A great-grandfather who joined the Navy at 12, a society wedding that drew the crowds and a shocking motorbike crash in France... life is full of adventure for proprietors of Redhall Estate
John and Irene McClintock, owners of the Carrickfergus property, tell Lorraine Wylie about decorated ancestors and their handsome home which is a popular wedding venue
Travel guides today list Belfast as a major destination, but in the 16th century the title would have gone to Carrickfergus. Hundreds of years before Belfast came to the economic fore, Carrick was already a thriving and successful port.
In fact, up until the 17th century Belfast Lough was known as Carrickfergus Bay. In 1530, Walter Devereux, the Earl of Essex, arrived in the town, determined to claim the province for Queen Elizabeth I. While his plan wasn't the triumph he'd hoped, his arrival in Ulster did change the history of Carrickfergus and indeed much of east Antrim when one of his men, John Dalway, married Jane McBryan O'Neill who was the reputed granddaughter of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone.
Records refer to Dalway's rank in Essex's army as both 'cornet' (the modern equivalent is second lieutenant) and captain but, regardless of title, marrying into such an elite clan certainly improved his fortunes.
Dalway went on to become an important landowner, heading up the vast cattle empire that once spanned all the way to Scotland along what was known as the Cassie cattle trail.
It has been suggested that Dalway built the impressive Redhall House near Carrick and so, in pursuit of what would be a fascinating story, I paid a visit to meet current owners John and Irene McClintock. Situated on the main Larne Road, Redhall is just a 30-minute drive from Belfast but, once through the gates, it may as well be in another world.
Lined with mature trees, the driveway takes a long, circuitous route past ancient woodlands before eventually plateauing out at the front porch of Redhall House. The secluded three-storey and three-bay manor, its central section flanked by north and south wings, is one of Northern Ireland's top wedding venues.
Friendly and instantly likeable, John, who grew up at Redhall, and Irene tell me how they met - and how their love of adventure has got them into serious trouble.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
"My dad, also called John, was a farmer and as a young lad I'd often help him around the place," John says.
What was it like growing up in such an historic home?
"I didn't really think about it," he shrugs. "It was just home. Looking back, it was a great childhood and I have lovely memories ... I was sent to boarding school in Kent when I was eight."
How did he cope with being away from home at such a young age?
"It was fine, it really didn't faze me," he says. "I went on to study marine radio but instead of joining the Navy as a qualified radio officer, I joined the BBC. I suppose technically I still am a radio officer, but I doubt I'd be any use at sea. Nowadays they use satellite communications."
Irene describers herself as a typical 'farmer's daughter' and the youngest of three.
"I grew up just a few miles down the road," she reveals. "We lived in a lovely four-bedroomed farmhouse about the size of the centre section of this place. I went to the local primary school and then to Larne Grammar where my favourite subjects were history and maths. From there I went to work in the Ulster Bank, in the head office at Waring Street, now the Merchant Hotel."
She's no longer into banking but her fascination with history is as strong as ever.
"Yes, I do love pulling all the strands together," Irene says. "I often think about the women who came here. They left their homes and family in relatively peaceful Scotland to come to wild Ireland. I wonder why..."
Where did the couple meet?
"At a local disco," Irene says. "It was during the Seventies and there wasn't a lot going on in Belfast back then. I remember I'd been complaining to a friend that men in Northern Ireland were too short for me. I was 5ft 6in and in those days wore four-inch heels so I hadn't met anyone to measure up. A friend told me about this fella she knew who was 6ft 4in and, while her description may not have closed the deal, at that height you'd definitely take a look."
The look must have been enough because the rest is history. "We married in 1983, moved in here and I continued to work and life was great," Irene says. "We have two sons, aged 23 and 20. No doubt you can guess the elder fella's name."
"Yes!" she beams, obviously proud of her lads. "John and his brother Patrick are both at home. John has just finished his degree and is taking a gap year, while Patrick is still at Queen's University. Both take after their dad and are into computers and technology."
Jotting down the various family dates, I notice that parenthood was 13 years in the making. Aware that it may be a sensitive subject, I decide to move on but Irene has noticed my hesitation and addresses the subject head on.
"Yes, it was quite a while before John was born," she laughs good-naturedly. "John and I were too busy having a good time, getting out and about on the bikes."
Somehow I get the impression that, for this couple, 'biking' doesn't mean a gentle pedal round the estate. John confirms my suspicion.
"I have a BMW motorbike and we love travelling," he says. "In fact, we're off to Portugal this weekend."
Will Irene be riding pillion?
"No, I have my own bike, also a BMW," she says. "Although I have a side-car on mine. My brothers had bikes so I grew up around them and now we love nothing better than heading off somewhere to explore."
What was their best biking experience?
