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British Royals

The controversial Northern Ireland castle that’s not a true castle

Hillsborough Castle lies in the village of Royal Hillsborough in the northwest of County Down in Northern Ireland. While the official government residence might look the part of a royal castle, it’s anything but.

The Georgian county house was built in the 18th century for the Hill family, Marquesses of Downshire, who owned it until 1922. At that point, The 7th Marquess of Downshire sold the mansion and its grounds to the British government. Their purchase created quite a stir, and not because they beat out another buyer. Under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, a new distinct region of the United Kingdom called Northern Ireland was created within the traditional province of Ulster. But, it did not include the three counties of Cavan, Donegal, and Monaghan, which became part of the Irish Free State.

Executive authority had already been vested for Northern Ireland and its sister region of Southern Ireland in the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who was supposed to be one of two all-Ireland features, along with the Council of Ireland, in the new home rule structure. This movement campaigned for self-government or “home rule” for Ireland within the United Kingdom. In the end, the office was abolished, and the law changed following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. This meant there was no longer a Southern Ireland (which was only a thing on paper,) and the Irish Free State was established.

The Governor of Northern Ireland, a new office for Northern Ireland was created. Since the Viceregal Lodge in Dublin was unavailable physically and politically, a new residence was needed. While Hillsborough is outside the largest city in Northern Ireland, Belfast, it was selected for the role. After some renovations, the first governor, The 3rd Duke of Abercorn, moved in in 1925. The building was officially renamed Government House.

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In March 1972, a decision was made to abolish Northern Ireland’s devolved system of government and institute direct rule from London. This meant all Northern Ireland governmental posts were no more. The two posts impacted, Governor and Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, became one role – the office of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. As the representative for Queen Elizabeth II, the secretary moved into Hillsborough.

How did the home become connected with the royals? The link goes back to 1933 with the visit of Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone and the granddaughter of Queen Victoria. In March 1946, then-Princess Elizabeth stayed here during her first solo visit to Northern Ireland to launch Harland and Wolff’s new ship, HMS Eagle. She stayed at the castle with her aunt, Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon, the sister of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and wife of William Leveson-Gower, 4th Earl of Granville, and Governor of Northern Ireland from 1945 to 1952.

While the “castle’ looks like one you might see in a movie, logistically, it’s not a castle. It’s a late 18th-century Irish Big House, and it was very common for the rich, mostly Anglo-Irish upper class, to call their grand country homes “castles.”

The castle is open to the public for tours. It is known as the official residence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the official residence in Northern Ireland for the British monarch and other members of the Royal Family when they visit the area. It is also a guest house for prominent international visitors.

About author

My name is Sydney Zatz and I am a University of Iowa graduate. I graduated with a degree in journalism and sports studies, and a minor in sport and recreation management. A highlight of my college career was getting the chance to study abroad in London and experiencing royal history firsthand. I have a passion for royals, royal history, and journalism, which led me to want to write for Royal Central.