Dromore and District Local Historical Group Journal

Volume 1-1991



Gillhall, Dromore Co. Down

The old bridge which still stands close to the site of Gillhall

(Taken from a report in The Leader, June 6, 1969).

Since the early hours of last Sunday morning only the shell remains of the centuries old Gillhall mansion on the outskirts of Dromore, which owes its chief claim to fame to the fact that it is alleged to have been inhabited by a ghost. During the night it was gutted by a fire which was still smouldering many hours later.

On Monday the wreckage was searched by forensic science experts.

The mansion was occupied by the R.A.F. during the last war but since then it has been standing gaunt and empty.


John Johnston, who assumed the name of Magill and became Sir John Magill of Gillhall, married Arabella Hamilton. Her sister, Nicola Sophia, married Sir Tristram Beresford of Coleraine, in February, 1688, he dying on the 16th June, 1701, having had issue by her one son and a daughter. His widow, Lady Beresford, married secondly in April, 1704, Lieut. - Colonel, afterwards Lieut.-General Gorges of Kilbrew. This lady was the heroine of the Gillhall ghost story.

Lady Beresford was a cousin of John Le Peor, second Earl of Tyrone. She and her cousin were brought up together and had as their tutor a confirmed Deist, who induced both his pupils to adopt his principles. They became fast converts and agree with each other that whoever should die first would return to the other and confirm, or deny, the truth of revealed religion.

In the month of October, 1693, Lady Beresford and Sir Tristram paid a visit to her brother-in-law, Sir John Magill of Gillhall. One night, during the Beresford's visit to Gillhall, an apparition appeared unto Lady Beresford in the form of her cousin Lord Tyrone. He told her that he had died on the previous Saturday and, that right enough, there was a future life, but he added that he must give her at least two visible tokens of his appearance as she might fancy in the morning it had been but a dream. So saying he caught hold of her wrist with his hand and his fingers seemed to burn into her skin. He also told her that if she would examine the chest of drawers in the morning she would find that (and he placed his hands on top of the drawers) his finger imprints would be burnt into the wood. He also told her that she would die on her 47th birthday and after so delivering these messages the good Lord departed into space. In the morning Lady Beresford examined her wrist, which appeared as if it had been burned, though she felt no pain. The skin all the way round had a withered appearance. On looking at the top of the chest of drawers she found with horror the ghost's four finger prints. Being much agitated she covered her wrist with a piece of black ribbon and hurried down to breakfast.

Seeing the state of nervousness of his wife Sir Tristram begged of her to relate the cause, and after some time she told him of the ghostly visit of Lord Tyrone. Next day a letter arrived at Gillhall tied on the back with a tiny black ribbon, stating that Lord Tyrone had died on Saturday, 14th October, being the Saturday referred to by his ghost.

One can well imagine the lady's frame of mind as year after year passes. Then came the fateful year of 1712, which passed, when she thought all danger was gone. In the following year, 1713, she decided to hold a birthday party at her Dublin house. Among the guests
whom she invited was the old clergyman who christened her and he, being the first to arrive, congratulated her ladyship warmly on having attained her 47th birthday. "Oh, this is terrible" she cried, "are you sure this is my 47th birthday?" "I am certain" was the parson's reply, "you were born in 1666". "Then" she answered "you have signed my death warrant" and immediately hurried to her room and called her son and daughter, and for the first time revealed to them her weird narrative. Having finished her story she requested to be left alone. Some time afterwards her servant heard a cry and rushed into her chamber to find her dead.

We have seen her portrait in Howth Castle, Co. Dublin, which bears evidence that the black ribbon depicted by the artist on her wrist had been later obliterated, a very regretful alteration. The ghost chamber at Gillhall was practically in its original condition when we last saw it. At one time a charge of sixpence per head was made for admission, but of course the ghost never was on view!

The castle Of Dromore

"Tho' ruined lie the old grey walls,
Of the Castle of Dromore;
Yet peace is in our lonely cot
My darling babe asthore.
So rest awhile in golden sleep,
And hear the fairy song;
Sleep hush-a-by-loo, han-lo, to-lan,
Sleep hush-a-by-lo, lo-lan.

In lonely cot or in the halls,
Of the Castle of Dromore;
Are growing hopes or fading dreams;
That thrive or go before.
Let golden slumbers weave their web,
Of happiness for you;
Sleep hush-a-by loohan, lo-to-lan,
Sleep hush-a-by lo-lo-lan.

