Drumalis - a short history - by Marty Johnston

For anybody that is willing to share historical information on the Larne town area obtained from offical sources as books, PRONI or newspapers, or local knowledge. If need be I will start separate area forums

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Drumalis - a short history - by Marty Johnston

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Drumalis - a short history of a magnificent house -

The first written record of the name Drumalis comes from a sixteenth century calendar that lists lands adjoining and belonging to the church of the friars called Clondumalis. The name 'cluan' or 'cluain' refers in Irish to a meadow. It is a prefix which was also used for a meadow with a religious use such as the site of a church or monastery. 'Drum' refers to a round hill, with a circular mound of earth or embankment - 'Lios'.

In the 1700s a family named Smiley came to Northern Ireland from Scotland. It appears that these first Smiley immigrants were of the labouring class and it must assumed that they would have originally lived in workmen's cottages.. However the family prospered steadily and it is known that by 1824 John Smiley was a watch or clock maker.

Sir Hugh Smiley

Sir Hugh Houston Smiley was third generation of this family and was considerably wealthy. He bought the Drumalis site in 1870 and had completed the first house by 1873, the same year he married his Scottish wife, Elizabeth Kerr. The Kerr family owned a major cotton and sewing thread industry in Paisley - (then known as Coates, Clark, Kerr). It is said that it was Sir Hugh's money that bought the site and built the original house and it was his wife's money that funded the further stages of development of the house.

The Foyer at Drumalis House

In the foyer there are five stained glass windows which reflect the influences within the family. There are three main windows, being an Irish, a Scottish and an English window.

The Irish and Scottish influences are obvious. The English window is assumed to be due, in part, to the English connections Elizabeth Kerr's father had since he sourced all of his cotton supplies from Lancashire. The two remaining windows alternate with the three main ones and show the Irish harp - for Ireland, the Lion rampant being the Scottish emblem and the Lions recumbent of England. Essentially these two windows are a pair but the order in which the emblems appear within the window are intentionally different.

The absence of symmetry is a very noticeable feature which applies to the entire house. A walk around Drumalis reveals that although things may at first appear to be paired, no two things are quite the same and symmetry has been deliberately avoided. For example there are no two door handles, knockers, fireplaces or windows exactly the same. Incidentally the house once had 49 fireplaces!

Spot the difference...

A 'pair' of fireplaces in the drawing room

The drawing room exhibits strong influences of mid-Victorian interior architecture and here is to be found a dramatic example of the avoidance of symmetry. There are two wonderful fireplaces in the room which at first appear to be matched but a closer look reveals that there are numerous deliberate differences between them.


In 1893 Lady Smiley decided to redesign many features in the house and engaged the services of famous Glasgow architect and interior designer, George Walton.

Walton was a contemporary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and had his own workshop based decorating company and was a formative influence on the distinctive Glasgow Style. Stained glass, stencilling, furniture, fabrics and fireplaces, cutlery glassware and graphics are some of the areas of decorative work touched by his sensitive and innovative talent.

Very famous cabinet by George Walton

Drumalis today is by far the most complete company job surviving from Walton's early period. His work carries a very distinctive and elegant style and the Walton influence can be seen all around the house, most noticeably in the form of stained glass, fireplaces, individually designed door handles, painted and stencilled ceilings. You can see some of this work in a recent book about George Walton by Karen Moon. The cabinet shown here is in Sir Hugh's private study. It is a fine example of Walton's craft and is used as a reference in numerous books about architecture. One characteristic piece of Walton's design is the absence of drawer handles; during this period he preferred to gouge decorative handles in the wood of the drawer front instead.

Sir Hugh Smiley died at Drumalis House on 1st March 1909 but his wife Elizabeth continued to live there.

It is soon after Sir Hugh's death that the house takes its place in Irish history because the famous 1914 U.V.F. "gun-running" operation that took place in Northern Ireland was actually plotted and expedited around the table in the dining room of Drumalis House. Sir Edward Carson, a Dublin born solicitor, was a longstanding friend and a frequent visitor to the Smileys and it is commonly believed that the gun running operation took place with the permission of the now widowed Lady Smiley .

