Noel Lamb on how he restored Finnebrogue House in Downpatrick
The owner of the historic estate tells Lorraine Wylie of his astonishing life in the Orient, being on patrol along the Fermanagh border as an Army officer and his love of skiing
Bordered by the River Quoile and Strangford Lough, Finnebrogue estate has a long and interesting history. Its earliest occupants, the Maxwell family, are equally intriguing. Some historians have suggested that the name goes back to the eighth century. However, records show that the Maxwell family at Finnebrogue originated from Calderwood in the Scottish Lowlands, arrived in Ireland during the reign of Elizabeth I and settled in The Pale (an area south of Dublin and along the east coast that was under the control of the English government in the Late Middle Ages).
A lease in perpetuity was bought from Thomas Cromwell, Earl of Ardglass and, in 1628, Henry Maxwell acquired the land at Finnebrogue. Interestingly, Thomas Cromwell was the cousin of Henry VIII's minister of the same name.
Situated at the top of a long and sinuous driveway, Finnebrogue House is an elegant 17th century mansion with an 'H' shaped layout, common to other properties of the era. For the past number of years, extensive renovations have not only restored the manor to its former glory but added more than a touch of 21st century comfort. I meet with current owner and the man responsible for the transformation, Noel Lamb.
Seated in a beautifully decorated morning room, I begin by asking Noel about the origins of Finnebrogue House and whether, as its reputation implies, it really is Northern Ireland's oldest inhabited house.
"Exact dates are often difficult to pin down, but we can be fairly certain that this house was built between 1660 and 1662," he explains. "We based this on a dendrochronological survey carried out on some original oak floor joists that had been exposed during restoration work in 2012. We discovered that the joists had been cut in 1662, so the dates make sense. As for Finnebrogue being the oldest, inhabited house, well, I would have to qualify that by saying it is the oldest undefended house in the country.
"Prior to 1660, there were forts and castles but there were few, if any, houses built in Ireland. Up until the Restoration, Ireland was in such a state of civil unrest that people probably didn't feel safe enough to build houses. Having said that, Finnebrogue was an undefended house - there are oval shaped gun loops in each of the wings here. No doubt if some stranger had arrived unexpectedly at the front door, a musket would have been quickly aimed at him!"
Down through the centuries, as land has been sold off or changed hands, the boundaries of the estate have shifted and altered. The passing of time has also made an impact on the surrounding landscape.
Up until 1717 when Downpatrick landlord Edward Southwell erected the first tidal barrier on the river Quoile, waters from Strangford Lough encircled the town and, in severe weather, caused extreme flooding. For over 200 years, Quoile Quay was a bustling, thriving port while, just a short distance downstream, at Steamboat Quay, a paddle steamer service ferried passengers and goods to Liverpool during the 1830s. Now, instead of steamboats chugging up the river, visitors come to admire the flora and fauna at the Quoile Pondage nature reserve.
Successive generations have produced some notable characters including Robert Perceval Maxwell (1813-1905) who proved his mettle as a shrewd businessman not only in Ireland but as far away as the Amherst Island in Canada's Great Lakes. Having bought the Island in 1857, he later helped finance a cheese factory as well as an agricultural society. Many people from Co Down emigrated to Amherst, but home was never far from their mind.
In fact, Portaferry man James Watson even named his pub The County Down Inn.
For Noel, it's the female line that captures attention.
"The family are interesting in that they have lived here for so many generations," he says. "They married well and, as many families do, brought in the occasional heiress to help with family fortunes. They were landowners as well as politicians and as time went on managed to acquire around 8,500 acres. In my opinion, the building of Finnebrogue House was an incredible undertaking but there is no one who stands out as having created a dynasty.
"I think that Dorothea Waring Maxwell was one of the most remarkable women in the family. Following the death of her brother Edward in 1792, Dorothea inherited Finnebrogue and three years later embarked on an extensive renovation project when she created what's known as a 'piano nobile'. It really was a huge piece of work that involved removing the attic floor as well as dormer windows from the central section. Many internal walls had to be taken out and separate staircases made to reach the second storeys on the east and west wings."
Piano nobile, Italian for 'noble floor', was a typical feature of neo-palladian architecture. During the 18th century it became increasingly popular among Ireland's aristocracy. In simple terms, piano nobile was the principal floor level where all the main reception and bedrooms were housed. As well as the obvious advantage of larger windows and improved views, the design helped overcome the potential problem of rising damp at ground level.
It's obvious that Noel takes great delight in the history of Finnebrogue and, judging by the smile on his face, he especially enjoys stories from people who have lived there.