"Going to Russia," Irene says without hesitation. "At the time, Russia was just opening up. An incredible time. We'd arrive at border checkpoints and they weren't sure about us and we weren't sure of them. But they stamped our passports and it was such a memorable time. Travelling on the bikes is always fun, in fact I can't think of anything we didn't like."
"Well there was that time in the south of France," he reminds her.
"Oh yes," Irene says. "That was in 1984 when a Frenchman, driving a Renault Four, turned on to the road but forgot to check if anyone else was using it. I was on the back of John's bike and he hit us, breaking my back in three places.
"John was also hurt and I had to be helicoptered to the nearest hospital to be stabilised. I spent a week in Montpellier hospital, six weeks in the RVH and another six months in a body cast."
The nonchalance in her voice belies the seriousness of the incident and I catch a glimpse of the gritty streak in her character. When I point it out, Irene laughs and jokingly attributes it to her Ulster Scots heritage. Queries about long lasting effects and her current health are waved away.
"I have a bit of nerve damage and a bad back but so has most of the country," she says.
To delve deeper into the past, we move into the dining room where my hosts serve up a rich slice of history.
Irene's recall of dates and names is impressive.
"Some suggest John Dalway built the house but there is no real evidence," she tells me. "The first documentary record begins with the deeds, dated May 26, 1609 when John Dalway sold the place to William Edmonstone, originally from Duntreath in Scotland."
Even in the 17th century, moving house was expensive and, according to records, William Edmonstone, 7th Laird of Duntreath, raised the money to invest in his new life in Ulster through a mortgage of his estate in Duntreath. For a short while, he and his family lived on the Ards Peninsula in Co Down. Little is known about the individual characters but, according to Irene, the early Edmonstones were a canny lot.
"The Edmonstone still live in Duntreath and according to family myth brought the roof tiles of their Scottish house and put them on the house here. Then when they left they took their tiles back with them," says Irene.
They may have taken their tiles but, during their tenure, they did add to the size of the house.
"Everyone likes to put their mark on a property and successive owners have done the same at Redhall House," Irene explains. "Following a wedding in the family in 1717, Edmonstone did some major renovations. He removed the old spiral staircase and replaced it with the (Jacobean) wooden stairs that are still here today. By the time the family left in 1784 the house had in effect doubled in size."
Softly spoken and equally interested in the heritage of Redhall, John fills in some of the details.
"There are references to an Elizabethan Tower house in this area but no-one has ever been able to find it," he says. "We believe that Edmonstone probably renovated the existing Tower House. There is some credence for this argument. For a start the south east corner of the main corner is slightly buttressed and you wouldn't normally expect to find that in a house built during the 16th century."
If as the couple suspect and they do have a Tower House, there may be a few old traditions they'd be expected to observe.
"Oh yes," Irene chuckles. "We'd have to have five men at arms plus two horsemen, keeping watch for intruders. If an attack did occur, then the men at arms would rush down to defend the causeway - the old causeway, not the new one - while the horsemen would gallop to Carrickfergus to fetch some back-up."
In 1784 the property was sold to Richard Gervais Ker of Co Down. He added his signature to Redhall Estate by building the current north and south wings.
The Kers are also responsible for a small threshing mill, now known as 'the barn'. Like all properties, Redhall House is a reflection of individual owner's tastes and popular trends. But as John explains, it also reveals their change in fortunes.
"These big houses were very difficult and costly to maintain and families were often reluctant to take on the responsibility," he says. "Many of the children didn't want to live here. Eventually, by 1869, Redhall Estate was listed for sale at auction."
"We have the catalogues," Irene adds, the historian in her ever hungry for documentary evidence.
The future looked bright in 1869 when the MacAuley family arrived, giving it a touch of fairytale magic with the addition of a tower and parapets. They even tagged on a few luxuries, including bathrooms. In 1900, Mr WJ Porrit, a millowner of Scottish descent, enjoyed the modern touches of previous owners and, according to sources, painted the exterior of the house red. Unfortunately, once again, Redhall estate ended up at auction.
I suspect by her grin that Irene has that particular catalogue as well.
"Yes," she nods, laughing. "We do indeed."
Unwilling to skip or miss out a fact, Irene tells me that in 1918 Mr George Reade took over at Redhall House and was responsible for fitting dormer windows as well as selling off a lot of land. I wondered how much land currently belongs to the estate.
"Oh, around 210 acres," John supplies. "But it's half grassland and half woodlands. We let someone else farm it now."
Now we come to the current owners, who for me are the most interesting of all - the McClintock family.
"The McClintock family goes back a very long way but one of the most notable characters was Sir Francis Leopold McClintock," Irene says, nodding toward an impressive portrait of said gentleman. "He is John's great-grandfather and, although it was his son who became the first McClintock to own Redhall Estate (1927), Sir Francis's story is worth telling."
Sir Francis is just one of several family members whose portraits grace the dining room wall. The couple refer to them by title and name for my benefit but, between themselves, they're endearingly known as granda and granny. There's a genuine sense of family pride as John reminds of his great-grandfather's credentials.