The Bann may flood its winding banks,
Near the Castle of Dromore;
Yet no ill thing shall come between,
My babe and my heart's core.
The little folk will smile on you,
From eve till morning's dew;
Sleep hush-a-by loohan, lo-lo-lan,
Sleep hush-a-by-lo, lo-lan:'

It seems that the above song has no connection with our Castle or Town. Rather, evidence suggests that it concerns a Dromore elsewhere in Ireland. However, in the absence of any other song about our home-town, local folk may be forgiven for adopting it as their own. There is no doubt that it is a beautiful, if plaintive, lullaby.

History of the County Down-The Local Connection

In 1875 "A History of the County Down" appeared. This was a comprehensive volume which detailed 'from the most remote period to the present day'. An account of the early history, geography, topography, antiquities and natural history of the County. Its author was an Alexander Knox MD and it is of interest to find that he was born near Dromore.
Alexander Knox was born at Eden Hill House, Edentrillick in 1802. His brother George, already a successful wine merchant in Belfast, became even more successful as a planter in Jamaica. Alexander studied medicine at Edinburgh, graduating in 1831. He gained further experience in the Royal Navy as an assistant surgeon before settling down to practice at Dromore in his native County. About 1840 he moved down to Ballycastle, Co. Antrim, where he built up a successful practice before illness forced him to give up medicine. Moving to Belfast he took up residence at 6 College Square East. To benefit his health he was advised to go on a long sea voyage, but instead he set out to visit and comment on the mineral waters of Ireland. This resulted in his writing his first book, "Irish Watering Places". This fine and rare book was published in
Dublin in 1845.
Doctor Knox then returned to medical practice, this time in Strangford, Co. Down. He became seriously concerned at the prevalence of cholera and wrote a number of scientific papers on this subject in the Dublin Medical Press in 1847-48. In 1849 he expanded these into his second book "An enquiry into the Actual State of our Knowledge of Cholera" which was published in Dublin. In 1851 he was appointed Poor Law Medical Inspector and in 1853 was elected a member of the Belfast Clinical and Pathological Society.
For two decades Alexander Knox MD continued to practice in Strangford, retiring in 1871. He then moved back to Belfast to live at Beechcroft House, Strandtown. At this point he began to gather material for his greatest work, "A History of County Down" which was published in 1875.
Two years later, on the 9th November 1877, Doctor Knox died at his home and was buried in the Cathedral graveyard in Dromore.




The following are some local places which have either disappeared altogether or their names are fading from common usage. The locations given are as I have understood them to have been, but I am open to correction.
THE BLACK BOX: A tarred, wooden aqueduct that has now gone. It once carried the millrace to Hamilton, McBride's factory across the Lagan, behind 'Otter Lodge'.
PEGGY'S PUMP: This once stood between No. 39 Circular Road and the junction with the Dromara Road.
THE WYRE STONES: A weir on the Lagan where it passes the Mount. This has now been breached.
SCOTT'S ENTRY : A covered gateway opposite McGrehan's shop in Meeting Street, that gave access to the rear of Nos. 24 & 26 Meeting Street and various stores and out-houses. This has disappeared in recent re-development of the area.
"THE ROCKS" : The local name for Castle Street, which passes the old Castle.
THE TURNPIKE HOUSE : This once stood on the town side of the High School, where Nos. 27 & 29 Banbridge Road now stand.
THE SHILLING (OR SHELLING) HILL: A laneway which ran from Church Street down to the Lagan, between the Cathedral Church Hall and R. J. Tinsley's property.
THE STATION HILL: The part of upper Church Street leading to the old railway station.
THE EAGLE GATES : The entrance gates to Quilly House from the Lower Quilly Road. There are two stone birds mounted on the pillars.
PURGATORY : A pleasant walk-way running between the Lurgan Road and the Lower Quilly Road, passing through Mill buildings.
THE GLEN : A rural laneway that stretches between the Lower Quilly Road and the Rowantree Road.
CREIGHTON'S YARD : Waste ground off Moss Lane. Now occupied by Graham's concrete works.
'THE BOWLING GREEN": The local name for the low, rectangular mount (Bailey) at the top of Mount Street.
INN GARDENS : The name of houses that ran from Cross Lane to the rear of properties fronting on the Square. Now forms part of the Cross Lane car park.
McQUAIDE'S ROW : The name of the row of old houses on Hillside. Now re-developed.
BROWN'S (OR THE PRIEST'S) MOUNT: Local name for the Rath on Maypole Hill.
SPENCE'S COURT: The name of houses off Gallows Street. They were situated in front of Bradshaw's shop and access was by means of a covered entryway in the row of houses fronting on Gallows Street. They have now disappeared due to re-development.
'THE M. ONE" : The local name for the pedestrian way created between Gallows Street and the Hillsborough Road in the 1950's. It ran down by Weir's Side Row and came out by the Orange Hall. Although the area has been re-developed, a pedestrian way still exists at this point.
'THE CUT': A laneway from the top of Gallows Street Hill down by the side of Jubilee Park coming out by the side of number 17 Hillsborough Road.
THE BRICKFIELD' : The field adjoining the "cut". Stretching from the top of Gallows Street to the Hillsborough Road. Where Mourneview Park was subsequently built.
THE MILLTURN : The junction of the Banbridge Road and the Lower Quilly Road. On the right-hand side, just past the High School.
'THE DIRTY GUTTER": An old, local name for Jubilee Road.
THE SPOUT LOANEN : The local name for the road which stretched from the Milebush Road to the Connolystown Road. In spite of partial re-routing caused by the construction of the Dromore bypass, most of this still survives and is now the Maypole Road.
'THE DANDYCAPS' : Old, local name for the junction of the Hillsborough Road and the Ballymacormick Road.
"THE RAMPER" : The out-of-town side of the Maypole Hill.
DICKSON'S COURT : Entryway off the Square. Running between Nos. 22 & 25 Market Square.
THE OLD COACH ROAD : The vestiges of this, by now an overgrown laneway, could be seen stretching from the Ervine Memorial Hall, Rampart Street to the rear of the Rugby Field on Barban Hill. It has probably been encroached upon by new housing development in the area.
'THE WEST END": The junction of Meeting Street and Rampart Street. Possibly because it is the West end of Meeting Street.
"THE MILLS": The old Mill buildings have gone and the site forms part of the new town Park, off the Banbridge Road.
'THE LOW MILLS" : Mill buildings off the Lurgan Road. Situated on the Lagan, downstream of Holm Terrace.
'THE FACTORY': Locally the general term for Holm Factory and Holm Terrace.
'THE KEEP LEFT' : A traffic bollard that stood in Church Square facing the Cathedral. This has now been replaced by a "stud" roundabout.
THE QUILLY BURN: Where the Banbridge Road joins the dual-carriage way to the South of the town.



