A brief overview of the history of Gill Hall   

The origins of Gill Hall
Gill Hall is in the townland of Coolsallagh in the parish of Dromore, County Down. Flowing through this townland is the River Lagan. The Irish form of the townland name is Cúil Saileach, which means ‘recess of willow’; ‘presumably the willows grew beside the Lagan’. In earlier times the area of Gill Hall was possessed by the Magenis family. By the 1660s, however, it was owned by a Captain John Magill. His background is not entirely clear, but he may have been related to a Magill family that had moved from Scotland to the Ards peninsula in the early 1600s. His military title presumably derived from his activities in the 1640s when Ireland was engulfed in series of devastating conflicts in the wake of the 1641 uprising. He was possibly the ‘Capt. Magill’ of ‘Little Ardes, Gray Abbey and Lisborough Quarters’ who, in 1653, was listed among those Scots in counties Antrim and Down proposed for transplantation to Munster, a scheme that was never implemented.

Having survived this threatened relocation, Magill found himself well placed to take advantage of the Cromwellian and Restoration land settlements of the 1650s and 1660s. Much of the western part of County Down that had been forfeited by the Magenis family was allocated by lot in lieu of pay to the troop of horse commanded by the Parliamentarian general and lord deputy Charles Fleetwood troop of horse. By buying up the ‘debentures’ that had been issued to these soldiers, Magill was able to build up a landed portfolio that included property in several parishes, chiefly Donaghcloney, Dromore and Tullylish. In 1661 he was one of the commissioners appointed for County Down for executing the poll money ordinance of 1661. By 1663 he had taken up residence in Coolsallagh. On 31 January 1667 Magill received a patent from the king, Charles II, securing him in his property.

Captain John Magill ‘of Gillhall’ drew up his will on 15 January 1676. He began by noting that he was ‘of good health and perfect memory praised be God, but willing it mind the uncertainty of Man’s life’. As he had no son, his landed estate was bequeathed to his grandson John, the son of Susannah Magill and her husband, Lt William Johnston. The heir, John Johnston, assumed the surname and arms of Magill. On 5 November 1680 he was knighted and five days later was created a baronet. Sir John Magill married, on 3 July 1683 in St Peter’s Church in Dublin, as his second wife, Arabella Susannah, the eldest surviving daughter of Hugh Hamilton, Lord Glenawly. He played a distinguished role during the Williamite War and in the 1690s Sir John was MP successively for Hillsborough and Downpatrick in the Irish House of Commons in Dublin.

Sir John died in 1700/01 without surviving issue and the baronetcy became extinct. The estate then passed, in fulfilment of Captain John Magill’s will, to John Hawkins, son of John Hawkins and Mary, daughter of William Johnston. Like the previous owner of the estate, John Hawkins also assumed the name Magill. He had been educated in Drogheda and then at Trinity College, Dublin (BA 1700, MA 1703). In 1703 he was returned as MP for County Down in the Irish House of Commons and held his seat until his death on 5 September 1713. He had married Rose, daughter of Sir Robert Colville of Newtownards. His eldest surviving son Robert inherited the estate.

Robert Hawkins Magill was returned MP for County Down in a by-election in 1724 and held this seat until his death. He married Rachel, eldest daughter of Clotworthy, Viscount Massereene, and widow of Randal, 4th Earl of Antrim, in 1728. They had a son named John who died young. Robert Hawkins Magill married as his second wife Lady Anne Bligh and they were the parents of Theodosia, who, on the death of her father on 10 April 1745, inherited the estate. Twenty years later Theodosia married Sir John Meade, later to be created the Earl of Clanwilliam, thus beginning this family’s association with Gill Hall which would continue over the next two centuries.


