The history of Castle Coole
Castle Coole is one of the greatest neo-classical country houses in Ireland. Home to the Earls of Belmore, it was commissioned and built to impress by the first Earl of Belmore by Amar Lowry Corry, 1st Earl Belmore (1740-1802) and furnished largely by Somerset Lowry Corry, 2nd Earl (1774-1841).
Castle Coole boasts some of the finest neoclassical architecture, interiors, furniture and Regency furnishings in Ireland. Original drawings by the architects, the building records, inventories and invoices recording the daily work of the joiners, plasterers and painters in the 1790s and the furnishing of the house 1807 to 1821 helped guide the restoration of Castle Coole in the 1980s. This combination of place, collection and archival record must be unique in Ireland where so many records and collections have been dispersed. It speaks of careful husbandry by generations of the family who cherished the past.
Who built and lived at Castle Coole?
John Corry, a merchant from Scotland, bought land in Fermanagh in 1655 that had previously belonged to one of the participants in the Ulster Plantation. John’s son, James, supported William of Orange in his Irish war with James II, during which the old castle at Coole was burnt down. A replacement was built in c1707 - not a fortified castle but a brick building with sash windows and tall chimneys, signalling a period of peace and prosperity in Ulster after years of unrest.
Through marriages and connections, the combined estates of the Lowry, Corry and Armar families (amounting to over 70,000 acres of tenanted land by 1779) were all inherited by Armar Lowry Corry in 1779. Amar, MP for Tyrone, was raised to the peerage as Lord Belmore in 1780 (and earl in 1797) and began to plan a new house, more suited to contemporary taste and his position in society. Architect Richard Johnston from Dublin was employed in 1789 but Belmore switched to James Wyatt, then at the height of his career and particularly skilled in the neoclassical style. Wyatt never visited the site, sending all his drawings from England. Much of the building work was carried out by skilled Irish builders and craftsmen and some of the furniture designed by Wyatt was made by the Irish joiners, including a great mahogany sideboard, and a large wine cooler for the dining room. The house is faced with Portland limestone from England; specialist plasterers under Joseph Rose created the decoration to the ceilings and walls; marble chimneypieces were commissioned from Richard Westmacott and Domenico Bartoli created scagliola columns and pilasters.
" In its architectural purity, Castle Coole is as near perfection as you can get. It emanates a cool, self-contained splendour that is only enhanced by the surviving Regency furnishings. "
The ground floor of the central block contains the principal receptions rooms. The wings and first floor bedrooms were the family’s private quarters. The vast basement contains service rooms with separate areas governed by Housekeeper, Butler and Cook, who could come and go via a large service tunnel that connected the basement to the service yards.
The 2nd Earl had campaigned fiercely against the Act of Union of 1800 which led to the abolition of the independent Irish parliament. He lost his parliamentary seat, only becoming a representative peer in the British House of Lords in 1819. In the meantime, he concentrated on the furnishing of Castle Coole, commissioning John and Nathaniel Preston of Dublin to supply complete rooms of furniture from 1807 onwards. Inspired no doubt by the interiors he saw in London where he had a house, Castle Coole was as lavishly furnished as the greatest Regency interiors.
Furnishings fit for a King
To add to the splendour the Second Earl of Belmore commissioned furniture from Preston’s of Dublin in 1807, in lavish French Empire style. Preston’s also made the most extravagant piece of furniture in the house, the State bed, which was commissioned for the visit of George IV in 1821, although in the end he never visited Castle Coole meaning the ornate decoration has stayed in perfect condition.
Perhaps to escape creditors, Somerset took his family away for a 4-year tour of the Mediterranean in 1816, visiting Malta, Egypt and the Holy Land. He acquired a paid position as Governor of Jamaica in 1828 finding himself in the middle of a highly volatile situation. Leading up to the abolition of slavery, the British government sought to improve the living conditions of the enslaved people, but this was resented by the plantation owners who dominated the local assembly. Belmore’s attempts at moderation were not welcomed by either side. In December 1831 many of the enslaved people rebelled, martial law declared, and the leaders executed. Belmore was blamed for mis-handling the situation and recalled to London. His conduct was subsequently vindicated, but it must have been a bitter end to his posting.
The 4th Earl, Somerset (1835-1913), rescued the family’s finances by selling land, reducing the estate to some 20,000 acres, enabling a partial redecoration of Castle Coole. In 1867 Somerset was appointed Governor General of New South Wales, where he supported the development of the railways. The 5th Earl never married but lived on modestly at Castle Coole with five unmarried siblings. By the time the 7th Earl inherited in 1949; the burden of taxes and the expense of maintaining the house led to the house and 70 acres of land being transferred to the National Trust with a grant from the Ulster Land Fund, the contents remaining on loan.
The present 8th Earl lives nearby and continues to take an active interest in the house and demesne.