Stormont Estate: points of interest
Find out about the historic buildings, gardens, and trees, statues and memorials and other interesting features on the Stormont Estate.
Historic buildings, statues and memorials
Aside from the beautiful gardens and mature trees, you can also see historic buildings, statues, memorials and other interesting features.
The Stormont estate has a vast and varied history, dating back to 1830 when Stormont Castle was first built. Back then, it was owned by the Reverend John Cleland. Following his death in 1834, the Estate was passed to his son Samuel Jackson Cleland. When the Cleland family left Northern Ireland in 1893, the grounds and Stormont Castle were put up for sale.
It wasn’t until 1921, when the newly formed Northern Ireland Parliament required a site for Parliament Buildings that the Estate was sold. The 235 acre site, which included 100 acres of woodland, was sold for £20,344.
The estate now has a number of large offices as well as the listed buildings. A planned maintenance programme is in place under the management of the Department of Finance’s Properties Division. This makes sure all offices on the estate are maintained to an approved standard.
The estate has several listed buildings, some of which are of great historical importance. The most recent building to be given listed status is a 1950s cold war bunker built as another government command shelter.
Following the Government of Ireland Act (1920) Northern Ireland was set up as a self-governing part of the United Kingdom with Belfast as its provincial capital. A public building scheme was later started in the decade following the partition of Ireland. This was to build headquarters and venues for many political, judicial and cultural institutions that before had their bases in Dublin.
The Royal Courts of Justice and the Ulster Museum are examples of this scheme. By far the most ambitious and necessary project was the construction of the Parliament Buildings at Stormont in East Belfast. It became a central meeting place for the new Northern Ireland Government.
In September 1921 the estate and manor house at Stormont Castle was chosen as the perfect site. In December 1921 the Stormont Estate was bought by the Commissioners of Public Works and Buildings of the Imperial Government at a cost of £20,334.
The architect Arnold Thornely was appointed to design the building. The first plans were overly grandiose. The original design included a central four-storey block (with a massive tower and dome) flanked by two smaller blocks for civil service offices. By 1925 the estimated cost of building the parliament buildings had risen to over £1,750,000.
Changing designs and cutting costs
The Board of Works, the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Government met to change the designs and cut costs. The cost of construction was lowered to £1,125,000 by merging the formerly separate blocks into a single four-storey building. The the central dome of the building was also given up.
Despite cutting the construction to one building the name Parliament Buildings was kept. Preparation of the site began in 1923 but it wasn’t until 1928 that the first foundation stone was laid. The building was finished in 1932.
Parliament Buildings was officially opened on 16 November 1932 by The Prince of Wales Edward VIII. The first Parliamentary session was held six days later.
Parliament Buildings is 365 feet wide - one foot for every day of the year. The six pillars at the entrance stand for the six counties of Northern Ireland.
During the Second World War, much of the building was used by the RAF. However, due to the Portland stone that was used it was easily seen by enemy aircraft. In trying to camouflage the building, it was painted with a mixture of bitumen and cow manure. It took several years to remove the mixture, but the building's true bright white colour never returned.
Parliament Buildings was listed as a Grade A building in 1987. For the latest information about tours of Parliament Buildings visit the Northern Ireland Assembly website.
Stormont was built around 1830 for the Rev. John Cleland (1755-1834). The Rev. Cleland was a local magistrate and the rector of Newtownards. He got the Stormont Estate by marrying the daughter of the previous owner. Cleland was described as ‘a fearsome magistrate’ and man of dubious reputation. Much of the wealth that allowed him to develop the land and property at Stormont was allegedly ill-gotten.
The Townland Valuations show that Stormont was valued at £50 14 shillings in the 1830s. Cleland’s son, Samuel Cleland, took over the Stormont Estate after his father’s death in 1834 but was killed when supervising the demolition of a wall in the grounds in 1842. Samuel Cleland’s widow, Elizabeth, took over the Stormont Estate after her husband’s death and continued to live there until around 1860.
Elizabeth Cleland was responsible for the decision to redesign the building. The three-storey extension to the north of the original house, as well as the tower to the east side, were added by Dublin-based architect Thomas Turner in 1858.
As a result of the redesign the ‘plain’ Stormont House was transformed into the Scots Baronial ‘Stormont Castle.’ Added were ornamental fortifications including crenulated parapets, turrets and towers, with decorative gryphons giving further defence. The Cleland family continued to live at Stormont Castle until 1893 when the mansion was rented to tenants. In 1920 the mansion was put up for sale by the Cleland family.
