Springhill at Easter: house and lands at Moneymore

 In Diary, News

A typical April day. Bright, cold sunshine, then sudden soaking showers that race across the open countryside, stopping as abruptly as they begin. We have arrived at Springhill House, a ‘plantation house’ located at Moneymore, Co Derry.

Springhill, an Ulster Plantation story

It is a fascinating piece of history. The Conyngham family migrated from Ayrshire in Scotland in the early years of the seventeenth century, granted these lands by James I as part of the Ulster Plantation.

An estimated half a million acres were confiscated from the native Irish chiefs at that time and redistributed among the King’s loyal settlers as a way of subduing his rebellious Irish subjects.

And Ulster had been particularly lawless in its resistance to the Crown: it needed more subduing than most.

William Conyngham II married Ann Upton of Templepatrick in 1680.

Our excellent National Trust guide, Sara, tells us that Ann Upton’s father drew up astonishingly detailed ‘marriage articles’ for his daughter – the seventeenth century equivalent of a modern pre-nup – and insisted that his new son-in-law build a ‘convenient house of lime and stone, two stories high….with necessary office houses’ for his new bride.

William Conyngham obliged.

He seems to have been a generally obliging fellow: he became known as ‘Good Will’ because of his enlightened treatment of the tenants who farmed his land.

Many years later, in 1765, two new wings were added to the original house in by another Conyngham descendant known as ‘Fashionable Will’.

A fashionable Springhill…

He had returned, most reluctantly, from his glamorous gadding about in Europe only when his father threatened to disinherit him.

Once home, he set about making Springhill more appropriately fashionable. The magnificent dining-room is one of his additions.

There is an enormous fireplace in this fashionable dining-room, but due to a quirky design flaw, fires were not often lit here, as the room tended to fill with smoke.

Side by side with the elegant furniture and delicate tableware, we hear the story of how chimneys were cleaned some three hundred years ago.

It is a reminder of the casual cruelty and suffering that lay behind the fashionable exterior of the lives of the wealthy landed gentry.

A small boy would be sent up the chimney, brushing the soot as he climbed.

Unfortunately, the children often got stuck and found it impossible to climb back down again. At that stage, a small fire would be lit in the grate, for two reasons.

One, the heat and smoke would make the child panic, and thus make him more likely to wriggle his way frantically to freedom. And secondly, the sudden heat would make the chimney breast expand just enough to help free its tiny human captive.

Once this practice was outlawed – but not until many years later – the unfortunate goose inherited the job.

Pushed up into the black jaws of the chimney, the terrified bird would flap its wings, thus dislodging the soot and completing the job of cleaning.

Walking through the house, it becomes clear how large the household army of servants had to be in order to maintain the privilege of the plantation lifestyle.

Oak and beech trees abound on these lands.

When the skiffs of rain die away, the woodland becomes dappled with light and shade. Just away from the main house, there is a glorious Dutch garden, filled with tulips in bloom.

A scented camomile lawn is currently being restored – one of the many enchanting details of this beautifully preserved piece of history.

We drive over Slieve Gallion on our way home, the Antrim Plateau spread out below us, and Lough Neagh a steely grey ribbon in the distance.

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