THE charms of Co. Down are many and varied. The county stretches from Belfast to the southerly most point of the Six Counties on Carlingford Lough.
In between are some of Ireland’s top attractions including the Mountains of Mourne which include the highest peak in the North Slieve Donard; St Patrick’s Grave and the Apostle of Ireland’s former stomping ground; the Royal County Down golf course – one of the top links courses in the world.
That’s not to mention Tollymore Forest Park, whose follies, bogus ruins, Gothic outrages, geometrical curios and baroque bridges have inspired the likes of regular visitors CS Lewis and Edward Lear.
But Co. Down has many treasures that lie off the beaten track, particularly in mid-Down. It also has more than one footnote in US history.
Catherine O’Hare, the mother of the first European child born west of the Rockies — and delivered by Native American midwives — was born in Rathfriland, Co. Down, in 1835. Catherine and her husband Augustus Schubert were part of a group of 200 Overlanders heading west in search of gold. These intrepid explorers and settlers blazed the trail for the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
Strangely, although Rathfriland has eight pubs, not one of them is named after Catherine, nor does any memorial stand in her honour in her home town.
Down’s connections with the New World don’t finish there. The origins of the USA arose, it is claimed, because of a catastrophic meeting that took place between Benjamin Franklin and the acting Secretary of State for the Colonies in the early 1770s in Hillsborough, Co. Down.
They disliked each other intensely, and after no progress was made, Franklin returned home to convince the dissident colonists that there was no alternative but to initiate immediate revolution. The Declaration of Independence in July 1776 followed shortly after Franklin’s return.
The area surrounding Rathfriland is ideal for hiking, fishing, cycling or golfing in bucolic surroundings; plus you’ll get a background of history thrown in for free.
Speaking of history, the recent Troubles left north Down relatively unscathed. Nonetheless, 35 years of civic strife meant that few visitors (except for the well-informed angler or golfer) ever ventured here.
Accordingly, despite falling under British jurisdiction, this area has retained its essential Irishness. Here, despite it being a mixed nationalist/unionist area, you’ll most certainly get a céad míle fáilte.
And it won’t matter whether your accent is from Birmingham or Ballyshannon, you’re still guaranteed a welcome. During the time of the worst of the Troubles, international journalists often commented on the oddest of paradoxes: how could too sets of people be so welcoming to outsiders, yet so murderously uncivil to each other? Thankfully, the peace is continuing to process, leaving this area one of the friendliest, peaceful and most beautiful parts of these islands.
Places to visit in mid-Down
Naturally, we’ll start in Rathfriland. This hilltop Plantation village is situated between the Mourne Mountains, Slieve Croob and Banbridge. Aside from Catherine O’Hare, Rathfriland has had a couple of other brushes with fame.
One branch of the Bush family (the one which has produced two US presidents) emerged from this little village around 1755. William Holliday, a direct descendant, headed west and died in Kentucky about 1811–12.
The literary world also has reason to thank north Down. This is where Patrick Brontë, father of the three illustrious daughters, was born and brought up and the Brontë Homeland Interpretative Centre is housed in the hilltop parish church and school at Drumballyroney.
Tales from his Irish childhood fed and fired the imaginative genius of his offspring. But as you survey this lovely landscape — dotted with drumlins and ancient dolmens, the hedgerows alive with birdsong, and the towering Mountains of Mournes most certainly sweeping down to the sea — you may feel it’s beautiful enough to wake the muse in anyone.
Despite its connections with starting up the USA, Hillsborough is better known as the seat of unionist power in the North, where the representative of Queen Elizabeth runs Britain’s closest branch office. In days gone by it was a governor; now that Sinn Féin and the DUP are running the shop, the Northern Secretary uses this as an occasional B&B, and tends to mind her own business while she plots her next political move well away from the Six Counties brief.
Hillsborough is everything a village should be with dainty shops, immaculately kept streets, a bookshop and a couple of excellent pubs.
The 18th century Hillsborough Castle, a two storey Georgian mansion, dominates the town, and a stroll through the historic centre reveals some further fine Georgian architecture.
A prominent memorial to the 3rd Marquess of Downshire (and closely resembling Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, London) stands to the south of the village.
However, the most breathtaking sight in Hillsborough is one that most people only glance at. The parish church of St Malachy lies in a glorious setting near the town centre. Stately old trees, mostly oaks, line a long, verdant lawn that stretches to the church steps.
One of the finest examples of Gothic revival architecture anywhere, it was built by the 1st Marquess of Downshire between 1760 and 1774, in the hope that the church would become the cathedral of the diocese of Down (it didn’t — Down Cathedral was chosen as it had an A-lister buried in its grounds. St Patrick.)
In addition to its imposing setting, St Malachy’s boasts two 18th century organs, a peal of ten bells and a number of works by notable craftsmen of the era.
Killyleagh’s centrepiece is the magnificent Killyleagh Castle – designed by Charles Lanyon. The castle dominates this lovely old town situated on Strangford Lough’s southerly shore.
Originally a 12th century fort used by John de Courcy, Killyleagh Castle is today the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland. The present building dates back to 1850, but incorporates two towers of an earlier castle in 1666.
There are also remains of the original castle dating back to 1180. Killyleagh is also noteworthy as the birthplace of Sir Hans Sloane, whose immense natural history collection was the nucleus of the British Museum, and after whom Sloane Square in London, and indeed Sloane Rangers, are named.
Where to stay
To visit mid-Down you could stay anywhere in the county from the very fine Slieve Donard in Newcastle, Denvir’s Hotel in Downpatrick (one of the oldest inns in Ireland), or any of Belfast’s growing number of boutique hotels.
However, if you wish to stay in the middle of the county, the following are highly recommended…
Set in the heart of Brontë country, this fully modernised cottage sleeps six. From £49 per night, £340–£425 per week.
The Downshire Arms,
Main Street, Hilltown, BT34 5UH
Tel: 028 4063 8899
The Downshire Arms first opened to the public in 1824 as a coaching inn. Today it is a comfortable, welcoming roadhouse for travellers to the Mournes, renowned for its traditional music sessions.
Slieve Croob Inn,
119 Clonvaraghan Road,
Tel: 028 4377 1412
An award-winning country with stunning views across to the Mountains of Mourne.
…and where to enjoy a pint
The Marquis of Downshire,
48 Lisburn Street,
Tel: 028 9268 2095,
One of the most famous watering holes in the North.
The White Horse Inn, Saintfield,
49, Main St,
Part of the Whitewater Brewing Company, the North of Ireland’s largest microbrewery, with great real ale.
21 Main Street,
Tel: 028 28 9268 2765
Renowned for its roaring coal fires in the winter and cobble-stoned beer garden in the summer.
The Corner Inn,
29 Killyleagh Street,
Tel: 0284483 0261.
A friendly pub with open fire, an eclectic mix of customers and traditional sessions.