County Down stately home badly damaged in fire
One of Northern Ireland's grandest stately homes has been badly damaged in a fire.
Mourne Park House in Co Down once hosted royal visitors and was owned by an army officer who led the defence of Wicklow during the United Irishmen's 1798 rebellion against British rule.
But it has been up for sale for many years and today around 80 firefighters were involved in battling the blaze in Kilkeel. Part of the roof of the sprawling mansion has collapsed, the fire service said.
The house is the ancestral home of the earls of Kilmorey. The 17-bedroom property has eight reception rooms and seven bathrooms and has been on the housing market for some time.
Ownership of the estate dates back to the middle of the 16th century, when Edward VI granted extensive lands in the Newry and Mourne area to the Marshall General of the Army in Ireland, Sir Nicholas Bagnall.
The house was rebuilt in 1806, on the instructions of its then owner, Francis Needham, who later became the first earl of Kilmorey.
Needham was an army officer best remembered for the military defence he mounted in Wicklow during the 1798 rebellion.
The Kilmorey family's main estate was in Shropshire, England, but they used Mourne Park as their holiday home, throwing lavish parties on the estate, hosting royalty and many high-profile politicians. Royal guests included Edward VII.
During the Second World War, the house was used by British and US regiments before they were deployed to France.
The last earl to live in the house died in 1961, and ownership of the house has since passed through the female line to the current owners.
The house lies in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains close to Carlingford Lough.
The house is valued at £3.5 million by a local estate agent.
More than 60 years ago, the croquet lawn, swimming pool and rose garden hosted high class parties, where personalities like film star Errol Flynn danced.
Decorative wood panelling, sash windows and marble fireplaces defined it as a playground of the rich and famous.
Today acrid smoke was seen billowing from the empty house as firefighters directed jets of water at it.
John Allen, area commander at the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service, said a lot of valuable items were removed from the house by emergency crews.
"The three adjoining wings were saved from the fire and all of the habitable furniture and artefacts were removed because they were items of historical value," he said.
Paintings and antique furniture were among objects saved before the roof on the main part of the building fully collapsed, Mr Allen said.
"We could see that the roof was going to collapse so we saved the items before that happened," he added.
When they arrived fire was sweeping through the main body of the house and substantial damage was caused to the three floors.