"Sir Francis Leopold is best remembered for his exploits in the Arctic," he says. "His most famous expedition occurred in 1857 when at the request of Lady Franklin he went in search of her missing husband, Captain Sir John Franklin, who had left England two years previously and never returned."
Sir John Franklin, an experienced explorer with three previous expeditions to his credit, was 59 when he embarked on his fourth trip to the Arctic. In an attempt to chart and navigate the North West Passage, Franklin took with him two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The latter was captained by Co Down man Captain Francis Crozier who grew up in Avonmore House in Banbridge.
Three years after Franklin left, the first of several expeditions were sent to look for the men but, while evidence pointed to tragedy, Lady Jane, Franklin's wife, was determined to have confirmation of her husband's fate and asked McClintock to go and look for him. Taking unpaid leave from the Navy in 1857, Francis and his second in command, Lieutenant William Dobson, set off in a small steam yacht called the Fox.
John shares a little about his courageous relative's background.
"In today's world, explorers and adventurers can rely on satellites and phones to help keep them safe," he says. "But then it was very different. Once past Greenland, it was unchartered territory and they'd be making maps as they went. My great-grandfather was just shy of 12 when he joined the Navy. Family legend says he joined up to get out of studying Latin.
"He was offered a sort of sponsorship. You see, back then a naval captain had the authority to offer a place to a young apprentice, usually a relative. However, the captain of HMS Samarang didn't have anyone in mind so asked his first officer, who happened to be Leopold's uncle, to recommend someone. He recommended the young Francis Leopold whose father was the Collector of Taxes at Dundalk. On the morning of his departure, one of his father's staff accompanied the boy the whole way to Portsmouth."
Getting back to McClintock's search for Franklin, history records a tragic discovery.
"They found the only written record confirming that Franklin had died," John says. "The document, hidden in a little cairn, also said that the crew had been attempting to go overland, making their way to one of the Hudson Bay companies. No-one from Franklin's expedition survived."
In a total of four expeditions, Francis Leopold McClintock also gained fame for an ingenious sledging technique that earned him the title 'father of modern sledging'. A solo sledge journey of 14,000 miles led him to discover 800 miles of previously unknown Arctic coastline.
In 1860, his achievements earned him a knighthood, a promotion to rear admiral, the Freedom of the City of London and he had a channel named in his honour.
"He was 200 in July," Irene says, smiling up at Leopold's portrait. "We had all the family here to celebrate. It's always a good excuse to get everyone together."
Leopold's son, Vice Admiral John William Leopold McClintock, aka Jack, was also a Navy man. He won "honours for his conspicuous bravery and gallant deeds" at the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War. Jack purchased Redhall Estate in 1927, becoming the first in the McClintock clan to own the property.
"The reason Jack came to live here was because he married Rose O'Neill, daughter of Lord and Lady O'Neill of Shane's Castle," Irene says. "The couple met at the War Office in London, where Rose had been working. They married in January 1920 at Shane's Castle and for a number of years they were stationed at Malta and a few other places.
"But when they decided to find a retirement home, they chose to come to Northern Ireland. As the story goes, they looked at a place in Co Down which Jack quite liked but Rose, a Co Antrim woman, wanted to be nearer her family home so they bought Redhall Estate. I'd love to know which house in Co Down they'd been looking at."
Interestingly, the wedding was covered by the Ballymena Observer. The paper gives a full blown account of the crowds that filled the church and lined the roads. It mentions how Rose was the first Miss O'Neill to be married in Shane's Castle for 200 years.
"Space is also given to the groom's war honours as well as his famous father's expeditions to the Arctic. It notes that the best man was the groom's brother and lists the officiates, among them the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Reverend Dr D'Arcy. There's even a mention of the choir of St Anne's Cathedral. The arrival of the bride elicits a sentence explaining that, as her father was prevented from appearing at the church, Rose was given away by her brother, Major the Hon Hugh O'Neill MP. But unlike today, when the bride's dress is depicted in minute detail, there is not a hint of what Rose wore on her wedding day!"
The marriage between the O'Neill family and the McClintocks was a major event in the area and beyond. But, as Irene reveals, the story didn't have a happy ending.
"When Jack and Rose bought this house in 1927, Jack was still working as head of the Naval College in Portsmouth. Unfortunately he passed away two years later in 1929. Sadly he and Rose didn't get to enjoy this place together. However, Rose did come over and, helped by the family and friends, lived at Redhall Estate."
The current owner's father (Jack and Rose's son) then took over at Redhall Estate.
And finally, as Irene shows me around the drawing room, it is immediately apparent why couples choose such a beautiful setting to exchange their vows. Apart from the privacy, tasteful decor and stunning views, there is a sense that, as with previous generations, life is an adventure waiting to begin.
For further information on the estate go to: www.redhallestate.com