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Ballymenoch Park is situated on the north eastern edge of Holywood beside the Belfast bound lane of the dual carriageway between Belfast and Bangor. It consists of around 20 acres of woodland and lush parkland which boasts beautiful and ancient trees. It is managed by Ards and North Down Borough Council after the park was left to the people of Holywood in 1953.
It is full of interest throughout the seasons, but perhaps, the best time to visit is in autumn when the many specimen trees put on a majestic technicoloured show – which takes the breath away. It easy to walk round the park in 10-15 minutes, with good hard surfaced paths and only the gentlest of inclines. It is a great place for a family picnic; there is plenty of grass space for a ‘kick around’ and an enclosed playground for younger children.
There are no toilet facilities on the site. There are three entrances to the park, but only one allows vehicle access to a small car park. This is the main entrance which can only be approached by car on the Belfast bound lane of the dual carriageway on the road between Belfast to Bangor. One of the two pedestrian access points is on the main Bangor to Belfast road about 100 metres past the Spar/BP (Tor Grange) shopping centre and the main entrance to the Sir Samuel Kelly Eventide Nursing Home. The other is at the back of the park and is accessed from Woodlands off Croft Road. The park is easily reached on foot by a 10 minute walk from Holywood town centre. Alternatively you can park at Seapark and walk to the main entrance via the pelican crossing over the A2.
Early history and origin of the name Ballymenoch
Originally the park had been part of the Ballymenoch Demesne, which was much larger and crossed the main road between Belfast to Bangor and ran right down to the sea.
The townland in which it is situated is known as Ballymenagh which reaches from the coast at Cooper’s Bay and Seapark right up to Ballymiscaw Road. Ballymenagh borders the following other townlands:
Ballymenagh was church land, one of the five townlands (Ballekeille or Ballicruell, Ballimannacke, Ballacultrack or Ballacktragath, Ballaenderrie, Ballaeknocknegonie); it once belonged to Holywood Abbey. John O’Donovan translated this name as Baile Meadhonach (méanach) ‘middle town,’ but apart from the spelling Balle Mena[gh]t appearing on the Raven Map of Clandeboye c.1625 and in the Hamilton Copy Rental c.1681, so much of the early evidence spells –managh (1604 –manock, mannacke) (1604, 1623, 1627, 1630, 1645, 1661, 1662), that it seems far more likely to be Baile Manach, which in Irish means ‘townland of the monks’.
The Abbey (or the Priory as it had now become) owned most of the land around Holywood until it was officially dissolved on 1st January 1541 by the agents of King Henry VIII and its possessions, including Ballymenagh/Ballymenoch, were by law vested in the Crown, although in practice the local Irish chieftains still held control until early in the seventeenth century when James 1, as part of the plantation settlement, granted the Clannaboy district, what is now North Down and part of South Antrim, to Sir James Hamilton and James Montgomery. Hamilton, who has been described as an adventurer from near Dunlop in Ayrshire, received the tract of land stretching from near Donaghadee to Castlereagh.
As noted above Sir James Hamilton acquired lands in the North Down area in the 17th century. A large house and associated gardens are shown on the Raven maps near Bangor. This is likely to have been the structure that the Plantation Commissioners had reported in 1611 as the one that Hamilton had intended to build near Holywood. This became known as Ballymenoch House. A branch of the Hamilton family is said to have lived in the house up until the end of the eighteenth century. The earlier house was two storeys with tripartite windows, bow fronts, portico and urns on the balustrade, with numerous chimneys. However, it subsequently became the residence of the Holmes family who either rebuilt or remodelled the building and it is this Georgian mansion which is depicted in Proctor’s ‘Belfast Scenery’ of 1832.
It dated from the late 18th century. There were two charming lodges, locally known as “ink-wells” owing to their shape. One of them was knocked down in the 1930s; the other in 1971 when the dual carriageway between Belfast and Bangor was built. This also led to a significant loss of land from Ballymenoch Park.
In 1802 Ballymenoch Demesne and House was purchased by Cunningham Greg, a successful Belfast merchant with interests in sugar refining, wine distribution and banking from Macedon in County Antrim. On the death of Cunningham Greg, the house passed to his son Thomas Greg, who is listed as occupier in the Townland Valuation (1828-40).
The Victorian Era
Greg owned substantial property in Belfast and was a traveller and collector. He was most famous for bringing the mummy of Takabuti from Thebes to Ireland. He purchased her in 1834. The unwrapping of Takabuti took place in 1835 and recorded in the Newsletter where they reported Greg “munificently presented” the mummy “to the Museum of the Belfast Natural History Society” (now the Ulster Museum). Incredibly Takabuti continues to be a favourite at the Ulster Museum.
