THERE’S something missing in Richhill. For 77 years the gates to Richhill Castle have hung not where many people think they should be in the village, but at Hillsborough Castle, where the Secretary of State lives and the Queen has her official residence.
Forget Watergate. This is Gatesgate.
It’s thought the gates date from 1745 when they were bought by the castle’s original owner, William Richardson, on his way home from a trip to Italy with his wife Dorothea. Tradition says they were wrought by brothers named Thornberry, blacksmiths from Falmouth, who settled in County Armagh. At the top of the gates is the Richardson crest. In fact, the Richardsons gave Richhill its name – it was, at one stage, Richardson’s Hill, later shortened to Richhill, which has two ‘h’s, of course, as many people infuriatingly forget!
The gates remained at the castle until 1936, when the castle was in the possession of the state. The gates were declared an ancient monument and for their alleged ‘better preservation’ by the Ministry of Finance for Northern Ireland hung at Hillsborough Castle.
The woman who lit the fire in my belly is Audrey Henderson, my primary two teacher at Hardy Memorial Primary School, who brought my class to the castle and told us of the treachery of the gate theft. Like so much of her inspirational teaching, it was educational, fun and stayed with us.
“The gates of the castle and the railings were actually here for almost 200 years,” says Audrey, “and when the Government officers arrived to remove the gates in 1936 the residents of the village objected and they wouldn’t let them. So they had to leave empty handed. But what the children loved to hear was that they came back in the middle of the night, and that’s when the gates were taken.”
Dr Alan Turtle and Clive Gordon from Richhill Buildings Preservations Trust told me of ambitious plans to redevelop the village and restore the castle and put it into community use.
Peter Lyness, the landlord of Grouchos in Richhill Square, showed me around the castle, which he knows well. He thinks the gates should come back, but not yet.
“I think it would be a liability for us to have them at the moment,” he said, “but I think when the building is fully restored I think the gates should be returned.”
In Hillsborough, local historian Simon Walker spoke to me. “These gates have become to the residents of Hillsborough part of the village,” he said. “You’re never going to hear a Hillsborough person say they should be removed.”
If all the plans go ahead and Richhill Castle is restored to its former glory, surely the time will come very soon when we have a castle worthy of the gates. I’m proud to be from Richhill and I always will be, but I’d be even prouder if Hillsborough did the decent thing and gave us back our gates.
Peter’s report will be on The Magazine on UTV on Sunday night at 7.30pm.