Declassified files: Mansion gifted to Stormont lest it ‘fall into hands’ of Catholics

Runkerry House is prominently situated on a headland near Portballintrae
Runkerry House is prominently situated on a headland near Portballintrae
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A grand country home was gifted to the Northern Ireland government almost 70 years ago for the explicit reason that the owner feared it could be bought by the Catholic Church if he put it on the open market, a declassified file has revealed.

It was known that Runkerry House, a landmark mansion which can be seen from the beach at Portballintrae, was donated to the unionist-controlled Stormont administration in 1950.

However, the reason for the transfer of ownership does not appear to have been made public at the time.

Among the files which has been declassified under the 20 year rule at the Public Record Office in Belfast is a bulky volume on the property which is set in about 14 acres of gardens and prime coastal land.

The file was created because by the early 1990s the upkeep of the beautiful building had become prohibitively expensive.

The property was being used by Rathegael and Whiteabbey schools as an outdoor pursuits centre for difficult children.

A decision was taken to sell the property and as part of that process a photocopy of the original letter from the owner of the house was made.

The letter from Sir Malclom M Macnaghten, addressed to Sir William Scott, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, was dated March 22, 1950 and sent from his Campden Hill Court address in Kensington.

The Eton and Cambridge-educated former MP and London High Court judge said that after the recent death of his sister he had become entitled under his father’s will to “the large house called Runkerry which he built in 1885 (he was then MP for North Antrim) for the accommodation of himself and his family of 11 children.”

He went on: “It is indeed a large house, occupying an incomparable site with a view of Donegal in the distance, with 20 bedrooms as well as spacious attics for the staff of domestic servants and rooms in the basement for the male servants”, as well as “ample stabling and gardens”.

He said that it had been “most solidly constructed on a most solid foundation with stone from Dungiven in Co Derry”.

He said that he had been a boy at school when it was built for what he thought was £25,000 [£3.25 million today], adding: “Such is the house which I have in my old age inherited”.

He said that for more than 40 years he had a “modest dwelling house at Portballintrae and it is there that I have spent my holidays during all those years” and “neither I nor my wife – we were married in 1899 – have any mind to leave it ... we have therefore no use for Runkerry”.

Sir Malcolm added: “I could no doubt sell it at a price but I am very unwilling to do so lest it, like Portglenone, should fall into the hands of the Roman Catholic Church.

“The house is a prominent feature on the landscape. The district around it is almost wholly Protestant. There is not, I believe, a single R.C. in the parish of Dunseverick and there are very few in the parishes of [unclear] and Dunluce.

“Moreover, our family has been established in north Antrim for more than 300 years and with one notorious exception have been of good repute.”

He went on: “The idea that the house should become a R.C. monastery or convent or seminary is abhorrent to me as it would have been to my father.”

He said he would be “very pleased if our NI Government would accept it as a gift from me”.

He suggested that it could be used as a “home for the aged”, a convalescent home, a secondary school or in relation to tourism.

He added that as well as the house and gardens he was gifting to Stormont “a stretch of land round the headlands from the Bush strand to the Causeway Hotel. The land is ‘private’: [illegible] right of way round that bit of the coast. I think there ought to be a public right of way…”

In the mid 1990s, as moves were made to put the home on the market, Sir Malcolm’s grandson, Sir Patrick Macnaghten, became aware of what was proposed and wanted it back.

In an April 1995 letter, Sir Patrick told the NIO that his grandfather had “made clear that he could have sold the property himself but did not because he could not be sure into whose hands it might fall. But giving the property to the government he felt it would be in safe hands”.

He proposed that it should be returned to his family, saying: “I believe that if the government feels that it cannot retain the property, it should primarily approach the donor or the donor’s successors in title with a view to giving it back, possibly receiving some payment to take account of improvements. Selling Runkerry without doing so takes unfair advantage of our family’s past generosity.”

However, after taking legal advice from Bernard McCloskey – a future High Court judge – secretary of state Sir Patrick Mayhew wrote back to say that the property had to be sold on the open market because there was a legal obligation on the government to obtain the best value for taxpayers.