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Northern Ireland's grandest homes have weathered many storms down through the ages... but how are they managing to cope with the coronavirus?


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The Mulhollands have been renovating the lawns at Ballyscullion Park

The Mulhollands have been renovating the lawns at Ballyscullion Park

Noel Lamb in the library at Finnebrogue House

Noel Lamb in the library at Finnebrogue House

Rosalind and Richard Mulholland in the drawing room at Ballyscullion Park

Rosalind and Richard Mulholland in the drawing room at Ballyscullion Park

James Mulholland

James Mulholland

June and David Traill at their home in Bushmills

June and David Traill at their home in Bushmills

The Mulhollands have been renovating the lawns at Ballyscullion Park

As NI’s most historic properties often rely on income from hospitality, weddings and other events, Lorraine Wylie asks three owners how they’ve been affected by the pandemic.

‘Being diagnosed with Covid-19 has given me a new perspective ... but I’m concerned about effect of the pandemic on charities’

While Noel Lamb, owner of Finnebrogue House near Downpatrick, has had to cancel a number of scheduled events at his historic property due to the pandemic, it turns out that this wasn't his only coronavirus-related concern.

For Noel, who was in hospital for an unrelated matter, received a positive coronavirus test result despite having no symptoms.

He feels fortunate to have come through his ordeal, but is concerned about the impact on charities which the pandemic will have, as most of the events he has had to cancel are to raise money for charitable causes.

After acquiring Finnebrogue in 2011, Noel has restored the mansion to its former glory - bordered by the River Quoile and Strangford Lough, the house was purchased by a Robert Maxwell in 1628 and is reputedly the oldest undefended house in Ireland. Now, Finnebrogue hosts a series of social and cultural events throughout the year, boosting funds for charity and keeping the estate at the heart of the community. I asked Noel, chairman of the Hope for Youth charity, how Covid-19 has impacted life at Finnebrogue.

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Noel Lamb in the library at Finnebrogue House

Noel Lamb in the library at Finnebrogue House

Noel Lamb in the library at Finnebrogue House

"Unfortunately, the current lockdown has caused several cancellations," he says.

"We have a variety of events here at Finnebrogue, but one of the most successful is where I offer to host a dinner in the main dining room as an auction lot. One of the guests at the auction, either an individual or a corporate, makes a bid, with the highest winning the auction lot.

On the whole, I've no doubt that the situation will have an impact on all historic homes. Those depending on revenue from tours, events and gardens will suffer this year Noel Lamb

"The most disappointing cancellation so far is a charity dinner due in May. Originally, this had been bid for at the Hope for Youth lunch at the Culloden Hotel with Roddy Doyle. It is a black tie event and the saloon, library and dining room would all have been used during the evening. Hopefully we can rearrange it for a later date, depending on social distancing guidelines.

"Last November, Hope for Youth also bid for a charity dinner at the House of Lords versus House of Commons swim. It was due to take place in November but I think we'll have to make a decision in July. On the whole, I've no doubt that the situation will have an impact on all historic homes. Those depending on revenue from tours, events and gardens will suffer this year. As for Finnebrogue, most of the events are charity-related, so the charities will struggle as donations dry up."

Whatever the changes at Finnebrogue, coronavirus has given Noel a new perspective on life.

"I was in London in mid-March when I suffered a sharp abdominal pain," he tells me. "It took four trips to A&E before a CT scan revealed a kidney stone. I was admitted to hospital for two days and during that time they tested me for coronavirus. I had none of the listed symptoms, so when it came back positive it was a bit of a shock.

"For two of those days in hospital I was placed in a Covid-19 ward where most people were on ventilators and suffering other ailments. I was unlucky to get ill but very fortunate not to have symptoms of the virus. I've been feeling fine ever since, but I came out of it with a rather different perspective. Now, I just enjoy every day, spending time in spring sunshine, appreciating the beautiful gardens."

Covid-19's greatest sting is the lack of contact between friends and family.

"Yes, I am missing the social interaction from friends and family," Noel says. "I find not seeing people during the day very strange but fortunately there's WhatsApp calls and other means of communication. Now, whenever I think of friends far away or those I haven't seen in a while, I make a point of calling them. So far I have resisted Zoom! But when we get back to normality we'll appreciate meeting people all the more."

What is he looking forward to most when life returns to normal?

"I think, at the end of the day, there will have to be re-evaluations. We'll all get a clearer image of what is really important and have more awareness of others. I'm looking forward to brighter days. Just sitting with friends, around the kitchen table, enjoying a salad or a bowl of pasta - such joy!"

‘We have so much sympathy for those couples who have had to postpone their wedding plans, but we have found everyone so cooperative’

Coronavirus has brought an unprecedented challenge to Richard and Rosalind Mulholland of Ballyscullion Park, an estate which sits on the shores of Lough Beg in Co Londonderry, but it's not the first the couple have faced.

In 1976, Ballyscullion was operating as a dairy farm until TB was detected among the herd and the couple were forced to start again. Making the most of their historic legacy - the Park dates back to 1787 while the house was built in 1840 - they ventured down the hospitality and tourism route, becoming one of Northern Ireland's top event and wedding destinations.

Now, even in light of the pandemic, Rosalind remains upbeat.

"We're so fortunate to have the gardens," she says. "They keep us busy and give us plenty to do. We took the opportunity of having no weddings to do some repairs on the lawns - levelling and reseeding - but it needs the rain to get it growing again! It's lovely having three of our children at home and although Cordelia is in lockdown in Italy where she lives with her husband, rugby player Ian McKinley, we keep in touch via the internet.

