[Extracts from the Rathfriland and Hilltown list by P J Rankin, published by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society in 1979.]
Hugh Magennls was living 'very cyvillle and Englishe-like in
his house' at Rathfriland ln the later 16th century, a tower house
of which nothing but part of the base remains. But the town itself
was not founded until soon after the Restoration, when in acknowledgement
of his services in the parliamentary wars, Charles II granted
the whole of the extensive manor to Alderman Richard Hawkins of
London. The town and manor passed in course of time to Miss Theodosia
Magill, first Countess of Clanwilliam, and from her to her son
General Robert Meade. The Meade family are still the town's landlords.
The Hawkins family had a house and demesne at Lissize, just outside
the town to the north-west. This presumably fell into disuse following
their marriage with the Magills of Gill Hall. in the early 1700s.
Early- and mid-19th century guide books refer to the nearly-obliterated remains of the old Magennis castle at the summit of the hill, close to where the water tower stands today. But after the 1641 Rising the castle was dismantled and the inn and other chief houses built with its materials. A 'Scheme for the Improvement of the Estate and Town of Rathfriland', prepared by Henry Waring in March 1764, recommended that all proper methods be taken to promote and encourage the linen market; that a market house be immediately built; that renewable leases for lives be made of the tenements, then ruinous. In contrast to Banbridge and Tandragee, turbary was contiguous and plentiful: this would affect the rents at which property would let, and Miss Magill could fix each rent as appropriate. Probably as a result, a market house was built, but still in 1846 there was apparently but little trade in the town.
In earlier times known as Insula Magennis, on 'the steep acclivities' of its little hill 'rising out of the surrounding bog' like a small medieval city, the town has caught the imagination oi succeeding generations. R.L. Praeger, Lady Mabel Annesley, Richard Rowley have all known its spell: 'it seemed to be always in sunshine'. Helen Waddell, writing of Ballygowan over the hill, caught exactly the exciting quality of this part of Down: 'in the summer afternoons my bachelor uncle, as crusted as one of his apple trees, limped about the fields in the dusk, with the moon hanging over the Mournes, and said there wasn't a place like it in the country'. And why should the Union Jack floating from the tower of the church, now as when Lady Mabel Annesley lived under the shadow of the hill, seem a happy and not a provocative thing?
The plan of the town is simple, consisting of a square of streets crowning the hill, and five streets which fall away steeply on all sides to the patchwork of lush greens, mountains and distances beyond. Light and airy, most of the stucco is painted in fresh clear colours, and behind the street frontages one is constantly aware, through archways and entries, of the wealth of good rubble-stone backs of buildings, tanneries, stores and warehouses.
Few buildings are individually of the highest quality, but it is a case of the effect of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Brash intrusions have so far been kept at bay in Church Square, Main Street, Downpatrick Street and Caddell Street, at least since the building of the Northern Bank, and it is to be hoped that the place will not succumb now. And thankfully too, 20th-century commercial pressures have not as yet resulted in the town sprawling endlessly down the hills to the farmlands around.
Several of the shops and premises in the centre are empty. One hopes that lifting of the security restrictions will bring further life, and that modernisation and updating will respect the hitherto largely-unspoiled inherited architectural character. The appearance of the town is nevertheless spoiled at many places, Church Square, Newry Street, John Street to name a few, by most unsightly electricity poles and gather-ups of the neighbourhood's wires. A small thing which gives pleasure while walking around - the little oval convex enamelled street numbers still on many of the house and shop doors.
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The whole square is of group value; its constituent parts vary
in architectural quality, but the form and appearance of each
part is important. In the centre is the Market House, a handsome
mid-Georgian block. The lower part, according to Lewis, was appropriated
to the use of the market, the upper part had accommodation for
holding courts. The centre three-bay portion appears to date from
about 1770, the single-bay estension at either end from 1949-51,
designed by Major Reside of Rostrevor. Upper windows all Georgian
glazed, four-panes wide plus narrow side panels. Some ground-floor
arches are blank, others have windows - some regrettably with
1950s type horizontally-paned casement windows - but one old Georgian-glazed
window remains. Gabled roof. Roughcast, alternating quoins round
arches and at corners, those of the 1949-51 extension being of
cement. Carved stone on south wall, depicting an eagle and inscribed
'JWM 1951'. North wall has upstairs three bays of paired windows
with narrow side panels; south wall is two-bay. In 1860 the arches
at the southern end were still open, as was that at the north
end on the west side.
Also in the Square is the War Memorial, commemorating both World Wars: an obelisk of granite blocks, but not particularly inspired. In the corresponding position at the north end of the Square stood a pump. The market is still held in the Square every week, and dues paid to the Meade family. A house at the corner of Church Square and Newry Street, perhaps entry no. 28 above, 3 Newry Street, may have been used by Theodosia Magill, the house at Lissize having been given up earlier in the century: certainly this same house in the town was later used by Crane Brush, when agent to the estate. The local Hell Fire Club is also reputed to have used it.
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