In the maps above you will see a stream prominently snaking through the gardens. Almost certainly this was created by diverting the flow of a burn to the east to flow though the grounds. Today the bed it is still just visible underneath the laurel thickets. However, it is almost completely dry with its water supply routed elsewhere.
The Townland Valuation lists the house, offices, steward and porter’s house at a value of £82. However, by the time of Griffith’s Valuation (1856-64), the house had risen enormously in value to £200, suggesting that it had been rebuilt since the earlier valuation, and indeed the second edition OS map of 1858 shows a building much increased in size from the first edition.
From 1864 Thomas Greg and later, his representatives, let the house to Mary Gordon who was followed in 1890 by Sir Daniel Dixon (1844-1907), timber merchant, shipowner and the First Lord Mayor of Belfast. The valuation records make it unclear whether Dixon bought the property at this time. There is an increase in valuation at the time that Dixon takes over the house which perhaps indicates some additions or improvements and the third edition map of 1900 – 02 shows a house of a slightly altered plan form, now captioned, for the first time, ‘Ballymenoch House’. Dixon also purchased additional land around the house so the estate extended down to Holywood Pier.
The house was mentioned in the announcement of Dixon’s baronetcy in 1903:
“The King has been pleased to direct the preparation of Warrants under His Majesty’s Royal Sign Manual, authorising Letters Patent to be passed under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, of Great Britain and Ireland, conferring the dignity of a Baronet of the said United Kingdom upon each of the under-mentioned Gentlemen, and the heirs male of their respective bodies lawfully begotten:—
The Right Honourable Sir Daniel Dixon, of Ballymenoch in the Parish of Holywood, in the County of Down, Knight, Lord Mayor of Belfast.”WHITEHALL, September 7, 1903
Dixon was a major landowner around the area, including Bangor. His younger son, Herbert (who was elevated to the peerage in 1939 as Baron Glentoran of Ballyalloly, County Down) married Emily Ina Florence Bingham of Bangor Castle in 1905.
Sir Daniel Dixon lived in the house until his death in 1907 and it was occupied by his widow for some years afterwards.
Suffragettes and arson
In July 1914 Ballymenoch House was sadly gutted by fire following an arson attack by the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant ‘suffragette’ organisation originally founded by the Pankhurst sisters in 1903, but a Belfast branch was established in September 1913. When attempts to persuade Edward Carson, the unionist leader, to make good on his pledge for women’s rights failed, a campaign of arson was initiated focusing mainly on unionist-owned property but also including some public buildings across Northern Ireland. Ballymenoch was among eleven buildings to be attacked, due its association with the Dixons, a well-known unionist family, despite Sir Daniel’s death years before this.
However, he was a controversial political figure openly disliked by the Belfast Newsletter and seen as unsympathetic to the Liberal Unionists. Emmeline Pankhurst discusses the background leading to the fire in her memoir ‘My Own Story’ explaining it was a reaction to the treatment of two campaigners, Dorothy Evans and Maud Mauir.
The Belfast Newsletter reported on the incident:
“Ballymenoch House, one of the largest and most stately mansions in Ulster, was totally gutted by fire yesterday – between five and six o’clock yesterday morning it was discovered that the building was on fire.
Although the brigade remained on the scene until half-past three yesterday afternoon, they were unable to do any effective work after the water supply failed; and when they left, the whole of the roof collapsed.
About four o’clock, when the fire seemed to have spent itself, huge sheets of flame commenced to shoot up from the cellars, and burnt fiercely until everything of a combustible nature had been destroyed.”
The cost of damage was said to be c£20,000. Fortunately the family were away at the time, leaving the house under the watch of two caretakers, John Nevin and Robert Wilson. The destruction of the property is not noted in Valuation Records, but the house value dropped in 1918 due to the removal of the chauffeur’s house and gate lodge from the valuation.
Coal barons to salvationists
The house briefly passed to Nathaniel Tughan, a solicitor of Belfast and Dublin. The site was then purchased by Sir Samuel Kelly who rebuilt the house (on a slightly different site) in the 1920s. In January 1923 the ‘Irish Builder’ invited tenders for “the erection of a residence at Ballymenoch, Holywood, Co Down for Sir Samuel Kelly, JP, CBE, according to plans and specifications prepared by Messrs Blackwood & Jury, architects, Belfast.” The fourth edition of 1919-31 of Ordnance Survey shows how the house was also given a different orientation. A fireplace in the house decorated with the monogram SK and year 1924, suggests the completion date of the house.
Sir Samuel Kelly, son of John Kelly (founder of the John Kelly Coal company) was born in 94 Castlereagh Street, Belfast in 1867. When his father died suddenly in 1904 Samuel took control and continued to expand the Kelly fleet. In 1911 the firm became ‘John Kelly Ltd.’ with a capital of £50,000. In 1922 he was knighted. He was described as ‘a leading merchant, a public benefactor, a consistent and generous supporter of charitable objects’. His many donations included the building of two churches in Holywood.
