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Fig. 1. John Johnston's illustration of the banquet at Hillsborough Fort.

For the greater part of the eighteenth century and for most of the nineteenth, the Hills of Hillsborough, Marquesses of Downshire, were among the leading families in the realm, owning extensive estates in the three kingdoms. Indeed, it was said that on travelling between Larne, Co. Antrim and Blessington, Co. Wicklow, one was never out of sight of Hill family lands. Furthermore, in addition to their estates on the eastern side of Ireland they owned land in King's County (present day Offaly). The village of Hillsborough was the hub of this large empire.' Here, the family had their principal residence, Hillsborough Castle, which replaced their earlier home, Hillsborough Fort, lovingly restored about 1770 by Wills Hill, first Marquess of Downshire'.

It was on the 'Green of the Fort' on 4 October 1837 that the tenants of the estates celebrated the marriage of the young Earl of Hillsborough (later fourth Marquess) to Caroline Frances, elder daughter of the first Viscount Combermere. (The happy event had actually taken place on 23 August of that year). The Ulster Times contained a lengthy and detailed account of the jollifications:

 ... the Marquess and Marchioness of Downshire [the third Marquess and his wife] celebrated the recent marriage of the Earl of Hillsborough by a fete which, taken in all its details, we presume to be almost without a parallel in the kingdom, certainly nothing of the kind has occurred in the north of Ireland for very many years at all comparable to it in grandeur and extent. The festival consisted in a dinner given on the castle green [the greensward around the Fort] to the tenantry on the Downshire estate, and the preparations were commensurate with the princely extent of the domain and the importance of the event celebrated to the parties assembled.

On entering the park gate we found the outer lawn occupied by an ox, roasted whole, with a due accompaniment of ale, and all necessary preparations for the distribution of these good things to the populace of Hillsborough and the classes of labourers and others not comprehended among the tenantry. On entering the castle green itself, the scene which burst on the eye was in the highest degree striking and gratifying.

The green forms a square, level in the centre, and surrounded by an elevated terrace walk. The centre of the northern side is occupied by an extensive lodge, with two turrets facing the green, connected by a balcony; the eastern side is also divided by a smaller lodge in front of which an extensive platform was erected for the occasion; and on the western side, immediately fronting the latter edifice, was a tastefully decorated marquee, in which were [sic] stationed the Marquess of Downshire's band ... To enumerate the decorations supplied by the hand of art would seduce us into details far beyond our limits, but we cannot omit one display which for tastefulness of design, skill in execution, and richness of effect, surpassed anything of the kind we ever remember to have seen.

On the turrets which we have mentioned as flanking the Northern Lodge were placed the shields of the houses of Hill and Cotton [the family of Viscount Combermere], designed in dahlia; and so exquisite was the blending of the tints, and so vivid and pronounced were the hues of the specimens supplied for the purpose, that the effect was precisely similar to that of the finest and most perfect needlework .

... We are informed that no less than 8,000 flowers were consumed in the shields and the elegant festoon by which they were united ...On the roof of the Eastern Lodge, over the balcony in which the more distinguished guests were assembled, was placed a bugler to give notice of the toasts; and below, in front of the balcony already mentioned, was the chair destined for the occupation of the noble host. On three sides of the enclosure the sloping banks of the terraces were ranged with barrels of ale, each tastefully decorated, marked with its flag, and attended by a Ganymede [in ancient mythology, a shepherd who carried a small jug of wine] and assistants.

In the area were laid thirty-four tables, with from 110 to 130 covers each, and the whole of this immense range of accommodation was occupied by respectable and substantial farmers-tenants and sons of tenants - from the Marquess of Downshire's estate ... From our own repeated and cautious computation we can affirm that the smallest number who sat down to dinner must have been 3,500 individuals ...

The Archdeacon of Hillsborough having said grace from the balcony over the chair, the dinner proceeded with equal decorum and dispatch. We need scarcely say that the viands were of the best and most appropriate description; the profusion was such that the fragments which remained would have furnished another repast for a similar multitude. During dinner the Marquess and Lord Hillsborough went from table to table, conversing with different individuals and seeing that every necessary attention was paid to the guests. We also observed the amiable Marchioness more than once descending to the throng, and personally observing that her hospitable wishes were carried into effect.