Gill Hall House
The most detailed description of Gill Hall House is that published in the Archaeological Survey of County Down, just a few years before the disastrous fire of 1969, about which more later. This description is accompanied by plans of the ground and first floors, a drawing of the panelling in the first floor room over the hall, profiles of some of the architraves etc, and a number of black and white photographs. The house was built of harled rubble with sandstone dressings; the roof was of slate. The date of the house has been a source of disagreement among architectural historians. The compilers of the Archaeological Survey of County Down believed that:

The house presents a problem in that the internal fittings all appear to be of early 18th century character, whereas the elevational treatment is more appropriate to the later part of the century. So far as can be seen the house has not been modified in any way and the building must be regarded as of one build throughout.

On the other hand, other writers have argued that the oldest part of the house was the three-storey central block of five bays, which was built in the late seventeenth century, with the wings, also of three storeys, added in the eighteenth century. Some have dated the original part of the house to the 1670s, so possibly built prior to the death of Captain John Magill in 1676/7 and, if not, then during the time of his grandson, Sir John (Johnston) Magill. There is an intriguing reference to the death of Sir John’s only daughter, Susannah Arabella (b. 1684), who ‘by the negligence of a servant was killed when an infant by a fall from a scaffold at Gill Hall’. One wonders whether this is an indirect reference to building work at Gill Hall in the 1680s.

The later work involved the construction of the wings at each side of the central block. These had shallow projecting bows. The windows in the wings had blocked architraves, with the openings on the each of the first floors resembling a version of a Venetian window (though with the side windows positioned further from the central window than was usual). The remodelling also included the addition of the Classical door case to the central block and the addition of blocked architraves to the windows directly above it. New outbuildings were also constructed at this time, including a fine stable-block, which survives today. The alterations and additions to Gill Hall have been attributed to Richard Castle (or Cassells) and dated to c. 1736. Based on this approximate date, the work was commissioned by Robert Hawkins Magill.

Castle was of somewhat exotic background. Recent research on his background has established that his father was an English-born Jew named Joseph Riccardo who in 1699 became Director of Munitions and Mines to the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. His mother, Rachel Burgos, had been born in Bombay. Castle himself was born David Riccardo, though when and why he changed his name are not known. He came to Ireland in the late 1720s, apparently to design a country house in Fermanagh. His most important contribution to the architecture of County Down is Knockbreda Parish Church which was built in the mid-1730s, at the same time that he is said to have been involved at Gill Hall.

The new door case was of an exceptional quality and was described in the Archaeological Survey of County Down as

The central segment-arched entrance has a moulded and blocked architrave and triple keyblock, the spandrels carved with dolphins and foliage scrolls; it is framed by attached Roman Doric columns which support a full entablature, with triglyphed frieze and dentilled cornice, and segmental pediment which break forward over the columns.


While not identical with, there are similarities with the entrance to the new parish church at Moira of 1732. In an account of 1744, Gill Hall was described as a ‘handsome seat’ of Robert Hawkins Magill, situated by the River Lagan; the account noted that near to the house was a stone bridge.

Nearly a century later Gill Hall was commented upon in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs. In the Statistical Report prepared by Lt G. A. Bennett in 1834 the following description appeared:

In the most western extremity of the parish and south end of Coolsallagh townland is Gillhall House and demesne, a residence of Lord Clanwilliam, an old house of no architectural beauty though the number of forest trees in the surrounding demesne gives it an appearance of beauty arising wholly from a contrast with the surrounding country.

In the ‘fair sheets’ drafted by J. R. Ward in 1837 Gill Hall, noted as the seat of the Earl of Clanwilliam, was described as ‘an extensive and manorial-like building’ At this time there were some 4,000 trees in the demesne, mainly beech. Around 1845 a second gate lodge was added.

