Fermanagh Gold Introduction

The following article provides interesting historical and architectural content about the growth of Enniskillen and it's buildings.

This article appears on with permission of the author Hugh Dixon and the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society

Preface to Historic Buildings
Groups of Buildings
Areas of Architectural Importance
in the town of Enniskillen

Ceithleann was a vigorous lady, whose nickname 'the Crooked Tooth' is perhaps not unconnected with the fact that she was the wife of Balor of the South Blows, and the mother of his twelve white-mouthed sons. She and her husband were the fighting leaders of a perhaps legendary but certainly piratical people, the Fomorians, who held territory in Fermanagh early in the second millennium B.C. Having acquitted herself with some distinction at the second battle of Moytura, she retired, in the manner of pirates in moments of stress, by water. She swam the River Erne where its course between the two great expanses of lake was almost blocked by two islands, one large, the other tiny. Some say that she rested and took refuge there; others that she died and was buried; but both islands were named after this formidable warrior, Inis Ceithleann or, as it has become, Enniskillen.

Through the centuries the islands, and the town which now stands on and about them, have witnessed many changes and excitements, and the area has been well-served by its historians. The painstaking, early works by two reverend gentlemen, Bradshaw and Dundas, were consolidated in the monumental three-volume history by the journalist, William Copeland Trimble, whose racy style and effortless pomposity sometimes disguise the fact that he was a thorough and industrious scholar. More recently, there have been the wider-ranging studies of Peadar Livingstone and Mary Rogers.

The River Erne runs north-westwards from its source at Lough Gowna in County Longford to the point where it meets the Atlantic Ocean just west of Ballyshannon. Most of its course is contained in County Fermanagh, where it disperses itself first among the islands of Upper Lough Erne, and then gathers only to spread once more into the broad reaches of Lower Lough Erne. Between the lakes, where the river divides the highlands of Topped Mountain in the east from the majestic edge of Belmore to the west, stands Enniskillen, commanding not only the important narrows of the waterway but also the roads which converge on the bridges from all directions. The strategic and defensive advantages of the site, which were probably enhanced by the exaggerated significance it was accorded in several early maps, were first exploited by the Maguires who held this territory in the late medieval period. Theirs was the task of building the first castle and cutting ditches on its landward side. This seems to have been accomplished by Hugh the Hospitable early in the fifteenth century, and it is probably his Keep, so often taken, so often held, damaged, and rebuilt, which still exists at the heart of the Castle yard today. The castle was not, as has been suggested, the only building on the island prior to the plantation; it was probably surrounded from its earliest days by primitive cabins for the lesser members of the Maguire following. Certainly in 1592 their chief, Philip Maguire, attempting to withstand the colonial designs of Queen Elizabeth's generals, prudently burnt down the houses surrounding the castle to prevent their use for an attack. The castle was finally taken after a nine-day siege the following year by Captain Dowdall, whose attack is so vividly depicted in the drawings of John Thomas. The English force overwhelmed the garrison 'by botes, by engines, by sap, and by scaling' and found the castle to have 'sundrie secret fights within it of great annoyance upon the barbican'. Clearly a great deal of damage was done and only a little time was spent on repairs. By successful harassment of the supply-lines the Maguire was soon able to retake the castle, and it was not until 1607 that the English gained permanent possession.

The new governor, William Cole, lost little time in improving his defences. He rebuilt the old keep and doubled the height of the curtain wall. Having other grants of land nearby he was able to set up two other strong points; at Portora (No. 212) to command the ford at the point where the river met the Lower Lough; and at Cornagrade, where he built 'a Bawne of Stone and Lyme 60 feet long, 56 feed broad and 11 feet high with two flankers and an English-like thatched house within.' By the mid-18th century this had become a farmhouse. With the country thus secured, Cole was free to lay out his plantation town on the island. Bridges replaced the east and west fords; the church was set on the highest hill, and the Diamond and market place on the next highest. Between the Draw (now East) Bridge and the church a street of single-storey thatched cabins gradually developed, with smaller streets crossing it at the Diamond and in the Hollow. The town grew steadily during the troubled years of the seventeenth century with two dramatic increases in population in 1641-2 during the campaigns of Rory Maguire, and during the Williamite war (1689-90), it being on each occasion the only town in the county to escape devastation. James Leonard's map of 1688 (which was drawn about fifty years later and probably exaggerates the number of buildings in the town) shows that by that time the main street had formed its present meandering course between the bridges, and that thee were defended from without by earthworks at the Redoubt and on Forthill. Most of the eighty houses which had been built by then were probably destroyed in the fire of 1705 which left 114 families homeless, and caused a nation-wide appeal for the assistance of the dispossessed.

