NI prime minister jumped off just before his horse bolted across the Irish border

Viscount Brookeborough with a stately home flower arrangement. Picture: John McVitty
Viscount Brookeborough with a stately home flower arrangement. Picture: John McVitty

The entire world was watching and waiting when US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un held their historic summit in Singapore this week, though nowadays major state visits and meetings between world leaders can often make front page news around the globe.

And the amount of planning and organising that goes into a high-level rendezvous or foreign visit like the Trump-Kim meeting is awesome, though they can occasionally be more impromptu, or indeed completely unplanned.

A story has often been told around Co Fermanagh about the 1st Viscount Brookeborough, politician, farmer and distinguished army officer.

Back in the early 1960s, when he was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, he was riding his horse from Brookeborough village, where he lived on his grand country estate.

He loved the outdoors and was an experienced rider (he also enjoyed shooting, fishing and golf) but suddenly his horse bolted off towards the border with the Republic of Ireland.

It probably wouldn’t have become an international incident, but a Northern Ireland Prime Minister, turning up unannounced in the south of Ireland in those days, would certainly have attracted more than a little local interest, and probably would have needed some official explanation.

Colebrooke House

Colebrooke House

But Lord Brookeborough managed to jump off before reaching the border, though his horse galloped onwards into the Republic, losing one of its horseshoes in the process.

A local man from Brookeborough ran after the horse and brought it, and its missing shoe, back to Lord Brookeborough, who gave him half a crown.

The man apparently framed the horse shoe, and his Lordship’s half crown, and hung them proudly in his house for posterity.

I wonder where the artefacts of that early, unplanned and unsuccessful cross-border initiative are today.

Colebrooke House's beautiful water garden

Colebrooke House's beautiful water garden

Perhaps they’re in Colebrooke House, the ancestral home of the Brooke family, a beautifully restored and majestic Georgian property that’s packed with history.

The eminent Brooke family have owned lands in Fermanagh since Elizabethan times, when Captain Thomas Brooke was granted almost 30,000 acres as a reward for his part in quelling insurrection during the 1641 rebellion.

The original house was built sometime between then and 1700 and was named after Thomas Brooke and his wife Catherine Cole.

‘Stately Home Flower Arrangements’ is the apt theme for a flower festival in Colebrooke House this weekend.

A corner of the Colebrook House Gardens

A corner of the Colebrook House Gardens

I’m told that the finishing touches are being put to preparations for this special event, which will afford a rare opportunity for the public to have access to this magnificent Georgian country mansion. 

Viscount and Viscountess Brookeborough are extending a welcome to the public this Saturday and Sunday to come along and see the house and gardens, a charitable venture hosted by them and the Colebrooke Group of Parishes.

The proceeds will be in aid of Cancer Connect NI and the Colebrooke Group of Parishes.

Lord and Lady Brookeborough moved into Colebrooke House back in 1980 and embarked on a major refurbishment programme at the property which had been empty from 1973.

“It was a shell,” explained Lord Brookeborough, who recalls that he and Lady Brookeborough, “decided to live in it and do it up slowly.”

Lady Brookeborough has skilfully recreated the style and grandeur of the past with family portraits, original Victorian wallpaper, 18th Century porcelain and fine furniture that used to decorate the grand rooms.

They finished the work in 2000 after spending 20 years on the restoration project at the historic property, which operates as a private guest house, with a spa, outdoor sports and conference facilities.

Affording a rare opportunity to visitors, the Flower Festival will give the public access to the carefully restored house.

Colourful floral creations will be on display in the spacious entrance hall and in the splendid reception rooms on the ground floor.

The well-known local flower arranger Timothy Elliott will create all the flower arrangements in conjunction with Lady Brookeborough, and as Lord Brookeborough pointed out “stately home flower arrangements will be the main theme”.

Due to Colebrooke House’s family history, the Flower Festival will allow people to see inside what is regarded as one of the most important houses in Northern Ireland.

It was the home of Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke and Sir Basil Brooke, later 1st Viscount Brookeborough, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland between 1943 to 1963.

He was the grandfather of the current Lord Brookeborough, 3rd Viscount Brookeborough, who came into the house seven years after his grandfather died.

The oldest part of the house was built after 1641, with the front of the house and the large rooms added in 1824.

The historic gardens will also be open over the weekend and visitors will be able to see and savour the sunken garden which was created in 1920 by the current Lord Brookeborough’s grandmother, Lady Cynthia.

There’s also a delightful, and again historic, walled garden.

Standing on the banks of the Colebrooke River, there are long riverside and shrub-garden walks, with purpose-built ‘hides’ for watching the abundant wildlife which includes deer, otters, mink, buzzards, kingfishers and many others.

During this special weekend at Colebrooke, the first of its kind in a decade, people can also visit the church, where teas are available in the church hall, situated on the route out of the estate on the main road.

The flower festival at Colebrooke House takes place tomorrow Saturday, June 16th and Sunday, June 17th from 10am to 8pm.