"Last year a lady called Nora Lennon came to see me," he smiles. "Nora was a maid here between 1941 and 1943 and she had some wonderful stories about life at Finnebrogue House. She told me how, on the night she arrived the butler did a midnight flit and never came back. At the time, the house had a staff of five and, although it was during the war, and many things were rationed, the kitchen garden and the grounds of the estate provided them with game and vegetables.
"Some of her duties, such as cleaning the chandeliers, sounded a little dangerous. Apparently, two of the gardeners would bring in a plank of wood for her to stand on. Then they'd hoist her up to clean the lights - obviously there was no health and safety then!
"Her tale about Hanna the cook who left Finnebrogue and went to work at Mount Stewart was very amusing. After moving to the new place of work, Hanna went on summer leave but returned to find the kitchen had been moved from the basement to the ground floor and frosted glass had been installed in the windows. As it turned out, the cook was quite offended and informed Lady Londonderry of Mount Stewart that while the new kitchen arrangement could be tolerated, she really had to put her foot down at frosted glass. With that, Hanna promptly left and returned to work at Finnebrogue House!
"Nora met her husband while plucking pigeons in the basement and the pair had little assignations behind the pottage shed. When they got engaged, Nora had to give in her notice as employers didn't allow married couples to work in the same house. It must a have been quite a difficult life at times."
Now it's time to find out a little more about the latest resident at Finnebrogue.
"My grandparents came from Berwick and London," Noel begins. "My grandfather was injured during battle in the First World War and was sent to Northern Ireland's north coast to rest and recuperate. Of course, like many who come to this part of the world, he fell in love with the place and in 1919 built a summer house in Portrush. My father, Ian Dumma Lamb, was born there although he was brought up in Palestine and sent to school at Fettes (in Scotland). My mother, Jane, was from the Cumming family in Co Antrim and I was born at Portrush, so you could say, Ulster was always in the blood."
Growing up, Noel attended Belfast Royal Academy.
"I did enjoy my time there," he says. "The school gave me a great passion for history. Afterwards, I went to Oxford to read law and in the early Eighties I did a short service commission in the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards.
"I had a tour in a police station in Fermanagh. For a young man in his early twenties to be in charge of a troop of soldiers on a border station, now that really was a rite of passage. There were bomb scares and two riots during my time there and I realised very quickly I had a job to do. It's an enormous responsibility to have to make decisions that can affect the lives of those around you. It makes you grow up fast. But I do have to say that we had great support from the community, and I have some very fond memories of those days. Now, when I look back, it's wonderful to see how far Northern Ireland has come. Peace may not be perfect, but life now is infinitely better."
After the Army, the young officer had to re-think the direction of his career.
"My law was so rusty by then that I thought, if I went back, I'd probably be more like Rumpole of the Bailey!" he says. "So, I went down the financial route and got a job with Lazard (a financial advisory and asset management firm). What a fascinating time that turned out to be.
"I ended up running the office in Tokyo for six years and my, that was a real baptism! During the Nineties, Tokyo was incredible, a fascinating place. It was the end of the period known as 'the asset bubble' and at the time there was only a handful of westerners in the country. Japan has a wonderful culture, great food, fabulous companies and the people were and are incredibly polite.
"For a young man in his thirties, I couldn't have wished for a better experience. In winter, I could ski in Japan's Alps and I did my diving course in Guam. I also travelled extensively throughout Asia. It was such a surreal time in China. I mean, I'd be sitting with friends having a coffee and someone would say, let's go to Beijing so we'd hire cars, pack a picnic, wind up gramophone records and off we'd go. We'd dance the Charleston and have a wonderful time. It was as easy as that. It was shades of a different time, an era before China opened up."
Even today, Noel looks forward to his annual trip to the land of the rising sun.
"I'm chairman of an investment fund listed on the stock exchange which holds a board meeting in Japan every year and I always look forward to visiting," he says. "It's an opportunity to catch up with all my old friends but there are three that I always make a point of meeting.
"The first is Takako Ohori, who was my assistant while I was working there. Then there's Mr Yoshio Abe who has impeccable manners and remembers when as a boy of just 12-years-old he watched the Americans bombing Tokyo in the spring of 1945. How horrific to see a largely wooden city go up in flames, killing tens of thousands.
"Thirdly, I always look forward to seeing Princess Takamato. I first got to know her when the British Ambassador asked me to give them a reeling lesson in old Scottish dancing!"
It seems the Lord of the Manor is also lord of the dance. Is he an expert on Scottish dancing?
"No," he replies. "They just wanted to make sure their reeling was up to scratch and I knew enough to give them a few pointers. I learned to dance at Oxford and in the Army and we had reeling parties in Tokyo.