Sketch showing the procession of motor cars along the avenues of Drumalis.Some 600 motors are reported to have passed through the estate.

(The U.V.F. was formed in 1913 to resist home rule in Ireland. On the evening of Friday 24th April 1914 about 20,000 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition bound for Ulster Volunteer Force were landed at Larne to boost the campaign headed by Edward Carson to keep Ulster free of Irish home rule. The U.V.F. took over the town for the night, severing communications and distributing the arms in 500 lorries and cars whilst the authorities looked on helplessly. The SS Clyde Valley, a collier, landed the guns and ammunition and it is reported that she also landed weapons at Bangor and a few other Ulster ports. The gun running coup was organized by former British Army officer and Boer war veteran Frederick Hugh Crawford. The weapons, which were bought in Hamburg, were first loaded on the 480 ton "SS Fanny" under the cargo description of 'zinc plate' before being tranferred to the SS Clyde Valley out at sea.)

There have been various rumours of tunnels and underground vaults in and around Drumalis House but no evidence can be found today to support these theories.

Lady Elizabeth Smiley

Lady Smiley stayed in the house until 1928, when, with failing health she decided to return to her native Scotland. She offered the house to her two sons and daughter but curiously none wanted it, preferring instead to go to London to make their own fortunes. Lady Smiley put the house up for sale that same year and it was bought by a local man, William Crawford who kept it for only a year, during which he sold off much of the furniture and fittings and many acres of the land. So it is that various pieces of Drumalis furnishings have found their way all over the country. One example of this is that of the original chandelier from the dining room which now hangs in the Belfast Opera House.

(Incidentally, William Crawford was also responsible for bringing a private electricity supply to Larne. It is said that Larne actually had electric street lighting before London!)

Lady Smiley died in Scotland on 14th July, 1930, by which time Mr Crawford had sold Drumalis House. The Sisters of the Cross and Passion later bought the house with a view to it becoming a Retreat Centre. Lately, some more of the Drumalis Estate - which originally had four beautiful gate lodges, two of which have been recently demolished has been sold off to the Fold Housing Association for sheltered homes for the elderly and the large walled garden has been rented out to a market gardener.

The Drumalis site is of particular historic interest because the monastic order to which it once belonged was that of the "Premonstratenses" or White Canons, dedicated to the Holy Cross. The order once had establishments in France and Germany. In Monastic descent the small Friary of Drumalis was a daughter of the larger Abbey of Woodburn at Carrickfergus which, in turn, was a daughter of the still larger Abbey of Dryburgh in Scotland.

Drumalis was bought in 1930 by the Sisters of the Cross and Passion and, for the first three decades of its existence, it operated as a retreat centre for women, Those were mainly working women from Belfast, from mills, shops and offices. The fee for a weekend was in the order of two shillings and sixpence. Even though the house was taken over by the army for a period of time during WW2, the retreats continued, offering to those who could afford little else, a place of refuge, refreshment, spiritual and psychological healing. Openness to the poor and suffering has always been, and continues to be, a guiding principle in the ethos of Drumalis. Today it still serve as "a place of welcome, an oasis on the journey of life" for thousands of people from Northern Ireland and beyond. It functions as a very busy conference, retreat, educational, spiritual residential centre offering both organised programmes and facilities for groups to hold their own events with accommodation for up to 100 as well as a range of conference and prayer rooms.

The Centre re-opened its doors in April 2003 after a year of major refurbishment and preservation work. thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the ongoing support of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion.

The main aims of Drumalis are: To promote spirituality in a non-denominational context, to deliver programmes aimed at mutual understanding, to work towards peace and reconciliation between different sections of the community and to promote the conservation of the natural environment and to provide the context for the development of ecological consciousness.

Drumalis has its own website which you can find at:

Article by- Marty Johnston

borrowed from http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-nireland

Drumalis - a short history - by Marty Johnston

Post by Christopher »

This link will take you straight to the BBC Northern Ireland "Your Place and Mine" page about Drumalis House

http://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/yo ... 7576.shtml
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