(Irish Grid Reference: H974404)
Every year Gosford Estate welcomes thousands of visitors through its gates. Most are casual observers unaware that the paths in which they walk were once trod by the poet Jonathan Swift and generations of Lords and Ladies of Gosford. Unaware too that the stationary waterwheel upon which their children play once powered the agricultural life of the vast estate.
Over all these comings and goings there presides a silent and solitary building, once the home of the Earls of Gosford, but now sadly fallen into decay. Among the variety of interesting structures in the estate the castle demands a second look if only to admire its sheer architectural audacity.
Gosford Castle was in fact the third home which the Gosford family constructed. When the untitled Acheson family first came to County Armagh in 1610 they erected a stone bawn to provide protection for themselves and the other settler families. This bawn was burned in 1641 when the native Irish rose in rebellion against the planter settlers. Towards the close of the seventeenth century the family, by then Lords and Ladies of Gosford, built a manor house with large reception rooms in which to entertain their prestigious guests. One such visitor was the poet and satirist Jonathan Swift who resided at the manor for some time and composed some verse on the basis of his life upon the estate.
The Castle was commissioned by Archibald Acheson, the second Earl of Gosford, in 1820. His imagination and sense of importance seemed to have got the better of him. Some time before he had commissioned William Greig to conduct a survey into the financial viability of the estate. Greig's report, issued in 1821, urged the family to be more efficient in the running of the estate and to avoid extravagances. Rather than heed the advice Lord Gosford seemed to use the report as a means of discovering possible financial sources to fund the building project.
Lady Gosford too seemed to take a considerable interest in the construction of the family seat, not surprising since she was probably providing much of the revenue. The architectural notion seems also to have been the product of Lady Gosford's imagination. Formerly Mary Sparrow of Worlingham Hall in Suffolk Lady Gosford was on intimate terms with Lady Byron, wife of the celebrated author. Conceived in a Norman Revival style it was intended to lend a brooding romanticism to the practicalities of the estate. If romance was the intended design Lady Gosford was to be disappointed. Even before the Castle was completed Lord and Lady Gosford had separated with Lady Gosford returning to Suffolk. Lady Gosford went back to live at Worlingham, where she died some years before her husband in 1841. The story is told that, "on its return journey to Co. Armagh for burial in the family vault at Mullaghbrack, her coffin was mislaid by the drunken servants whom Lord Gosford had sent to fetch it, and was conveyed by train to somewhere in the Midlands".
Lord and Lady Gosford were not the only people involved to feel the strain. Leading architect Thomas Hopper had been commissioned to realise the idea and had designed a somewhat eclectic building based on his notion that, "It is an architect's business to understand all styles, and to be prejudiced in favour of none". Work proceeded with stone being transported from the Mullaghglass quarries to construct the large mock twelfth century square stone keep and smaller circular towers. Lord Gosford it would seem was not satisfied by the progress and in correspondence with Hopper made an unfortunate remark regarding the talent of another architect. In 1834 Hopper recorded his displeasure,
"I suspect it did not cost him one hundredth part the thought, and but a small portion of the trouble which I took to try and make Gosford Castle as convenient and as good as I wished it to be...I have always felt a sorrow that I ever went to Ireland. I now consider it a misfortune".
Nevertheless hopper continued to act as chief architect of the Castle until his death in 1856 but even before this small alterations were made to the design by Thomas Duff and George Adam Burn who would succeed Hopper.
Travelling throughout the county in 1837 was Jonathan Binns, who gave some indication as to the financial burden of the building,
"Lord Gosford is building a baronial residence, under the supervision of Mr.Hopper, the architect. Though far from being finished it has already cost about £80,000. The Battlements and corbels struck me as being too light, and the arrangement in some parts appeared rather cramped, but the situation is good, and the grounds are well wooded".
Though the building had yet to be completed Lord Gosford had been paying tax on it since work had commenced in 1820.
Throughout the duration of the Castle's construction the Gosford family lived at Rostrevor. This seemed to establish a trend and the Castle even after its completion was never occupied on a permanent basis. The family it seemed preferred to make use of the Castle as a summer home and an attractive venue for Grouse shooting in August and September.
The interior furnishings were sumptuous and elegantly eye-catching. Though the Norman style of Castle would have been unsuitable for nineteenth century living the interior was significantly more comfortable than the exterior suggested. Light was a difficulty and the entrance halls though large were gloomy, giving the appearance of an ogre's cave. However, progressing to the inner hall and state rooms beyond was rather like leaving behind the ogre's lair and entering into the rooms of Monte Cristo. Much of the sculpture and stately marble columns were the work of John Smyth, Master of the Dublin Society Modelling School. Vaulted ceilings were picked out in gold and all throughout the Castle were the most intricate of woodcarvings.