Stormont Castle is home to the Northern Ireland Executive. It is not clear how much of the original building remains. The Castle is closed to the public, however, it does open its doors during the European Heritage weekend which is normally the second weekend in September. It is a Grade A listed building.
At the roundabout at the top of the Prince of Wales Avenue, is the statue of Lord (Edward) Carson. The 12 foot figure stands on a granite plinth to which is attached four bronze plates showing significant events from Lord Carson's political life.
The bronze statue by L.S. Merrifield, was financed by public subscription and was unveiled in June 1933. In a break from the norm, the statue was put up whilst the subject was still alive.
Lord Carson was a barrister, judge and politician. He was leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party between 1910 and 1921. He also held a number of positions in the Cabinet of the United Kingdom and served as a Lord of Appeal in the Ordinary.
Carson is best known locally for his oratory skills and political stance in opposition to Home Rule for Ireland at the beginning of the twentieth century. He he also came to prominence due to his involvement in many high profile legal cases, most famously in the trial of Oscar Wilde.
Upon his death, in 1935, Carson was one of the few non-monarchs to receive a state funeral and was buried in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.
‘Reconciliation’ by Josefina de Vasconcellos
'Reconciliation' is a sculpture by the artist Josefina de Vasconcellos. Originally created in 1977 and called ‘Reunion’, the sculpture shows a man and woman embracing each other across barbed wire.
Describing the inspiration for the piece, de Vasconcellos said: "The sculpture was originally conceived in the aftermath of the War. Europe was in shock, people were stunned. I read in a newspaper about a woman who crossed Europe on foot to find her husband, and I was so moved that I made the sculpture. Then I thought that it wasn't only about the reunion of two people but hopefully a reunion of nations which had been fighting."
In 1994 the sculpture was restored, renamed and unveiled for a second time on de Vasconcellos 90th birthday. In 1995 (to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War) bronze casts of the sculpture (as Reconciliation) were placed in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral and in the Hiroshima Peace Park in Japan. To mark the opening of the rebuilt German Reichstag (Parliament building) in 1999, another cast was placed as part of the Berlin Wall memorial.
The Belfast version of the sculpture was presented by the Dean of Coventry Cathedral and Sir Richard Branson. It was officially unveiled in the grounds of Stormont Estate by First and Deputy Ministers David Trimble and Seamus Mallon in November 2000.
During the ceremony, representatives from Belfast, Coventry, Hiroshima and Berlin threw pebbles from their respective countries into the statue's surrounding water garden. Stone boulders bear the names of those cities. Walkers often stop at this spot to rest and think.
The inscription on the sculpture reads: “These sculptures remind us that human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring us together in respect and peace.”
The Reconciliation Sculpture is a popular attraction with visitors and sits as the centre piece of a larger water feature. Unfortunately the water feature has deteriorated over the years and is in need of some major refurbishment work. Plans and drawings to include the sculpture are currently being developed.
‘The Gleaner’ by John Knox
‘The Gleaner’ sculpture by John Knox was originally shown as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain at Castlereagh and then moved to Stormont.
The sculpture shows a woman on a bended knee gathering, with the inscription: ‘Thrift is the gleaner behind all human effort’.
The sculpture hints at the quiet, female strength of a woman going about her business. This contrasts with the more high profile, masculine and extraverted image of the nearby statue of Carson.
The Somme Memorial
The Battle of the Somme took place in the area of the Somme River, northern France, during the First World War between 1 July and 18 November 1916.
The battle was an attack by the British and French armies against the German Army. Since invading France in August 1914 the German Army had occupied large areas of that country.
One of the largest battles of the First World War, by the time fighting had ended in late autumn 1916 there were more than 1.5 million casualties.
The Battle of the Somme is particularly remembered in the province of Ulster due to the very high numbers of Ulstermen that were lost in the first two days of fighting.
In the Ulster Division alone, over 5,500 officers and men were killed, wounded or missing. The granite stone is placed in the centre of a group of now mature Cedar trees, which were planted in memory of the fallen.
The stone has the following inscription: “This group of cedars presented in memory of the 36th Ulster Division by Major General Sir C. Herbert Powell K.C.B who raised it in 1914.”
Lord Craigavon’s tomb
James Craig (1871-1940), Viscount Craigavon and First Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was born at Sydenham in East Belfast.
