Saturday, 1 February 2020

College Green House


COLLEGE GREEN HOUSE, located at the corner of Botanic Avenue and College Green, Belfast, was designed in 1870 by James McKinnon for the merchant, Archibald McCollum.

The apartment on the ground floor can be rented.

The former coach-house to the rear of the house is now the well-established restaurant and bistro, Molly's Yard.

It is not clear whether McCollum ever lived here, but by 1880 the house had become a Church of Ireland Collegiate School (traces of the school name can still be seen over one of the corner windows). 

In 1890, the house was occupied as a private residence once more, by John MacCormac, physician to the Belfast Institution for Nervous Diseases, Paralysis and Epilepsy.

College Green elevation

One year later it was acquired by John McConnell, managing director of Messrs Dunville & Co, whiskey distillers, who lived there until his death in 1928.

McConnell was a JP and a Freemason, and a friend of James Craig, first prime minister of Northern Ireland (whose father owned Dunville's).

He had a car that was kept in the former coach house, and employed a chauffeur to drive it. 

His five children were brought up at College Green House, and most of them developed liberal views that must have shocked their establishment father.

Botanic Avenue elevation
Notable amongst them was his youngest daughter Mabel, who became a suffragette and a committee member of the Gaelic League. 

For a while after she graduated from Queen's University she was a secretary to George Bernard Shaw and to George Moore, but then she met and eloped with Desmond FitzGerald, a young English poet of Irish extraction. 

Although he continued his literary interests, being an acquaintance of Ezra Pound and T S Eliot, FitzGerald became heavily involved with the Irish Volunteers in Kerry in 1913. 

It is recorded that Mabel and Desmond spent Christmas 1913 at College Green House, before having tea with James Connolly after a republican meeting. 

The couple also met with Roger Casement on this Belfast visit before going back to Kerry, where Desmond organised and drilled volunteers.

He went on to fight in the Easter Rising of 1916 and to become a Minister in the Irish Free State government that ensued.

Union Theological College

College Green House must therefore have hosted gatherings of very different political persuasions over the years, particularly as the first Northern Ireland Parliament met in the Union Theological College, which the house overlooks.

It is not unlikely that McConnell would have been visited by his old friend James Craig at the end of the day for tea or billiards. 

Mabel's fourth son, Garret, must have absorbed some of this political atmosphere as he went on to become a Taoiseach [Irish Prime Minister] aware of his Belfast roots as well as his Dublin ones.

On McConnell's death, the house passed to new owners who, unfortunately, subdivided the house very crudely into flats in 1934.

The early occupants of the flats included spinsters, academics and at least one man of the cloth. 

In the 1950s, they acquired an artistic neighbour, a civil servant called Alfred Armentières Kitchener Arnold, who hosted many of the local artists of his day from visiting actors and dancers to artists like George McCann and Dan O'Neill, and writers like Louis MacNeice. 

Arnold was a keen amateur actor himself, and when he later retired to the island of Gozo near Malta he is reputed to have translated The Pirates of Penzance into Gozitan. 

Rumours abound of other flamboyant visitors like the architect Henry Lynch Robinson and Erroll Flynn the film star.

The playwright Stewart Parker lived in one of the flats briefly about 1970.

Latterly the house was entirely occupied by young artists, among them Susan Philipsz who organised an exhibition in 1998 called Rev Todd's Full House, which assembled the work of some fifty artists who had lived or stayed in the house up to that time. 

The building was used as a location in the film Divorcing Jack during that period. 

Unfortunately the flats did not meet current fire regulations and the house was closed shortly after that.

Hearth negotiated a long lease on the property in 2000, and then sought finance to restore the building to its former glory. 

College Green House was unlisted because of the extent of its alterations, but it was listed in 2002 which made an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund possible. 

During the interim, Hearth put in caretakers drawn from the pool of artists interested in the building and provided studio space for artists such as Rita Duffy and Martin Wedge.

Work started as soon as planning permission was granted in 2004. 

In addition to upgrading the services to the building the main work involved was the reinstatement of the elevation to College Green which had been disfigured in the conversion to flats, with steel picture windows replacing the original round headed windows and stone dormers. 

Restoration involved considerable repairs to brickwork and stonework as the 1930s windows were in different positions from the originals and many chimneys lacked their stone cappings. 

Metal finials and the cresting at the top of the roof were reinstated, along with the unusual barley-sugar railings, pillars and gates. 

The 1930s entrance to the flats from College Green was retained, but the old front door in Botanic Avenue which had become a window has been reinstated as a doorway. 

A three-storey bay added at the rear of the house was removed to restore the cubical design of the building, and that permitted restoration of the arch linking it to the former coach house. 

Internally, plasterwork was restored using moulds taken from no.2 College Green which had been part of the same development.

The staircase dado was restored using painted and grained Lincrusta, while the flat entrance doors were grained.

Following extensive structural repairs to the outbuildings they have now opened as Molly's Yard.

The house of the former whiskey magnate is now linked to one of the few sources of real ale in Belfast.

And as for its Headless Dog brew? 

If you look carefully at the base of the coach-house, you will see the silhouette of a headless dog, a symbol of the group of artists who were here in the 1990s: history tends to be circular, but the history of this house is more spherical than most. 

First published in August, 2011.


Anonymous said...

This is fascinating, Tim. Townhouses can be of as much interest as those in the county. Very good indeed.


Anonymous said...

Have often passed this house and wondered about it for I've always thought it was a lovely townhouse, like so many in that area. What a fascinating history it has, so much of a story to it. Will look on it with fresh eyes now on passing!

Isaiah Neve said...

I lived in the top flat of that house from 2006-2010, never knew the real history behind it. Thanks for the eye opener.

Anonymous said...

What an absolutely fascinating article Lord Belmont. Very impressed too with food and ambience at Molly's Yard on my one visit there - TS

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable article - interested to see more like this in the future.

Anonymous said...

Lord B, have you considered an article on Clifton House? Although sadly blighted by the Westway, it is a remarkable building, surely one of Belfast's 'hidden gems'. And well preserved. VC

Timothy Belmont said...

VC, these are just the sort of suggestions I like.

I'm open to good suggestions.

Many thanks!

Handelian said...

A very fine building, well restored. Hearth has shown again and again what housing associations can achieve. What a shame its wider setting and so many buildings in the surrounding area have been blighted with fine family houses converted into ersatz student accommodation and university facilities. Surely, if the will existed, it is still possible to stop the rot. Introducing residents only parking and planners being prepared to take on the landlord interest would be good first steps. The University also needs to take on responsibility for accommodating its ever increasing numbers of students rather than leaving them to fend for themselves in the surrounding area. There seems to be plenty of money to spend on the (fantastic} new library and other buildings so let it put up well designed and purpose built student accommodation too.