30 October 2022 News
It’s now 100 years since a devastating fire swept through Antrim Castle, claiming a young woman’s life and damaging the once-magnificent building beyond repair.
The centenary of the 1922 inferno has brought back poignant memories for one man whose father survived the inferno.
John Skeffington, the 14th Viscount Massereene, paid a special visit to his ancestral home on Friday for a Son et Lumiere show marking the demise of the centuries-old structure, the ruins of which were demolished in 1970.
Ethel Gilligan (22), a servant girl, perished as fire swept through the castle in the early hours after a Halloween house party.
But as Lord Massereene (82) recalled, the death toll would have been higher but for the bravery of a guest who helped his forebears escape.
“My father was in the castle when the fire broke out,” said the peer.
“His mother — my grandmother — went to get him from the nursery.
“Flames were coming up through the linoleum and my grandmother actually said: ‘We’re all going to be burnt alive’.
“Luckily, there was a very strong man there who managed to pull them out of the window. If he hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.”
That man, Lt Col Stewart Richardson, a war veteran staying at the castle, saved the lives of Lord Massereene’s grandmother (Jean Barbara Ainsworth) and her children by tying sheets together and lowering them down from the roof of the castle’s chapel.
The fire was believed by some to have been arson, although this was never proved.
A faulty flue or a defect in the heating system was suspected by others.
And the mystery was compounded when it was discovered tanks containing more than 8,000 litres of water on the roof were empty, despite having been filled earlier that day.
Among the treasures lost in the blaze, the most important was the Speaker’s chair of the old Irish House of Commons, which the Massereenes had taken back from the National Museum in Dublin in 1913.
In 1923 a claim was made, and eventually rejected, for £90,000 for malicious damage.
Yorkshire-based Lord Massereene said his father had two abiding memories of it all.
“The first was seeing my father in pyjamas for the first time, which was a cultural shock,” he said. “The other thing was that Colonel Richardson apparently had very large, bushy eyebrows and they’d both been singed off by the fire.”
Lord and Lady Massereene, the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Nora Skeffington, the 12th Viscount Massereene’s older sister, and members of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council took part in a special centenary tour of the gardens led by head ranger Christopher Bryant and local historian Lyndsy Spence.
The tour covered the various personal and political accounts from the people present on that fateful evening, as well as the evolution of Antrim Castle Gardens right up to the present day.
Lord Massereene recalled spending time with his grandfather in the gardens as a young boy, adding that the castle would always have a “vast place” in his heart.
“I used to push my grandfather around in his wheelchair because he had emphysema and wasn’t very mobile,” he explained.
“I spent a lot of my teenage years there.
“I’m very fond of it.”
Lord Massereene said it was “fantastic” to see stones from a sculpture on display “at long last” during his visit.
The stones had been removed from the façade of the building in its final days and locked away for over 50 years.
Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey Stephen Ross said he was really proud of the programme they had crafted to mark the centenary of such an important event in the borough’s history.
“There is no doubt that the events of that tragic evening have shaped where we live today,” he said.
“It’s always worthwhile to take a step back now and then and to reflect on a momentous happening that changed not only Antrim and the borough, but Northern Ireland too.”
Lord Massereene's grandmother