Forty years after work began the Castle was occupied but not yet finished. Travelling in County Armagh in 1862 John Ynyr Burges visited Gosford Castle and recorded these observations,
"We found the large round room completed, all but the fireplace...The Castle appears an immense library, for my room is full of books and all of the choicest kinds, with the most perfect bindings. The new apartments consisting of long corridors and morning rooms belonging to this family, and sleeping ditto, are handsome and comfortable, and the beautiful and rare china does not fail to give a most picturesque effect. The ceilings in the more ancient part of the Castle are well imagined. The Norman cornice is most happily introduced. The staircase is very appropriate. The dining hall brings you back to feudal days. The table, which is profusely covered with every delicious viand and the choicest wines, rather beats the banquet hollow of our Norman ancestors. The sideboard or buffet takes a very slightly place amidst a recess of Norman form columns with massive pendants dropping from its ceiling...You eat, drink, talk and laugh immensely. There is something in the air and cheer around you that encourages you to do so".
Sadly the laughter lasted little more than a generation and the family soon began to feel the financial pinch. The Fourth Earl of Gosford was a part of the Edward VII set and to settle a gambling debt sold off the Castle's excellent library. Still the Castle was a burden and finally its contents were sold at auction in 1921 severing the Gosford family connection with the locality.
During World War Two the Castle was used as a Prisoner of War camp to house American soldiers and their German prisoners. For some time after that it was home to archives belonging to the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland. Even more bizarre was its use as a winter base for a travelling circus.
In 1952 Robin Fedden, Historic buildings Secretary for the National Trust, wrote and article about the Castle and recorded his view of its architectural achievement,
"It must be regarded as one of the most original buildings of the first half of the nineteenth century for it has no immediate antecedents. The immense granite Castle, reputed to be the largest pile in Ireland, with over one hundred and fifty rooms, sprang fully-fledged in its elaborate neo-Norman detail from Hopper's imagination. A three storey keep, such as Hopper was to repeat at Penrhyn, and a massive round tower containing a circular drawing room, are the salient features of the main elevation. Both are ponderously machicolated and achieve those effects of weight and gravity which are the hallmarks of Hopper's Norman Style".
In 1958 the Castle and Estate were purchased by the Forestry Commission of northern Ireland but though the estate was opened to visitors the Castle remained dormant until the 1970's when it was again garrisoned by troops during 'The Troubles'. In 1978 the Castle was sold to a Belfast family who attempted to establish it as a hotel. The costs of restoring the Castle and establishing this venture were too extravagant and its hallways once again fell silent.
The Castle was purchased in 2002 by the Boyd Partnership. The Belfast concern restored the building and created luxury apartments for those with enough money and desire to reclaim a little of a lost way of life. The project was described on the company's website (boydpartnership.co.uk, January 2014) as follows:
Restoration of Gosford Castle, Markethill, Co. Armagh.
The restoration and conversion of an existing grade A listed 19th Century castle to provide 23no. private dwellings with gardens. In the design of this restoration we as a company decided to break away from the typical 'apartment accommodation' usually associated with the conversions of listed buildings, and instead decided to develop the castle as a series of individual homes, each with their own front door, hallways, staircases and, in some cases, as many as 4no floors of accommodation. The restoration, sympathetically bringing the property up to 21st Century standards, is being undertaken by a team of dedicated craftsmen, taking the initial design aspirations into reality. The final result will be a series of unique homes, ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 ft², set in hundreds of acres of parkland, providing an ideal tranquil setting for family life.
Phases 0 & 1: complete April 2008
Phases 2 & 3: On-site
Bassett, GH, County Armagh: A Guide and Directory, 1888 (Dublin, 1888) Bell, J, Markethill and Gosford History Trail (Markethill, 1993)
Bence-Jones, M, A Guide to Irish Country Houses (London, 1988)
Binns, J, The Miseries and Beauties of Ireland (London, 1837)
Brett, CEB, Buildings of County Armagh (Belfast, 1999)
Burke's Peerage (Various editions)
Glendinning, V, Jonathan Swift (London, 1998)
Gourley, R, Gosford Estates 1610-1876 (Belfast, 1973)
HMSO, Gosford Forest Park (Belfast, 1969)
http://www.boydpartnership.co.uk, January 2014