Sir Samuel was Deputy Lieutenant of County Tyrone, Vice-President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce and an active member of the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. His extensive business interests included chairmanship of the Ulster Fireclay Company, the Tyrone Brickworks and the Coalisland Weaving Company. He also owned the Cumberland Mine Company and the St Helen’s Colliery. Sir Samuel died on 9 February 1937 from a long-standing heart condition.
After his death his wife made bequests to many causes. In 1950 this included the cost of the Donaghadee lifeboat, which was named the Sir Samuel Kelly. The boat played a major part in the rescue of survivors from the Princess Victoria in January 1953.
Ballymenoch House was donated to the Salvation Army and was renamed the Salvation Army Sir Samuel Kelly Eventide Home. It offered accommodation for 40 elderly men and women.
The site was also divided leaving Ballymenoch House sitting in 2-3 acres of wooded and landscaped gardens, adjacent to the public park which was bequested to the people of Holywood.
In 1997 the Salvation Army Eventide Home was extended to provide 32 bedrooms with small group living settings. In 2019/20 the original ‘old family home’ was refurbished to provide accommodation for 56 residents.
In preparation for writing this article I put out a message on social media asking local people if they had any information or stories about Ballymenoch Park. I received a couple of replies. One said:
“ My great uncle Arthur worked in the RAF 55 Maintenance Unit that was there between 40 and 43 I think, he lost two fingers on his right hand on the large hanger door. I can’t find any photos of this maintenance unit. I think it was situated on the flat part, just below the bank.”
A google search revealed the following information from the National Archives: “55 Maintenance Unit, formed at Ballymenoch House, Holywood, Co. Down October 1940; includes 55 Motor Transport Storage Unit; disbanded September 1943 (MU MTSU UK).”
A further response to my request was:
“Remember playing football there 2nd Holywood BB on a Saturday morning before the new road was built the park was longer then.”
Ballymenoch Park has also been used on a regular basis by the Orange Order as a destination for their 12 July demonstration marches. For example, in 2007 it is recorded “Orangemen and women, band members, spectators and traders combined to make up several thousand participants in Holywood for 12th July celebrations involving the North Down Districts of Newtownards, Bangor, Holywood and Upper Ards.”
Ballymenoch Park today
The park has regularly been awarded ‘Green Flag’ status by Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful. To achieve this it is judged against eight criteria which include being a welcoming place, healthy, safe and secure, well maintained and clean and having community involvement. Indeed, there is a Friends of Ballymenoch Park Facebook page which encourages users to comment on aspects of the park and learn about plans for its development. Some of these friends of Ballymenoch Park meet regularly with Council officials to discuss concerns and ideas.
The trees of Ballymenoch
So we know something of the history of house and family – now what about the parkland which surrounds it? In the written survey of the Parish of Holywood carried out as part of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in 1834 we read:
There are no natural woods nor evidence of any having existed. The shore of the Belfast Lough is very much ornamented with plantations which are for the most part young….
It contains 8,067 English acres, all cultivated with the exception of about 30 acresLieutenant G F W Bordes, OS Memoirs Co Down, Parish of Holywood
In this time agriculture dominated the rural landscape – trees were only found with the demesnes of the wealthy and these were often young ornamental plantations, often of fashionable, but non-native beech. By this time Ireland had lost almost all of the great forests which once dominated the landscape and even the memory of these (as the quote above suggests) was almost lost. Only the name ‘Holywood’ remained to hint at what had been before.
The oaks of Ballymenoch
However, it is possible that in the in the original 17th century estates, parts of the ancient woods may have survived. Writing in 1850 Thomas Kelly praised the 330 acre grounds of the adjacent Cultra Manor. He states that it was “thickly wooded in the seventeenth century fashion” and continues:
“Few mansion situations can be more imposing or romantic; it is overshadowed by luxuriant oak trees of gigantic size, the graceful branches sweeping the ground, not unlike the famed banyan groves in the Plains of India. Several rare wild plants decorate the demesne.”
Ballymenoch may well have followed this pattern, or aspired to do so. Consequently when Thomas Greg bought Ballymenoch House and grounds in 1802 his decision to plant the magnificent Turkey oaks we see today rather than the fashionable beech may reflect respect for this heritage. Now the ‘Turkey oak‘ is a non-native alternative to the native Irish (or Sessile) oak but one which may have satisfied both the Victorian taste for imported exotic plants and the nostalgia for the lost woods of the seventeenth century. It also has the considerable advantage for the landscape gardener of of being significantly faster growing than its native cousin!
