Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Low Rock Castle

LOW ROCK CASTLE, Portstewart, County Londonderry, was given this name in order to distinguish it from its larger neighbour further along the coast, Rock Castle (a school since 1917, known locally as O'Hara's Castle).

"Low" Rock Castle pre-dates Rock Castle, because it was known as "Rock Castle" before the clifftop mansion was built.

This house was a two-storey, late-Georgian seaside villa of ca 1820, with two bows like round towers at either end of its front.

It was originally battlemented, hence its "castle" nomenclature.

The bows contained circular rooms.

Low Rock was famous for having been the birth-place, in 1835, of FIELD-MARSHAL SIR GEORGE WHITE VC, the defender of Ladysmith.

It was built by Henry O'Hara who later constructed the dwelling known as "O'Hara's Castle" on a promontory further to the north.

Low Rock Castle is referred to in 1835 as a bathing residence that was usually let during the summer.

The house was rented to James Robert White, of WHITE HALL, County Antrim, during the summer of 1835.

The building was vacant in 1856 and was the property of Alexander Shuldham.

The house was let out for some years and, in 1885, was sold to Thomas Mackey, a wine merchant of Coleraine, at which time it was said to comprise twenty-three rooms, including three reception rooms, nine bedrooms, kitchen, pantries and two WCs.

Extensive outbuildings comprised a large coach-house, stable, byre, and a house for the coachman, the whole "romantically situated on an acre of ground".

In 1908, it was recorded that the house was let for the summer season of three months a year and was otherwise vacant.

The house passed to James Leslie ca 1920; and then to the Wilson family in the 1930s.

It was run as a boarding-house in the summer, though was closed during the winter.

Notes of this period show the house with bays and porch, a rear return with dining room; pantry and scullery; and a stable block to the south which had been converted into rooms for boarders and staff.

In 1945, the property was purchased for £3,000 by Robina Young, when the interior was completely modernised, part of the building accommodating an overflow of visitors from the STRAND HOTEL.

Low Rock Castle was demolished overnight in 2001, without permission, during the construction of a block of apartments that now occupy the site:
"Planners were under fire today after ruling out legal action over the flattening of a protected historic building. The listed 19th century [Low] Rock Castle in Portstewart was pulled down in the summer of 2001 to make way for an apartment complex.

It has taken the DoE's Planning Service almost four years to decide against prosecution. The Department had previously referred to the demolition as an "offence" and stressed that the "necessary legal procedures" were under way.

Its decision not to go to court has been revealed in a letter to Coleraine Council. The DoE said it had been firmly advised by its lawyers that there was "no reasonable prospect" of a conviction.

Works to Rock Castle had been "urgently necessary" on health and safety grounds and the developer had carried out the "minimum measures necessary", the letter stated.

The Department also said that Planning Service chiefs had decided after "careful consideration" that pursuing the case "would not be in the overall public interest". The DoE took a much tougher stance in the immediate wake of the removal of the historic building. 

In a letter to the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in October 2001, the office of the then Environment Minister, Sam Foster, stated: "The Planning Service has initiated the necessary legal procedures with a view to pursuing prosecution." 

The Minister's office also stated that the demolition was "at variance" with a Planning Service consent, which required the "retention of the original front section of Rock Castle".

Rita Harkin from the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society said at the time:
"This fine listed building was demolished without consent, to the detriment and dismay of the community. We shared their clear expectation that a prosecution would follow. To maintain that the Department's inaction is in the public interest is risible. Will it not simply prompt others to demolish and reason later, cheating towns and villages of cherished historic buildings?"

I photographed Low Rock Castle's successor during a visit to Portstewart in July, 2013.

The picture was taken from the shore.

At the entrance there remains a tiny fisherman's cottage of ca 1600.

First published in July, 2013.


Anonymous said...

What a terrible shame it was demolished! Thanks for bringing my attention to it and it's interesting history. Great blog.


Handelian said...

A strange tale indeed. Ghastly block of flats too.

Unknown said...

Thank you for posting this I am an O'Hara, this is some of my family history. My grandfather was William Albert O'Hara he changed it to O'Harrow later, because he didn't want people to think he was related to the movie star. His father William O'Hara came over from Ireland to Pennsylvania and married a Gertude Kephart had 1 child and disappeared. Again thank you for the information. Janet [O'Hara, O'Harrow] Yednak

miller said...

Working on FM G.S. White. Your post was very helpful - Thanks! Stephen

Martin Downy said...

Thanks for the update on what happened to the old building. One of the apartments in Rockcastle was my student accommodation for two years in the early 1970s shared with two others. You couldn’t have wished for a more beautiful site to be studying and the scenery was often a distraction from writing essays. I was staggered to see that the house had gone when I visited the area some time later.

Andrew said...

My gob is well and truly smacked at such destruction.