This was the disastrous start to an undistinguished century; little wonder that visitors to the town at this time seem to have been uniformly unimpressed. In 1739 Henry declared that there were 'scarcely in the whole town 150 houses, and most of these but indifferent cabins.' About five years later Isaac Butler made a more careful observation; 'The town', he wrote, 'is joined to the main land by two strong Stone bridges on the north (east) and south (west) sides, the latter was fortified with a square Tower, Gates and a Drawbridge likewise a small regular Fort of four bastions which command the entrance, at present demolished. From this to the North bridge better than a fourth of a mile is laid out in a Street of good houses mostly of Stone. The Church is near the Center, large with Cross Isles, a Steeple and Spire, the Barracks are opposite the Church on the Bank of the Lough, the Sessions house and Gaol a modern large stone Building are near the North Bridge. Here is a great Thursday market….'. None of the public buildings erected at this time seem to have been particularly distinguished, and almost all have been superseded. William Cunningham, remembering the town in his youth in the 1760's, stated that: 'Except for the castle, there was but one two-storey house in the town. All of the others were mud cabins… the first houses built in the Hollow were so low that an ordinary size man could have front street and back to the castle … the use of tea was unknown and there were only four petty shopkeepers.' As Livingstone has shown, trade improved towards the end of the century and the town began a period of expansion which lasted until the Famine. To celebrate this improvement a steeple was added to the market house in 1792, and for the one and only time during the century it is possible to name the architect, William Irvine.

There was also much building activity at the barracks, including the impressive range of 1790 which is now the RUC Depot, and for the first time the town began to spread beyond the bridges. At first the expansion was directed to the west; the Royal School moved from near the church to Portora hill in 1777; Lord Enniskillen established a cotton factory in Henry street in 1758, by building ten houses each to contain a family and four looms; and the biggest development came in 1798 when refugees from the French invasion of Connacht settled along the road which was named after them Beggar Street. On the whole, however, the town's architecture during the eighteenth century was dull, without even a dim reflection of the distinguished buildings of the surrounding countryside at Chanterhill, Portora, and Castlecoole, and further afield at Florencecourt and Castle Archdale.

In the nineteenth century the situation was reversed and most of the important activity occurred in the town. Local builders, principally members of the Frith and Elliott families, erected a bewildering series of markets, a shambles, several meeting houses, an hospital and even a theatre. In their official capacities, distinguished Dublin architects designed the town's institutions: the Gaol by Richard Morrison; the Union Workhouse by George Wilkinson; and the Model School by James Owen. Of these only fragments remain, but the churches have fared better. St. Michael's R.C. Church and the Methodist Church are mature designs by John O'Neill and William Barre respectively, though perhaps the most important contribution was that made by Francis Johnson's pupil, William Farrell, who seems to have been primarily responsible for the present appearance of both the Cathedral and the Court House. While the merits of individual buildings should not be underrated, it seems to have been the town as a whole which has impressed visitors most, 'Neat Enniskillen, over the bridge and churches whereof the sun peepeth,' wrote Thackeray, recording his departure in The Shilelagh coach from the White Hart Inn at four o'clock one summer morning in 1843. Three years later the Parliamentary Gazetteer quoted the more sober estimation of Inglis: 'Enniskillen is a busy and rising town; improvement is everywhere discernible. Many new buildings are seen; thatched houses scarcely at all; the suburbs even are respectable. Enniskillen abounds in respectable shops.' The most effusive of compliments came, however, from the Gazetteer writer himself. 'The entire appearance of the town,' he wrote, 'including the arrangement of the streets, the cleanliness of the thoroughfares, the character of the houses, the opulence of the shops, and the dress of the inhabitants, is very greatly superior to that of the vaste majority of Irish towns, and would put to the blush the boasted spruceness and finery of some of the second rate boroughs of even merry England.' The various ambitious building ventures which influenced these favourable comments had increased the number of houses to 866 by 1841, giving the town a tenfold growth since 1688. The Queen Street area had developed in front of the Barracks, and to the east across Hall's Lane houses were growing up round the new markets in the Boston area. South of the main street another commercial focus was provided by the Shambles and the Pig Market in Paget Square, and between this and the castle were the smart houses of Wellington Place. Beyond the bridges the growth was even more impressive. On the east Belmore Street developed between the East Bridge and the Square where the new Gaol had been completed in 1818. Then Forthill Street continued the line of houses round the lower slopes of Forthill, while on the hill itself one of Ulster's finest recreation grounds was planted and paved during the 1830's. In the second half of the century the growth continued with increased business on Fair Green, the arrival of the railways, and the establishment of the Model School; and, in spite of the complete disappearance of the railways in recent years, this growth, particularly around the schools, has continued in the twentieth century.

