Newcastle, Co. Down, was made famous, in song, by Percy French as the place where `the Mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea.’ Newcastle does indeed lie on the coast beside the `North Mountain Foot’ where the splendid corniche road leads into the historic Kingdom of Mourne. As a romantic traveller of the early nineteenth century described it, this road rises perpendicularly more than one hundred feet above the sea, from which it is separated by rocky precipices and shelving cliffs indented with yawning caverns, so terrifically lashed by the tremendous waves as to impart to the coast a character of extraordinary sublimity. It is not surprising that a small castle should have been built here on the banks of the river Shimna in the later mediaeval period, a building referred to as `an caislean nua’ or the new castle in the Annals of the Four Masters in the fifteenth century.
This was the period when the gradual decline of the AngloNorman settlements in Down was balanced by the increasing influence of the Gaelic Magennises, the Lords of Iveagh. The Magennises were essentially survivors, like the O’Briens of Thomond, for in 1586 we find Hugh Magennis living `very cyvillie and Englyshe-like’ in his house at Rathfriland. Two years later his kinsman, Felix Magennis, completed a substantial tower house as his seaside residence at Newcastle.’ This building, which survived many vicissitudes until its demolition in 1830, became the nucleus of Newcastle’s development in Victorian and Edwardian times. In 1747 Anthony Magennis sold this tower-house and the surrounding property in the townland of Ballaghbeg to the Hon. William Annesley. Thenceforward the story of Newcastle was interwoven with the fortunes of the Annesley family.
The Annesleys came originally from Nottinghamshire to Ireland, Robert Annesley becoming one of the undertakers in the Elizabethan plantation of Munster. His son, Sir Francis Annesley, moved into Ulster in the early seventeenth century and was created Baron Mountnorris for his services to the Crown. In the next generation the family settled near Castlewellan, and in 1758 William Annesley was created Baron Annesley of Castlewellan. Eight years later he was further honoured by the title of Viscount Glerawley (properly Glenawley) in the county of Fermanagh. The final stage in this typically eighteenth-century cursus honorum was when William’s grandson, Francis Charles, became the first Earl Annesley. The Annesleys who concern us in Victorian and Edwardian times begin with William Richard, the 3rd Earl, born in 1772, who married Isabella St Lawrence, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Howth, in 1803. His second wife, whom he married in 1828, was Priscilla Cecilia, daughter of Hugh Moore, of Eglantine, Hillsborough, by whom he had five sons. The eldest became 4th Earl on his father’s death in 1838. During his long minority the Annesley estates were managed by trustees, of whom the chief was Countess Priscilla’s brother, Rev. J. R. Moore. The 4th Earl came of age in 1851 and died unmarried in 1874. He was succeeded by his brother Hugh as 5th Earl. The latter was a graduate of the University of Dublin, had subsequently served with the Royal Scots Fusiliers in the Kaffir campaigns in the Cape, 1851-3, and was wounded at the battle of the Alma in the Crimea in 1854. He died in 1908 and was succeeded by his son Francis as 6th Earl.
When war broke out in 1914, he was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant in the RNVR and was killed shortly afterwards in an aeroplane crash over Ostend, Belgium.’ To an intelligent observer in pre-Victorian times, Newcastle would have appeared at first glance to be little more than an ‘inconsiderable village’ which, with the exception of the towerhouse, consisted of a few fisherman’s huts scattered along the beach’. I A second glance, however, might have revealed some indications of Newcastle as an embryonic watering-place. There was, for example, the romantic situation which had so impressed Mrs Delany and her husband, the Dean of Down, in 1744 `at the foot of a range of mountains so high that they are seldom free from clouds, and the water has made a winding channel and falls down a cascade…. On the other bank are hills, fine meadows, winding rivers, and a variety of pretty objects for a country so bare of trees’- in short, a pleasing juxtaposition of the picturesque and the cultivated. Mrs Delany further observed that `this country is famous for the goats’ whey; and at the season for drinking it, which is summer, a great deal of company meet for that purpose and there are little huts built up for their reception, and they have music and balls and cards’ – quite like the amusements provided for the company assembled at later dates in such spas as Buxton, Ballynahinch or Lisdoonvarna.
1830 really marks the start of Newcastle’s development in the nineteenth century for in that year the 3rd Earl decided to emulate Felix Magennis by building a `marine residence’ for himself and his growing family at Newcastle. This was a large two-storey house built of granite on-teeslopes of Slieve Donard and called Donard Lodge. It was designed in the classical style, with a central block to which wings were added. The architect and builder was John Lynn, who also incorporated plans drawn up by Thomas Duff and Thomas Jackson. Donard Lodge had a front elevation consisting of eleven bays, the central bay projecting and containing the hall door, while the garden elevation overlooked the magnificent prospect of Dundrum bay and the distant lighthouse at St John’s point. In 1831 Lynn proposed extensive alterations to the house. He proposed extending the entrance front by enlarging the wings. However, Lord Annesley contented himself by getting Lynn to add a curvilinear conservatory in 1832, one of the earliest examples of its kind in Ireland.’ Donard Lodge was surrounded by an extensive demesne `laid out with great taste and within its limits is a chalybeate spa, to which the public has access’. The grounds were planted with fir and larch, although so recent as to be scarcely perceptible in many places: This was in striking contrast to the mature woods in Lord Roden’s neighbouring demesne at Tollymore, from which the United Irishmen had stolen timber for pikcstaves in the troubled 1790,.
While Donard Lodge was being built, Lord Annesley also began to consider how Newcastle could be developed as a resort. At this time it was only a small village of some 160 houses, much the same size as Glenarm in the Clens of Antrim. The majority Or the houses were simply thatched and whitewashed cottages, but there were also some two storey slated houses. There was a small Methodist meeting-house, -, police barracks for the recently formed Royal Irish Constabulary, a Post Office kept by James Hyland, several shops, some of which, like George Mulligan,, were also public houses, a Hibernian Society School in which the teacher, Miss Martha McKegney, lived, and finally, the cluster of cabins in King Street inhabited by fisherfolk and granite workers. The trade of the port included the export of oats, barley and potatoes of which large quantities were sent to Dublin and Liverpool.
The population of this village in 1831 was only 987, although the parish of Kilcoo, of which Newcastle formed a part, had a population of some 6,000. Kilcoo was a fertile parish, providing its inhabitants with an adequate diet of potatoes, oatmeal and fish. Fuel came from the mountain turbary, supplemented by wreckage and driftwood. Furthermore the Newcastle people supplemented their income by `giving lodgings to visitors during summer for sea bathing‘. The process of transformation began in 1830 when Lord Annesley requested H.M. Coastguard to evacuate the old Mageiuus tower house which they had been using as their headquarters. It was the chief station in a district extending from Strangford to Warrenpoint. The coastguards left and the historic tower house was demolished. In its place an inn was erected. This was the Annesley Arms – a spacious and elegant hotel, designed by Thomas Duff, at an expense of £3,000 which was fitted with superior accommodation, including hot and cold baths. Nearby stood a bath-house, a single story pavilion of granite ashlar. The windows were embellished with exotic Etruscan mouldings but within the establishment the utmost decorum prevailed.