A further description of the house is found in the diary of John Ynyr Burges of Parkanaur, near Castlecaulfeild, County Tyrone, who wrote on 10 July 1863:

We drove to Gill Hall, the old residence of the Magills and now of Lord Clanwilliam, who on account of illhealth seldom visits it. The house was built in the time of William III, and though small is most comfortable. There is a good hall and dining room and old-fashioned staircase and the gallery room on the first landing. In a bedchamber of this apartment, the ghost of Lord Tyrone appeared to Lady Beresford, and a small cabinet is shown with a mark upon it. But it is not the real one, which [it] is said was removed by Lord Clanwilliam's grandmother years ago. In the gallery there are portraits of Lord Clanwilliam, Mrs Percy …, wife of the Bishop of Dromore. I missed a portrait of Lord Massereene which I saw the last time that I was there. There is likewise a very pretty portrait of old Lady Clanwilliam dressed in a bonnet over the state bedroom chimneypiece, which struck me as a resemblance to the Johnston of Gilford family As her father sprang from the Johnstons that is not to be wondered at. I felt most interested about everything in this old mansion, which is one of the rare specimens of an ancient Irish residence, where no change or addition has ever taken place since it was built. The trees were planted about the time of
Charles II, when the grant of the lands was given to the Magill family.

As the above diary entry indicates, Gill Hall was little used by the Clanwilliams at this time and at some point in the later nineteenth century it became the winter residence of their land agent Richard Brush. In May 1880 the Belfast Field Naturalists Club visited Gill Hall when on an excursion to County Down. The house was opened to them through the courtesy of Richard Brush and here ‘many interesting relics were seen in this historic mansion’ by the visitors. The following details were noted in a report of the visit:

The quaint old fire-place and massive wooden cornice are in complete harmony with the popular idea of ghost chambers. The antlers of an Irish elk dug up near Dromore are to be seen in the hall, and are said to be among the largest found in Ireland. At present they measure about 8 feet across, but some tines are missing, and they were doubtless originally much larger.

With the purchase of Montalto, near Ballynahinch, by the 5th Earl of Clanwilliam, in 1910 Gill Hall was abandoned by the family. (It is said that on being brought to Gill Hall in 1909, the 5th Earl’s bride refused to live there because of the ghosts.) During the Second World War, Gill Hall was used by the Royal Air Force. By the 1960s it had become dilapidated. In the early hours of Sunday, 1 June 1969 a fire broke out in the building which raged for hours; the flames could be seen for miles around. Two fire appliances were in attendance and firemen were on the scene for six hours. The fire gutted the house leaving it a shell. Subsequently the house was demolished – ‘unceremoniously blown up by the army recently after years of decay’.

The Ghost Story
Gill Hall will forever be associated with the ghost story already alluded to and which is said to be based on an incident that occurred there in 1693. The gist of the story can be summarised as follows. As children, Nichola Sophia Hamilton, the daughter of Hugh Hamilton, Lord Glenawly, and John Le Poer (or Power), the eldest son of the Earl of Tyrone, were placed in the care of a Deist. However, Deism, they were to discover, was at odds with orthodox Christianity and so they agreed that whoever of them died first would return to tell the other which belief system was true. In 1687 Nichola married Sir Tristram Beresford, a wealthy landowner, and in October 1693 they visited Gill Hall where her sister Arabella, wife of Sir John Magill, resided. During the night, Nichola awoke to find her childhood friend by her bedside. John Le Poer, who had succeeded to the Earldom of Tyrone in 1690, told her that he had died a few days before and that Christianity was indeed true, not Deism. He also told her that she would die in her forty-seventh year, a prediction which would come to pass.

The story has been analysed by Trefor Doloughan Vaughan, who has concluded that certain aspects of the story are factual and others probably founded on fact. He is also firmly of the opinion that the legend is a Gill Hall story despite one account placing the alleged events in another part of Ireland. He draws attention to local knowledge of the story among the ‘small, closely knit and economically interdependent farming community in the neighbourhood of Gill Hall.’ There are stories that visitors to Gill Hall, after it was abandoned, were, on payment of sixpence, allowed by the caretaker to enter the ‘ghost room’. In February 1965 a team of reporters from the Belfast Newsletter spent an eerie night in the building.

Prepared by Dr William Roulston, Ulster Historical Foundation, 19 September 2016

Gill Hall Estate