The son of a wealthy whiskey distiller, Craig was a stockbroker before enlisting in the Royal Irish Rifles during the Second Boer War (1899-1900).
Craig began his political career in 1903 when he was elected to Westminster as a Unionist M.P. Between 1912 and 1914 he rose to prominence as one of the leaders of the unionist anti-Home Rule movement.
In 1921 he succeeded Edward Carson as the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. On 7 June 1921 he was appointed the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and remained so until his death in 1940. He became Viscount Craigavon in 1927.
Viscount Craigavon’s Tomb is to the east side of Parliament Buildings and is surrounded by mature hedging. It was finished in 1942 after being commissioned following his death on 24 November 1940. The following day the Northern Ireland Parliament passed a bill allowing Craig’s burial within the grounds of the Stormont Estate.
Following her death in 1960, Viscountess Craigavon was interred in the tomb.
The rose garden to the north of the Massey Avenue entrance was created in 2013 during a major refurbishment of the shrub beds.
The purpose was to create an area of quiet reflection complemented by a sympathetic planting scheme. The circular bed has an outer ring of 1.5 metre high roses with the inner circle planted give almost non-stop flowering throughout the summer. The variety of the rose is 'Remembrance'.
Lavender is planted in both the outer ring and inner circle giving a striking contrast during the spring and summer.
There are two summer houses on the Stormont Estate. One is at the Massey Avenue entrance and the other is at the entrance to the Stormont Castle cottages.
The Massey Avenue summer house was built in 1931 and the other about five years later. The architect is unknown, but the designs are based on the work already done by Arnold Thornely. Both are Grade B2 listed.
Barrage balloon anchors
There are barrage balloon anchor points on the right hand side of the Prince of Wales Avenue which were used to protect Parliament Buildings during World War Two. The anchor points are regularly inspected and painted to make sure they are preserved.
Barrage balloons are large balloons filled with air and anchored to the ground using steel cables. Their purpose was to force aircraft to fly at higher altitudes, making bombing less accurate and to act as an obstacle to any low flying aircraft. The cables often caused damage to the aircraft, causing them to crash or make their approach more difficult.
WWII bomb crater
There is a WWII bomb crater on the left hand side of the Prince of Wales Avenue. It was made during a Luftwaffe air raid during the Belfast Blitz in 1941 and was never filled in. The Belfast Blitz took place in April and May, with almost 1,000 lives being lost. The crater is surrounded by fencing and is regularly cleared of weeds and foliage to make sure visitors can view it.
Stormont Estate has two gate lodges which were built around 1932. One is at the Massey Avenue entrance and one is at the main Prince of Wales entrance. They were also designed by the architect Arnold Thornely and are identical. The gate lodges and the elaborate gates and fencing at the entrances are Grade A listed.
Prince of Wales Avenue and lime trees
At the design stage it was decided to site Parliament Buildings at the top of a main processional avenue, giving it a more imposing position.
The avenue was an integral part of Arnold Thornely’s original design and is widely recognised as one of the finest. Originally, it was to be lined with elm trees, but this was scrapped due to the fear of Dutch elm disease. Instead, 305 red-twigged lime trees were planted. They were planted in such a way to give the illusion that the trees are giving way to allow a better view of Parliament Buildings.
Most of these trees now survive to this day, but unfortunately due to recent heavy storms a number have fallen. The Prince of Wales Avenue is commonly known as ‘The Mile’.
Stormont Castle Cottages
Stormont Castle Cottages, the conservatory and the glasshouse were built around 1840 to 1859 as part of Stormont Castle.
The cottages were built mainly for worker’s accommodation but were extensively refurbished. They are now the offices of the Stormont Estate Management Unit.
The conservatory has a distinctly gothic feel to it, however renovations in 2004 and 2009 changed it to more Victorian in style. It was built using locally quarried Scrabo sandstone. In 2002, damage to the original glasshouses was seen as irreparable and as a result it was demolished in 2004.
The Speaker’s House, now known as Stormont House was built in 1926. It was the first building to be erected as part of the redevelopment of the Stormont Estate. The architect chosen to design Speaker’s House was Ralph Knott (1878-1929). The English-architect is best known for designing London County Hall opposite Westminster.
Speaker’s House was the official residence of the Speaker of the NI Parliament from 1926 until 1972 when the Northern Ireland Government was abolished and Direct Rule implemented.
Since the devolution of Government, Speaker’s House is no longer used as the official residence of the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The neo-Georgian building is occupied by the Northern Ireland Office.