"I quite enjoy dancing, but I don't like it any better than my other interests. We actually do reeling here at Finnebrogue every St Andrews Day and New Year's Eve."
Does he notice a difference between Japan today and when he first visited?
"Tokyo is constantly re-inventing itself," Noel says. "Since the Meiji restoration in 1868, the Japanese have been great innovators. Back then, the new government were determined they would not go the way of China and be over-run by the West, so they sent government officials and civil servants all over Europe seeking the best from every field.
"Their education system was modelled on Prussia and, even today, Japanese schoolchildren still wear Prussian-style uniforms.
"They decided to model their navy on Britain, and their army was based on France, the greatest military power in Europe until 1870, when Napoleon III was defeated at the battle of Sedan. They suddenly realised that the new Germany was a better choice, but that didn't work out too well.
"They also adopted western dress. Today, Japanese ministers and members of the Imperial family very rarely wear formal Japanese clothing.
"The Japanese will take a new idea and run with it, so Tokyo is forever changing. You wouldn't necessarily recognise the skyline of today compared to when I first went there."
When it comes to music, Noel likes variety.
"I'd describe my taste in music as eclectic," he says. "If I'm sitting here, there's nothing I like better than a little classical music, but then again I might put on something South American or perhaps a bit of Van Morrison.
"I spent six years in America, where I was chief investment officer for a company called Russell Investments. Seattle has some fabulous jazz clubs and I loved going to a place called Jazz Alley - great times."
A natural born storyteller, he keeps me spellbound tales of his adventures.
"I've been to some terrific places and enjoyed each for what it offered," he says. "There have been many wonderful adventures like the time some friends and I went on a float plane to northern Vancouver Island, crossed the Johnstone Strait and then went up an inlet, where we watched grizzly bears catching salmon. Now that was incredible."
He enjoys dancing, likes to travel and listen to music. But there is one thing that Mr Lamb is passionate about - skiing.
"I love it," he admits. "I did a season in my early twenties on the border of Bavaria and Austria, quite near to mad King Ludwig's castles, and I absolutely loved it. I enjoy all aspects of it - being in the outdoors, the varied terrain and how it enables me to challenge myself. My favourite would have to be off-piste skiing because going down steep runs is so exhilarating."
Since purchasing the house in 2011, Noel has been pouring his energy into restoring it, as well as turning it into a home. But what drew him to Finnebrogue House in the first place?
"It all started about eight years ago when a couple of my friends who live locally rang me up and said, 'You need to fly over and buy this place or it's going to go'," he says.
"Unfortunately, both my parents died when I was young, so our family home had been sold. I'd bought part of the old stableyard at Castle Upton in Templepatrick and restored the place, but I was always running out of bedrooms when guests came over to visit, so I'd been looking for a place for a while.
"I realised when I saw Finnebrogue House that nothing had been done to the place in quite a while, but I also knew it was an opportunity to keep my Irish connections, so I decided to buy it and make it fit to live in."
My host suggests a quick tour of the house and, as we move from one room to another, I'm lost for words. To say the place is beautiful is an understatement. There's no doubt Noel has worked wonders, but he's reluctant to take all the praise.
"I could never have achieved this without the people who have worked here alongside me," he insists. "From the project manager to the talented craftsmen who brought the plan to fruition, they have all been wonderful. I would also like to say that the house works very well in a 21st century setting, under the able supervision of Barbara McKay and Wendy Forsythe."
So, what can Finnebrogue House offer future generations?
"Finnebrogue represents a fascinating period in Ulster's history," Noel says. "Architecturally, there are few places more important than what we have here. The house has always played an important role in the community and I'm determined that will continue.
"Throughout the year we've had several events to draw people together and we have others coming up. I think it's vitally important to maintain links within the community."
Finally, we turn to another subject high on the list of priorities - Hope for Youth.
"Yes, my main charity is Hope For Youth," Noel says. "We support cross-community projects for young people between the ages of 11 and 18. The charity started in 1972 as a direct result of the Troubles. Over the years I've attended functions and various events. Later I became more involved and am currently chairman.
"The projects can be anything from dance to taking cancer patients away for the weekend or even building a children's playground. Many of the young people involved have never worked with their peers from other backgrounds and our aim is to promote self-awareness as well as respect for others.
"I liken our work to little baby steps, but lots of little baby steps can make better citizens for tomorrow.
"We have assessors in each county who go and visit the projects to check they are sustainable, cross-community and what they promote. They'll make a report and where grants are awarded we always follow up. It's very humbling to see how these projects are making a difference. I truly believe it's the way forward."
For more information on Finnebrogue House, visit www.finnebrogue.co.uk, and for information about Hope for Youth visit www.hopeforyouthni.com