Hillsborough Castle | Attraction Guides | History Hit

Hillsborough Castle

County Down, Northern Ireland

Sarah Roller

22 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Colin Majury / Shutterstock

About Hillsborough Castle

Hillsborough Castle is a Georgian country house and former royal residence in County Down, Northern Ireland.

History of Hillsborough Castle

Hillsborough Castle is not in fact a castle: it’s a stately home, built in 1797 for Wills Hill, 1st Marquess of Downshire. Most of what you see today dates from the 1830s and 40s, when an extensive remodelling took place. The Hills were big entertainers, hosting lavish parties for up to 3,500 guests.

The family began to use the house less and less, preferring their estate in England, and so it was rented out in 1909, before being sold to the British government in 1925, for around £24,000. They were to use it as the residence for the Governor of Northern Ireland. After some renovations and renaming the property to Government House, the first governor (the Duke of Abercorn) moved in. In total, 5 governors lived in the house between 1925 and 1972.

The Royal Family also visited Hillsborough Castle on trips to Northern Ireland, beginning in 1933 with the visit of Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone. The Queen and Prince Philip also stayed at Hillsborough Castle on the evening of the Queen’s Coronation banquet in July 1953. 

In more recent years, Hillsborough Castle hosted Peace Talks in the 1990s, hosted Tony Blair and George Bush in 2003, and saw the meeting of the Queen and President Mary McAleese – the first time the British monarch had met an Irish Head of State since independence.

Hillsborough Castle today

In 2014, Hillsborough Castle passed into the care of Historic Royal Palaces, a UK charity which manages unoccupied royal residences. The interior of the castle is accessible by guided tour only: it’s worth booking ahead online if you want a particular time.

The gardens are particularly lovely: covering over 100 acres, they meander through formal Walled Gardens, glens, a lake and pinetum, and the 19th century Lady Alice’s Temple. Allow at least half a day to explore the house and gardens fully. There’s also a great café on site.

Getting to Hillsborough Castle

Hillsborough is about 12 miles south of Belfast: take the M1 out of town, and turn off onto the A1 (southbound) at Junction 7. Brown signs will direct you to Hillsborough’s free car park. If you’re coming via public transport, route 238 (Belfast-Newry) runs through Hillsborough Village regularly. The nearest train station is Lisburn, 5 miles away: you’ll need to catch bus 38 to get you to Hillsborough.

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