To the west the development was more measured. Beggar Street changed its thatch for slates, and its name to Henry Street. Along the new road to Ballyshannon the excellent houses of Willoughby Place, completed by 1841, soon superseded those of Wellington Place as the most desirable in the town. Apart from the establishment of the Scotch Store the later years of the century saw little development in this area, and it was not until after the Great War that suburban tentacles began to spread down the Sligo Road, along the lanes to Rossorry church and the old graveyard, and round the trim gardens of Windmill Drive.

Ever since the 1820's when John Shiels, the reputed chimney doctor of Derry, ('testimonials from nobility and gentry of the first consideration'), made regular visits to the town, Enniskillen have looked after their buildings. It is to be hoped that they will continue to do so. The irrational tide of taste has, it is true, left blemishes - strident mosaic-fronting, scruffy neon-lighting, shiny fascias, and ugly concrete; but as the commercial value of well-conserved property becomes increasingly apparent, it is to be hoped that these will gradually disappear. The main threat to the conservation of Enniskillen comes from the traffic. Of all the sieges which the town has sustained during its history, that currently mounted by the internal-combustion engine is perhaps the most serious, and could prove the most damaging. The character of the streets, and the maintenance of a flourishing trade and tourist industry, rely heavily on the success of schemes to remove heavy traffic; to this end the projected Through-Pass is to be welcomed, removal of Wellington Place and New Row' it will cost the removal of Frith's Alley; and these prices may well prove worth paying. Great care needs to be taken however, both with the bridging operations, which must not be allowed to spoil the attractions of the water's edge; and also to ensure that the Castle and the Broad Meadow are not severed from the town by a great, impassable, tarmac moat.

Enniskillen has a fine collection of street names, and a large number of streets which have changed name over the centuries. Unfortunately, these are broadly sign-posted. It would enhance the character of the town if new signs could be made, not only identifying the streets, but telling also of their former, often more attractive and informative names. Thus, the historical interest of Pudding Lane, Hospital Lane, Beggar Street, Gaol Street, Pig Market, Camomile Hill, Tonystick, Eldon Place, the Draw Bridge and Margaret's Gutter would not be restricted to the readers of early maps but spread for the attention of visitors …. and even residents? Another of the town's charms, which is more appreciated, is the sound of the bells; the eloquent chimes at the Town Hall, the tolling from the churches, and the authoritative clankings from Portora Hill and Mount Lourdes, Long may they ring out across the valley and the ruffled waters, as long even as Mr. Trimble's 'timeless watch of futurity'.

© Hugh Dixon 1972-1973
Preface to the Historic Buildings
Groups of Buildings
Areas of Architectural Importance
in the town of Enniskillen

Published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society

The Ulster Architectural Heritage Society exists to promote the appreciation and enjoyment of architecture from the prehistoric to the present in the nine counties of Ulster, and to encourage its preservation and conservation.