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The history of Derrymore House

Oil painting of a ruined castle on a hill displayed in the Drawing room at Derrymore, County Armagh
Oil painting of a ruined castle on a hill displayed at Derrymore, County Armagh | © National Trust Images

Over the last 250 years, Derrymore estate and the village of Bessbrook have been caught up in the shifting tides of social, cultural and political developments. During the same period, the grounds have been sculpted, planted and opened up to create a place of sanctuary, while the striking ornamental cottage, Derrymore House, has continued to stand centre stage.

Isaac Corry builds Derrymore House

Derrymore House was built in the late 1700s as a summer retreat for Isaac Corry (1753–1813), who served as MP for nearby Newry from 1776 and later became Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer.

Disguised as a quaint, rustic cottage, the house was in fact elegant and spacious inside, with large windows to draw the outside in. It was probably designed by the renowned Irish landscape gardener John Sutherland (1745-1826).

Tree planting starts

Corry commissioned Sutherland to create a fashionable, miniature farmland setting for the cottage, surrounded by woodlands of oak, chestnut, pine and beech; many of those trees still stand today.

As Chancellor, Corry was involved in the drawing up of the Acts of Union of 1801, which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Acts of Union drawn up

The acts were contentious, not least because they moved parliamentary power from Dublin to London, but Corry pursued the changes as he hoped they would deliver economic advantages to Ireland, alongside other benefits such as Catholic emancipation. He was left feeling betrayed and disillusioned when this failed to materialise.

Corry sold Derrymore in 1810 and retired to his Dublin home, where he died in 1813.

Bessbrook Meeting House at Derrymore with graves outside, Northern Ireland
Bessbrook Meeting House | © National Trust Images/Patrick Moan

John Grubb Richardson founds the Bessbrook model village

The industrialist and philanthropist John Grubb Richardson (1815-1890) was at the heart of a booming mid-19th-century Ulster linen industry, bolstered by the opening in 1852 of the nearby Craigmore Viaduct, which linked Belfast with Dublin.

Society of Friends

Richardson was a Quaker – a member of the Society of Friends – and in 1845 founded the ‘model village’ at Bessbrook for his employees. Whereas Derrymore House had been designed for the wealthy to play at rustic living, Richardson was concerned to improve the often dire accommodation of ordinary workers.

Run on the principle that a happy, but teetotal, workforce was a productive one, the improved Bessbrook featured purpose-built housing, schools and other facilities for its workers; to this day the town lacks a pub.

Buying Derrymore

Richardson bought Derrymore in 1859, letting the cottage out and building the Victorian villa known as the Woodhouse for his own family amongst the woods in the northern part of the estate.

Adding exotic trees and shrubs to these woods, he created informal woodland walks through Derrymore, transformed an early medieval settlement enclosure into a Romantic garden, and built the estate’s entrance lodges.

War and peace

During the Second World War, Bessbrook played host to the armed forces.

In 1940, soldiers of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry were stationed here to defend against a potential German invasion of Northern Ireland from across the border. In 1943, they were replaced by the US Army Quartermaster Depot Q111-D, which remained in the area until August 1944.

Gifted to the Trust

After the war, John SW Richardson, a descendant of John Grubb Richardson, gave Derrymore House and some of its land to the National Trust.

During renovations, the Trust removed the porch and other structures that had been added after Isaac Corry’s time, and re-thatched the cottage, eventually returning it to its original state.

The house was opened to the public in 1957.

The ‘Troubles’ strike Derrymore

During the 1970s, Derrymore and Bessbrook once again became home to the forces, as Newry and south Armagh experienced some of the worst violence of the ‘Troubles’.

The linen mill at Bessbrook was turned into a major base for the British Army, for a while the busiest military heliport in Europe.

Bomb damages the house

Isaac Corry’s historical association with the Acts of Union led to bombs being planted at Derrymore House on several occasions between 1972 and 1979.

One firebomb damaged the house, which survived in large part thanks to the bravery of caretaker Edmund Baillie, who moved some of the bombs away from the building.

The Trust was forced to close the house and remove the contents for safe keeping. It re-opened in the late 1980s.

Derrymore for everyone, for ever

In 1985 John SW Richardson bequeathed the rest of the Derrymore estate to the National Trust.

Since then, maintaining and enhancing Derrymore as a place for everyone to visit and enjoy has been our focus here.

Together with a number of local and national partners, we have created accessible footpaths, parking and toilets, added a children’s play area and dog-friendly facilities, and worked to ensure that Derrymore is a sanctuary for nature, wildlife and people.

Derrymore House, Northern Ireland

Discover more at Derrymore House

Find out how to get to Derrymore House, where to park, the things to see and do and more.

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Things to see and do at Derrymore 

Visit Derrymore for picturesque walks through over 100 acres of parks and woodland, nature rambles, picnics and the historic 18th-century Derrymore House.

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