According to a book on Early Irish Golf, Dromore could once boast of having a golf course of its own! A newspaper report on the 10th January 1896, records the recent formation of a golf club in the town and is quoted as follows: "A new Irish club has been formed at Dromore, Co. Down. To be called the Dromore Club . . ." The President is given as Lord Arthur. Vice Presidents were Rt. Rev. Monsignor McCartan, Rev. Eamon Hayes and John R. Miniss. Captain was William Preston. The Golfing Annual 1895/96 states that the club was "instituted 28th November, 1895, the course, of nine holes, is situated on the old Loyola grounds . .

"When the order of Jesuits owned and occupied the old Bishop's Palace, they called it Loyola House. After their founder Saint Ignatius Loyola.

The club is listed in The Golfing Annual 1907/08 and in The Irish Golfer's Guide 1910, the club is recorded as 'believed to be extinct.'




The peace and tranquility normally associated with the quiet fields that stretch along the river Lagan would regularly be disturbed by the bustle and throng of people attending the race-meetings. Since the 18th century the tenants on the Watson farms on the Cockhill Road and Dunnygarton Lane would have been subjected to the influx of visitors and travellers from all over Ireland converging on the race course. On main roads and bye roads, they came on horse and on foot and in all types of transport from splendid coaches, gigs and traps to the tradesman's cart specially fitted up for the occasion.

The gifted amateur James Moore M.D. Hon. R.H.S. (1819-1883) provides us with two accomplished and vivid watercolour sketches of the Maze racecourse
dated August 3rd 1852, and 14th July 1868.
Reproduced by permission of the Ulster Museum

Dunnygarton Lane meandered through the course itself and it is easy to imagine the carnival atmosphere that would prevail on the occasion of a holiday in the general area with excitement for rich and poor alike. Farmer, weaver, artisan and labourer would mingle with the Gentry on these great occasions as they headed for the colourful flag bedecked tents of the stewards, saddlers, fortune tellers, gambling side shows and taverns.

The origins of the course are much older as a patent to establish a Corporation of Horsebreeders for Down had been granted by James II and the racecourse at Downpatrick had been formed in 1685. When William III, the Prince of Orange, visited Hillsborough Castle as the guest of William Hill he issued a letter to Christopher Carleton the Collector of Customs at Belfast granting �100 to be known as the Kings Plate and to be competed for at Hillsborough.

