was made of the certificates and cheques, each to the value of £5, awarded by the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, to John Heaney, Church Street, and Samuel Hannan, Riverside, Antrim, for gallant assistance at the Antrim Castle fire.

“When the house was burning very fiercely, some of the servants of the house, the maid-servants living in, the upper storey, were unable to descend, owing to being cut off the flames.

“John Heaney and Samuel Hannon, at great personal risk to their lives, by means of ladder, entered the Castle, and assisted in bringing three maid servants down to safety.

“One girl, Miss Gilligan, who was found unconscious in her room, was brought down on Hannan’s back by the ladder safety.”

Lord Massereene said: “The Town Commissioners were much impressed the conduct of these two gallant men, and decided that their conduct should not allowed to pass without some recognition, and they forwarded these two cases to the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, who were pleased award them certificates and a certain sum money.

“Now, that memorable morning, it is only fair to say that other men also acted in a most courageous manner, and here I wish publicly to acknowledge my thanks and my indebtedness all those, matter who they were, or whence they came, who helped much in doing what they could in that memorable fire.

“Without their aid and without their assistance I should not have been able to save certain pictures and articles of furniture from the house which would have been lost; and here this occasion I would like to refer the very good work done members the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and also the great assistance rendered by the Randalstown Fire Brigade.

“The people of Antrim of all classes helped me most ungrudgingly and most willingly, and these two men who did a signal act of gallantry and courage are now to be given these certificates from the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, and a sum of money.

“In this respect it is gratifying think that these two men represent two different types.

“They are not of the same creed probably, they not profess the same politics; but in their courage and in their manliness qualities which I venture say are inherent in the Ulster people - they showed of what stuff they were made, and worthily upheld the traditions of this province.”

To this, said the newspaper, there was ‘Loud applause’.

Lord Massereene then handed over the presentations to John Heaney and Samuel Hannon, ‘who modestly returned thanks’.

Mr. L. J. Holmes, solicitor, said that before proceeding the ordinary business of the Court, he thought it was only right that he, on behalf of the inhabitants of Antrim, and the profession which he belonged, should join with Lord Massereene in congratulating these men their gallant behaviour, and on the recognition made the Society.

He said: “Anyone who saw that fire on that morning could appreciate how these men deserved any certificate or any recognition that the Society for the Protection of Life from Fire could give them.

“The fire was a fearful sight, and it was fearful danger they ran, and but for their conduct, which was that of very gallant men, a very much greater loss of life would have taken place than did.

“On behalf of the Antrim inhabitants, which I myself am one, I have great pleasure in joining with Lord Massereene in congratulating these men their good work.”

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