The Pre-modern Architecture of Northern Ireland

An introduction to early built heritage of Northern Ireland



The architectural historian Hugh Dixon has characterised the architecture of Northern Ireland as ‘modestly scaled, undemonstrative, somewhat solid in aspect, [and] usually restrained (sometimes even austere).’ Nonetheless, the built heritage of Northern Ireland provides colour, character and variety to the cultural landscape of the region.

Any overview of the basic characteristics of the architecture of Northern Ireland needs to take into account the region’s unique cultural history.

The presence of English and Scottish settlers in uneasy cohabitation with a native population meant that seventeenth century buildings usually accorded higher priority to defence than to architectural finish. A provincial relationship to London, and to a lesser extent Dublin, meant that building styles often lagged many years behind the metropolitan models they aped. Provincialism also meant native architects and designers were slow to appear.

Unique geological and economic factors also influence the architectural heritage of Northern Ireland. Of local stones, only sandstone from Co Down and limestone from Co Armagh and Co Fermanagh were really suitable for building and carving. Conversely, brick works were some of the earliest post-
plantation industrial enterprises, providing the primary building material for new towns in the seventeenth century.

With the wealth created by the industrial expansion of the nineteenth century, stone could be imported to construct architectural
statements of commercial prosperity, such as bank buildings, official buildings, and the mansions of the wealthy. But the redbrick factories and workers’ housing, where the wealth was created, were the characteristic architectural feature of cities like Belfast and Derry.     

Some Northern Irish Architects

The single most important architect in Northern Ireland’s history was born in Sussex, England in 1813. Charles Lanyon worked in Ireland by the early 1830s and was appointed surveyor of Co Antrim in 1835. A railway engineer as well as an architect, he designed many of Northern Ireland’s finest buildings, including the main building of Queen’s
University, Belfast, the city’s Custom House, and Ballywalter Park, mansion of the Mulholland family.

William Henry Lynn was apprenticed to Lanyon in 1849 and became his partner in 1860.
Influenced by the theories of English aesthetician John Ruskin, Lynn’s expressive Italianate buildings are some of Belfast’s most distinguished Victorian structures.

Examples include the former Church of Ireland Diocesan offices in May Street (now offices of property consultants Lambert Smyth Hampton) and the Bank Buildings (now Primark) in Castle Place.

Lanyon and Lynn’s rival in a number of prestigious architectural competitions was the Newry born William J Barre. Barre’s winning design for the Londonderry Monument on Scrabo hill near Newtownards, Co Down, was discarded in favour of
Lanyon’s. However, in 1865, again amid controversy, Barre defeated Lanyon in competition for the Albert Memorial in Belfast. Barre died at 37 having worked around Ireland north and south. Perhaps his most lasting contribution to the built heritage of the region was his championing of the gothic style that had often been mistrusted by Presbyterian authorities. 

Official Architecture and Vernacular Buildings


Northern Ireland’s major public buildings, although built mostly in the twentieth century, disdain modernist innovation. The Northern Ireland Houses of Parliament at Stormont (1932) are austerely neoclassical. Belfast’s City Hall (where the parliament sat briefly before the construction of Stormont) is one of a number of imposing Edwardian buildings in the immediate vicinity. In Derry, the Guild Hall (1912) uses the gothic style to allude to the distant medieval origins of the London merchant companies who were authorised to ‘plant’ the region in the seventeenth century. 

At the other end of the spectrum, vernacular domestic buildings may not have been architect-designed, but they have retained a set of distinctive characteristics. The Andrew Jackson Centre at Boneybefore, near Carrickfergus, is a beautifully restored example
of an eighteenth century thatched cottage. Regional variations in roof design and building materials exist across Northern Ireland.

Urban building types can be exemplified by the nineteenth century model workers’ housing in College Square East, Bessbrook, Co
Armagh. Similarly styled nineteenth and early twentieth century redbrick factory workers’ terraced houses can still be found in east and north Belfast.

Varieties of Architecture in Northern Ireland


The landed gentry of Ulster were understandably slow to divert their building efforts from fortification to architectural sophistication. Only after the Battle of the Boyne did the wealthy begin to build non-fortified homes. Constructed in 1625, Ballygally castle is a transplanted Scottish ‘high house’, with the addition of a bawn with short flanking towers at its corners. Killyleagh castle, another ‘high house’ built in the same year, was remodelled in 1666 in the interests of symmetry of design, but it retained and even strengthened its defensive features.

By the mid eighteenth century, landowners were erecting impressive country mansions and experimenting with metropolitan architectural fashions. Castle Ward’s
compromise between styles has one façade in the classical manner and another in Gothic. Other noteworthy mansions include the neo-classical Castle Coole, near Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh (1790s), and the later Ballywalter Park, a large house in Co Down designed by Charles Lanyon, for the Mulholland family as proprietors of Belfast's York Street flax spinning mill.

The mills, factories and warehouses of magnates like the Mulhollands were perhaps the most striking architectural constructions in urban Northern Ireland, although many have
been lost in the changing industrial landscape. The architecture of the region’s churches, on the other hand, remains highly visible. From the ruins of the Norman Grey Abbey, to austere ‘barn’ churches like Middle Church, Upper Ballinderry, and on to imposing, large scale ecclesiastical buildings, such as St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry or St Macartan’s Cathedral in Clogher, Co Tyrone, church buildings are some of the most prominent expressions of Northern Ireland’s architectural heritage.

Some of the most picturesque architecture in Northern Ireland takes the form of follies,
monuments and memorials placed prominently in the landscape. Examples in north Down alone include Scrabo Tower, Charles Lanyon’s 1857 memorial to the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry, and Helen’s Tower erected in 1850 in honour of Helen, Lady Dufferin, composer of the popular ballad ’The Irish Emigrant’. The Mussenden ‘temple’ on the landscaped Downhill estate, Co Londonderry, was created by Frederick Hervey, and is sited on the edge of spectacular cliffs above the Atlantic.

Further Reading

A Heritage from Stone: A Review of Architecture in Ulster from Prehistory to the Present Day (1991) by B Boyd; An Introduction to Ulster Architecture (1975) by Hugh Dixon; The Function of the Architect (1965) by A Potter.