William Hill established the course at the Maze and his heir the Right Honourable Michael Hill implemented improvements and took a keen interest in racing blood stock. Walter Harris writing in 1744 gives us a brief description of the course.

"The Maze-Course, a place set apart for the publick diversions of horse racing, is upwards of a mile North of the town, near the banks of the River Lagan. A rising hill in the middle of the course, about two miles in circumference, give the spectators a full view of the whole field, and on the top of the hill a wooden tower is erected, open on all sides, for spectators to sit and view the course."

This original tower or stand was a wooden structure but was replaced by a round white washed stone tower on Tower Hill. The original hill formed a natural vantage point for the spectators and in earlier times it was not unusual for them to cut a flat hearth into the slope and cook over a lighted fire while they viewed the races.

The slope of the ground was the cause of many a fall as the crowd surged forward with excitement to see the closing stages of a race. Just before the races in July 1775 Mr Perfect an itinerant Methodist Minister preached at Halftown and during the sermon warned his congregation not to attend the racecourse, which was the scene of so many crimes and numerous calamities. The following eye witness account is provided by Patrick Cunningham who ignored the warning (horse racing being his favourite sport) but refrained from attending the Sunday races.

"The first day of the races presented a most shocking scene perhaps not less than one hundred thousand people all confusion and uproar. This was occasioned by a quarrel between the men of Broomhedge and those of Hillsborough. They armed themselves with whatever weapons they could get, and rushed upon each other with the ferocity of wild beasts, and fought with the greatest desperation. Such rage and clamour I never witnessed before. In a little time many of them were weltered in their own blood. I remember one only killed on the spot, but several died afterwards of their wounds."

Cunningham's assessment of the crowd is questionable but the racecourse was at its peak between 1811 and 1825 and its patrons included Lord Castlereagh, The marquis of Downshire, The Marguis of Donegall, Lord Portarlington, Lord O'Neill. Colonel Sparrow of Tandragee Castle, Colonel Cope of Loughgall, J. W. Maxwell, Nicholas Price, Colonel Forde. Sir S. May, Sir Robert Bateson, Messrs Whaley, McCance, Savage, Batt, Verner, Greg, Martin, Fivey, Moore, Nugent, Hall and Shaw indeed the men of note in the province.

James Watson Esq. of Brookhill was a popular leading huntsman and local contestant at both Downpatrick and the Maze. His last race at the Maze was on 12th October 1825 when he competed for the County Cup on a twenty year old favourite of his called Violet. He was at this time over 60 years old and retired as a winner. Jockeys were used at the course but in addition Gentlemen such as Watson and his brother-in-law Mr. Wakefield rode their own horses.

Over the years the standing of the Maze as a Social occasion reduced as it was plagued by criminal elements both male and female. Personal attacks and robbery were identified with the periodical meetings and on a further occasion murder, despite the efforts of the Marquis of Downshire. This occurred when a serious fight developed and the Marquis of Downshire attempted to defuse the situation by having one of the ruffians removed from the ground in his own carriage. The man a strong powerful individual was incensed by his Lordship's action and breaking loose jumped from the carriage and returned to the affray where he was stabbed to death. When his pregnant wife was informed she took ill and also died.

Race days would have been exciting times for the Watson families of the area as they punctuated the routine of the working year. With the crowds departed the fields would resume their quiet peaceful form, just as they remain to-day for Mamie Hewitt nee Watson whose house overlooks the course, and very much the same as they were when Richard Watson tended his cow and paid one shilling for grazing rights as is recorded in an account of grazers on the Maze Course in year 1777.


Old Bridge Dromore


In "A Ramble through Dromore" J. F Mulligan tells us about the discovery in 1823 of a cave near the old castle by workmen engaged in quarrying in the area.

They uncovered a circular opening some 3 feet in diameter which had been wedged with large stones. This aperture led to a long underground passage 24 feet long by 2 feet 6 inches wide, which had been hewn in the solid rock. This 'cave' proved to be an ancient burial chamber, containing bones and other matter.

At the time the discovery was reported in the Belfast News-Letter which concluded it's report with "It is not improbable that the cave ... was the burying-place of St. Colman". Be that as may, it was certainly the tomb of some important personage.

Since it's discovery in 1823, it would seem to have been lost again. From the details given ("to be within 12 yds. of the old castle and on the top of the rock") it is impossible to determine it's exact location today.

The Historical Group would be interested in learning more about the whereabouts and subsequent fate of this 'cave'. Any information would be welcomed by the editorial committee.