At length the bugle announced the conclusion of the meal, and Lord Downshire, assuming the chair, proceeded to give the usual loyal toasts, which were received with the customary thanks. His Lordship said, they were met that day to celebrate the marriage of the Earl of Hillsborough, and in proposing "health and prosperity to the Earl and Countess of Hillsborough," he had the expressible satisfaction of declaring his sure and confident anticipations that, when he was gathered to his fathers, his tenantry would find in his son a landlord actuated by the same feelings, and guided by the same principles which had governed himself through life. The noble lord concluded by giving the toast, and any attempt to describe the rapturous enthusiasm with which it was received, would be quite in vain. At length Lord Hillsborough was permitted to return thanks, which he did in brief and appropriate terms; after which the applause was renewed, and finally, the Earl of Hillsborough was chaired round the area, amid deafening shouts.

The Chairman then gave "The Bishop of the Diocese, and the United Church of England and Ireland;" which was received with enthusiastic applause. Lord Viscount Combermere's health was then proposed, and received with unbounded demonstrations of satisfaction. His Lordship returned thanks in animated and impressive speech. He could not repress the admiration and he would say, astonishment, with which he witnessed the exhibition of that day. It afforded a contrast with the scenes exhibited in other parts of Ireland, which could not be sufficiently impressed on the public mind ... It was evident that the company around him knew who were their true friends [this refers to the good relationship between Downshire and his tenants], and while that was the case, agitators would in vain endeavour to instil the venom of disloyalty into their minds. The noble lord concluded amid thunders of applause, and he, too, was chaired round the square.

Chairing now became the order of the day, and the Marquess of Downshire was next carried in triumph... But the enthusiasm of the meeting was at its height when the Countess of Hillsborough was installed in the chair. The band was marshalled in front, the chair itself surrounded and bourne by the most respectable of the assembled throng, and on her ladyship's right walked the Earl, whose hand she grasped to support her in her seal. But the Countess herself was the object of all attraction. Her extreme beauty, the graceful self-possession with which she occupied her novel situation and the air of blended sweetness, modesty, and dignity, with which her ladyship acknowledged the plaudits showered from every side, produced a sensation which belies the assertion that the age of chivalry is altogether passed.

The other individuals chaired were Lord Castlereagh, Lord Erwin Hill, and Mr Reilly ... We fear our lists of the distinguished individuals present as spectators or private guests of Lord Downshire is very imperfect, but among them we observed - Lord Viscount Combermere, the Marquess of Westmeath, and several members of the house of Nugent, Lord Cole, Lord Sandys, Lord Castlereagh, the Lord Bishop of Down and Connor, the Honourable General Pakenham, Sir R. Bateson Bart, and family, Colonel Teesdale, the Archdeacon of Hillsborough, Colonel Nugent, and all the resident gentry of the neighbourhood.

Such was the merriment at Hillsborough to celebrate the young Earl's wedding. Fortunately for posterity, John Johnston, a deaf and dumb pupil of Claremont, Belfast, recorded the scene at the banquet, just after grace was said, while Mrs. Louisa Morris, a local school teacher, depicted the scenes at the dinner and the chairing of the Countess. Hand coloured lithographs were made from these three illustrations and copies given to members of the principal tenantry. The author was fortunate to be able to purchase a copy of Johnston's illustration many years ago at a local auction; it is reproduced here (fig. 1). In the Hillsborough area, a number of descendants of the guests at the festivities still have-and treasure-invitations to the banquet.

The celebrations at Hillsborough went on for sturdier two weeks and ended on the 18 October with a ball and supper at Hillsborough Castle, at which neither pains nor expense were spared to do honour to the happy young couple.

Though the Hills are gone from Hillsborough, their legacy lingers on in the charming village they helped to create. Unlike many landed families in Ireland, they were considered good landlords and took a healthy interest in all aspects of life on their extensive estate. Hillsborough is a pleasant legacy of their stewardship and reflects this grand restrained manner.


1.  For an informative account of Hillsborough, see John Barry, Hillsborough: A Parish in the Ulster Plantation, 1962.
2. A portrait of Wills Hill, by Pompeo Batoni, is ,n the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Sec Eileen Black, 'A portrait of Wills Hill,Earl of Hillsborough'. Lisburn Historical Society Journal vol. 3. December 1950.

Trevor Neill, a well-known local historian, is on the committee of Lisburn Historical Society, and was chairman for several years.