History and stories

History and stories

Red Dining Room, Hillsborough Castle

Discover Hillsborough Castle's history - from its humble beginnings in the 1770s to its role in the Peace Process in the 1970s.

Hillsborough Castle holds a unique place in the history of Northern Ireland. Since it was built in the 18th century, the castle has gone from being a simple country house for the Hill family to becoming the official royal residence in Northern Ireland; and the place where many of the formal and informal stages of the Peace Process took place.

Humble beginnings

Hillsborough Castle’s history begins as a modest country house built in the 1770s by Wills Hill, first Marquess of Downshire. Wills Hill went on to build the Castle and the village in the Georgian style. The house itself is set in the heart of Hillsborough village, in view of the original Fort, and the Court House. At their height, the Hill family were the largest landowners in Ireland. Members of the family held official positions: in fact, Wills Hill himself was Secretary of the American Colonies during the 1770s; he was also Comptroller of the Royal Household during the 1750s and may have spent time at Kensington Palace during the reign of George II.

End of an era

During the early 19th century the grand country house was altered and extended; a great Library was added, along with a Billiards Room, estate offices, a Muniments Room, and better servants’ areas. Over the course of the century the Hill family spent less and less time at Hillsborough. By 1900 the house was rented out privately, and in December 1924 the house was purchased for £25,000 by the Imperial Office of the British Government.

Government House

Following the Irish Free State Act of 1922, the position of Lord Lieutenant was replaced by the post of Governor, the British monarch’s representative in the newly formed Northern Ireland and Hillsborough Castle became Government House. The State Rooms were improved and new apartments built for the new Governor, the Duke of Abercorn and his family. In 1934 a fire devastated much of the house and the Governor and his family had to vacate while considerable rebuilding took place. Much of what we see today dates to this time. The Duke of Abercorn retired in 1945 and was succeeded by Earl Granville, whose wife, Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon, was sister to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. There then followed many years during which The Queen, The Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret spent many holidays at Hillsborough.

Hillsborough and the Peace Process

‘The Troubles’ grew in scale and violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and direct rule imposed from London in 1972-3. The post of Governor was abolished and Hillsborough Castle became the official residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, which it still remains today. Hillsborough has subsequently served as a venue for formal and informal stages of the Peace Process, including the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, decommissioning talks in 1999, and the negotiation of the devolution of policing and justice powers in 2010 (The Hillsborough Agreement). Elements of the informal negotiations leading up to the ‘Good Friday’ agreement were also held at Hillsborough.

A Royal Family favourite

The modern royal history of Hillsborough begins in the 1920s, when it became the de facto royal residence in Northern Ireland. Leading members of the Royal Family have regularly visited Northern Ireland since 1922, using Hillsborough as their ceremonial and personal base. Significantly, the first meeting between HM The Queen and Mary McAleese, then President of Ireland, occurred at Hillsborough in 2005. In 2011 the Queen led the first state visit to the Republic of Ireland.

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