The advantage of a private venue like Ballyscullion Park is that the only people around the estate on the day are those connected to the wedding. We hope that will work in our favour as lockdown eases Rosalind Mulholland

"Our daughter Olivia (34) is here, also working from home. She is project managing for University College London Hospital Trust, having regular meetings with her team in London. Her husband Kieran is also working from here although at the moment he's quarantined in one of our cottages because he was in London till last Friday. Our youngest son, George (27) goes shopping once or twice a week to the supermarket or the Hilltown farm shop. He is busy mowing and landscaping and also working on his Instagram for his new private catering business, Hummingbird Catering."

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Rosalind and Richard Mulholland in the drawing room at Ballyscullion Park

Rosalind and Richard Mulholland in the drawing room at Ballyscullion Park

Rosalind and Richard Mulholland in the drawing room at Ballyscullion Park

Like many families who have children with special needs, the Mullhollands were concerned about how the lockdown would affect their second son, James, now 32.

"James was 10 months old when we discovered he was profoundly deaf," Rosalind explains. "Initially, we didn't think anything was wrong with him. He even passed his seven month hearing test. We took him everywhere, first to a Harley Street doctor then to Manchester University Hospital for further tests. Later we took him to Holland to a school for the deaf in St Michelgestel. He was five when we discovered he had autism. That was another shock but it also helped us make sense of the way he was. You know, people sometimes say 'poor you'. My answer to that is, it's not poor us - it's poor James, he's the one who has to cope. But he has done brilliantly and has thrived at Parkanaur College, near Dungannon, working in the gardening centre, the upholstery workshop and he loves cooking. I think he's coping well with the lockdown."

How did she explain the situation to James?

"I told him the whole world is sick and we have to stay at home. I crossed out all the exciting things on his calendar - weddings, family parties, holidays. He has taken it well and is quite a happy chap."

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James Mulholland

James Mulholland

James Mulholland

How has the lockdown affected business?

"It has been a real challenge, and we have so much sympathy for the couples who have had to re-think their wedding plans, but everyone has been so cooperative," she says. "All weddings to the end of June have been postponed, and even some July dates have reserved a back-up slot just in case. The advantage of a private venue like Ballyscullion Park is that the only people around the estate on the day are those connected to the wedding. We hope that will work in our favour as lockdown eases. We are inviting couples who can't get married on their chosen date to come for a picnic in the garden, once restrictions have eased. They will be able to enjoy the garden without anyone else around, so they can still make some happy memories for their day."

What about tour groups?

"All cancelled and I can't see them starting up till much later in the year," Rosalind remarks. "It is really hard for the hospitality industry. Mid Ulster Council has been fantastic and has organized regular Zoom presentations from key people in tourism, legal and financial experts and marketing gurus. Ironically, 2020 was to be the year when so many businesses took off!"

‘Our B&B is closed, weddings and events are cancelled ... we’re looking at ways to diversify’

Just a few miles from Bushmills, Ballylough estate has been in the Traill family since 1789. Down through the centuries, the beautiful Georgian property has housed many distinguished residents, including Colonel William Traill, pioneer of the first commercially run hydro-electro powered tram system that once operated between Portrush and the Giant's Causeway. In more recent times, current owners June and David Traill have put the historic property on the hospitality map, including running their house as a bed and breakfast.

"There is no farming here, so for us to make the property 'wash its face' and bring in an income, we've had to come up with new business ideas," June explains.

"In keeping with our charity, Ballylough Living History Trust, we ran the popular event known as Battle of the Boar. I'm also interested in social prescription projects including taking therapies such as counselling outdoors. Now, everything is on hold.

We have taken a mortgage holiday thanks to the support of our mortgage supplier, but other loans and costs still have to be paid June Traill

"On March 9, my mother had a hip operation and when she came out of hospital three days later lockdown was just beginning. She needed three carers a day, so it was a no-brainer that I move in with her. I've been locked down at mum's house ever since, while David looks after the house."

June's mum, Christine Wright, a well-known artist, isn't the only one needing the Traills' help. "We have some students from the charity staying at our house," she explains. "They couldn't get home as they live in remote Islands, as far away as Martinique. We all get on well and it's great that they can keep in touch with their families via Skype and suchlike. We also have two of our sons at home. Henry (23) and his brother Bruce (26) have finished university but with the current situation I don't know what'll happen about finding jobs. Our other two boys, Shane (30) and Paddy (28) are both working from home in England and, like everyone else, we use the internet to stay connected."

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June and David Traill at their home in Bushmills

June and David Traill at their home in Bushmills

June and David Traill at their home in Bushmills

Coronavirus has left the economy reeling and, as June points out, for many small businesses the prognosis is poor.

"Usually, our bed and breakfast funds a lot of the charity work, which we are continuing to support where possible. But now the B&B is shut, which means our income is zero. We reinvested every penny into the business, so we had no profits. Weddings have been cancelled, which means refunding deposits that have already been used to upgrade the site. We have taken a mortgage holiday thanks to the support of our mortgage supplier, but other loans and costs still have to be paid.

"Sadly many, like those in the tourism sector who rely on a very short income period will be badly affected or, indeed, go under."

June, however, maintains a glimmer of hope. "I'm busy thinking of ways to diversify," she explains. "We've had time to finish a little free publication about the heritage of the Ballylough area. We'll be able to hand it out to visitors, guests and the local community. We're also working on preserving and recreating some of the historical costumes on site, although no idea how we'll eventually be able to showcase them. Meantime, we're finishing all those little jobs that have waited for years to be done. The garden, in particular, is getting a lot more attention, so we have been planting plenty of veg and flowers."

Belfast Telegraph