Con Auld tells us that as the gardens of Cultra and Ballymenoch matured though the 1800s:
“The Park became a tourist attraction for day trippers from Belfast and received many favourable references in the guidebooks of the period. The benevolent proprietors of Cultra and the neighbouring Ballymenoch House encouraged the public to view their beautiful gardens.”Con Auld, Holywood then and now
In 2018 a Turkey oak in Ballymenoch Park was shortlisted as one of six trees in Northern Ireland in the Woodland Trust’s Tree of the Year Award, Although it did not win, it was a close runner up. The Ballymenoch oak is thought to be among the largest oaks in the country. This magnificent Turkey oak stands 27 metres high. To achieve this size a native Irish oak would need to be around 500 years old!
Turkey oak (Quercus cerris) is a deciduous broadleaf tree which can grow to 30m. It was introduced to the UK as an ornamental tree in the 18th century. It has the advantage of growing much faster than native Irish and English oaks, but its timber is prone to crack and split. Unlike plantations of native oaks, these trees were never planted with long term naval construction requirements in mind!
The bark is dark grey, maturing with various plates and deep fissures. On older trees, the trunk fissures are often streaked with orange near the base.
In order to recognise it look out for: the leaf lobes which are deeply cut with short points at the tips. It can be identified in winter by: buds in clusters and the bud scales which extend beyond the bud. Each bud has more than three scales.
The large acorns mature 18 months after pollination. Acorns are quite distinct – orange at the base, graduating to a green-brown tip, and with a ‘hairy’ acorn ‘cup’, which looks like a hat made of moss.
Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) is native to many areas in Northern Europe (but not Ireland) and higher ground in more southern latitudes. thriving on poorer, sandy soils, rocky outcrops, peat bogs or close to the forest limits. It is therefore well suited to the challenging conditions of the highlands of Scotland – hence the popular name. However, on more fertile land it loses out to other native species such as the oak. Its presence in the Irish landscape tends to flag human intervention. Traditionally upland farmers have valued its toughness and used it as part of a ‘shelter belt’ surrounding farm buildings. Today on high ground about abandoned farm dwellings you will still find a few hardy specimens hanging on.
However, for the wealthy landowners these were prized for their straight lofty trunks and distinctive high foliage and often used to line avenues or to structure landscaped gardens. Here in Ballymenoch a few grand specimens survive, hinting at the possible layout of the old garden.
The Giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) occurs naturally only in groves of Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Soaring in their native environment to 160-280 feet tall, they are the the most massive trees on earth. Victorians greatly prized them greatly and paid large sums to have them imported for their gardens. At Ballymenoch it appears that one was planted almost directly in front the the original house!
At around 80 feet tall the three Ballymenoch sequioas are about half the size of their American cousins, but they still are magnificent and much more accessible to us than those in Muir Woods or Yosemite National Park!
The Victorian love of the exotic included rather more modestly sized evergreen rhododendrons and laurels. However, what these shrubs/trees lacked in height they more than made up for in vigorous self propagation and almost total indestructability.
Here in Ballymenoch as in much of neighbouring Cultra the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) seems to dominate. Presumably starting life out as the hedging of choice it now forms a dark lifeless monoculture across large areas of the modern park and beyond.
Rhododendron and cherry laurel are extremely invasive plant species, particularly in the more humid western parts of Ireland, forming dense impenetrable thickets. Both species are unpalatable and likely toxic to mammals and probably invertebrates due to the presence of ‘free’ phenols and diterpenes in Rhododendron and cyanide in cherry laurel. They are both avoided by grazing animals, thus giving them significant advantages over native species. The deep shadow cast by the plants and toxic leaf litter accumulating underneath..from Invasive Species Ireland blog
Its removal would open up the park and provide opportunity to introduce wildlife friendly alternatives.
Seeing the wood AND the trees
There are many other tree species in Ballymenoch to find and enjoy. However perhaps the greatest asset of this park is its natural semi-wooded nature. It is neither formal forestry plantation nor closed canopy dark wood. Modern scholarship is coming to understand the complexity of ancient woodlands and how their semi-open nature allowed trees like the oak which needs space to achieve its full glory to thrive. We are also coming to understand the complexities of soil, roots and the fungal network sometimes called the ‘Wood Wild Web’ – see the link at the end of this post for further details.
There has been woodland on this site for hundreds of years and through a mixture of good husbandry and happy chance significant parts of this ecosystem have survived the fashions and ‘improvements’ of past times. Today with greatly enhanced ecological knowledge we are uniquely placed to restore and enrich this wonderful place.
- Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland Vol. 7, Parishes of County Down II – Institute of Irish Studies
- Holywood Co. Down Then & Now by Con Auld
- Lord Belmont in Northern Ireland – Ballymenoch Demesne
- Invasive Species Ireland blog