Opening Doors, Exploring Stories, Inspiring the future.

In this week’s blog, Christopher Warleigh-Lack discusses the refurbishment of Hillsborough Castle and the challenges of presenting public history in Northern Ireland:

In April 2014, heritage charity Historic Royal Palaces took over the running of Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. This became the sixth historic site managed by HRP, which include the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and the Banqueting House at Whitehall. Our ambition is to transform the site from a closed, secretive and unknown one, to an open, welcoming site, where we can follow our charitable aim to help everyone explore the story of how monarchs and people have shaped society, in some of the greatest places ever built.

This has, so far, taken four years, and when we open in April 2019, will have cost about £21m. This is includes £5m Heritage Lottery Funding, and nearly £2m in grants from other organisations, and will require us to attract 200,000 visitors annually in order for the site to become self-funded. As a charity, we receive no financial support from crown or government. Our remit covers not only the castle, but 100 acres of grounds, as well as the nearby Court House and Fort, both of which are still owned by the Downshire family.

A Public History project of this nature is not without its challenges! At its heart an Irish Big House created by the Hill family, Earls of Hillsborough and later Marquesses of Downshire, bought by the British Government in 1925 to house the newly created Governor of Northern Ireland, it became – and still is – the official residence of the monarch in Northern Ireland. After the role of Governor ended in 1972 and direct rule was imposed from London, it became the residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a role which it also continues to this day.

Thus, how do we share a complex, tangled, and contested history, and welcome communities who may not traditionally feel welcome? We need to be fair and honest in telling our stories, and balanced without being provocative.

William III stayed at Hillsborough on his way to the Battle of The Boyne and should be neither eulogised nor airbrushed; traditionally seen in armour on a white horse, we searched the collections of art available to us for a less provocative image, and found one. This is displayed in the State Entrance, along with other royal portraits from that period: his uncle Charles II, who gave Hillsborough borough status in 1662; Queen Anne, on whose Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland formed the basis of that in 1800 with Ireland; James II for whom the Hill family acted as Privy Councillors and courtiers (and like many, swapped sides when they saw how the wind was blowing). This sets the scene for the Hillsborough visit, establishing a royal space, and one with royal links back to 1662. However, there is more to it than that.

State Entrance, Hillsborough Castle.  © Historic Royal Palaces.

The Red Room, scene of the first ever meeting in 2005 of HM The Queen and Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, was the venue of many intimate discussions during the Peace Process. Following the tradition of the cabinet, or intimate private space for politicking and display of precious items, a dense hang of amazing art from several collections is displayed here. Subtly, as a counterpoint to this, are domestic photographs on side-tables. Look closer however, and they show politicians from all groups, sides and parties, at Hillsborough Castle.

A Throne Room should look like a Throne Room. No question. It is still a space for investitures, ceremony, and, citizenship and looks the part.

Throne Room, Hillsborough Castle.  © Historic Royal Palaces.

As far as the art in the State Drawing Room goes, things are different, and the feel of the space is more intimate. The art, as a counterpoint to all those royal portraits, is contemporary and by world famous Ulster artists, all inspired by the taste of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who collected Irish art. A challenge we face is that the open fire in this room is lit when a certain visitor stays. Institutional lenders will not allow their art or objects to be displayed in the same room as an open fire for reasons of conservation. So, we approached private lenders and artists themselves, all of whom do not have the same restrictions and were delighted to be involved.

Visitors touring the house are encouraged to sit on the sofas, beside the fireplace in this room: who knows who else may have sat there before? Instead of ‘Do Not Sit’, how about ‘Do please sit here’. We recognise that with 200,000 wiggling backsides, these sofas won’t last very long. But, as they were purchased for this room in the 1990s, we accept that eventually they will wear out and need replacing.

State Drawing Room, Hillsborough Castle.  © Historic Royal Palaces.

We do not want to shy away from the political stories, but, reflecting on the challenges other organisations have faced, and remembering that this is still a living, working space, we hope we have found a way of doing this. Country houses traditionally displayed amusing prints or cartoons in stair halls and other less stately areas. So what we did was choose images that relate directly to the history of Ireland, and Hillsborough’s place in it. With prints and cartoons from collections all over the world, we hope we have presented a balanced view, starting with the 18th century and the American War of Independence (the man who built the house was Secretary of State for the American Colonies under George III); the French Revolution, the Act of Union, the Home Rule debate, the Famine, Land Acts, and ending with the Act of Partition in 1921. Our intention is to open the former Secretary of State’s Bedroom at the top of the stairs to continue this story; but, there are many challenges around this both logistical and esoteric.

Stair Hall, Hillsborough Castle.  © Historic Royal Palaces.

As a usable space, we do not to use barriers or display cases to protect people and objects from each other, and nor do want to. No ropes, druggets or pine cones on chairs here. We have to be more creative: today’s newspaper roughly folded and placed on an 18th century hall chair can act as a deterrent; an artist’s box on a fragile armchair; knitting and wool or a writing set on a drawing room chair.

Refurbishment and representation of the castle itself was completed in July 2018, and the rest of the project, including car parks, visitor centres, education space, cafes and shops, will be completed by April 2019, and through opening doors and exploring stories of public history, we can inspire the future.


Dr Christopher Warleigh-Lack is the Curator for Historic Royal Palaces at Hillsborough Castle, and has worked with HRP for nearly ten years, with experience of National Trust in both England and Northern Ireland, Shannon Heritage and the Limerick Civic Trust.


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