Wholeschool Portal | Home 22 October 2018

The homes of the first of the Smiley family who came to Ulster as labourers from Lanarkshire in the seventeenth century and settled at Larne and Inver in 1720 would have been such dwellings.  By 1824 John Smiley was a clockmaker and by 1872  Hugh Smiley was in a position to acquire the site of Drumalis hill and commence building a house there. It was his marriage to Elizabeth Kerr of Gaillowhill, Paisley in 1874  however, which provided the much more substantial wealth that would enlarge the  house to its present size and make it the beautiful home it would become. As only child and heir to a fortune from the manufacture of sewing thread, Elizabeth’s connection to her parents and to Scotland was to remain strong and to be written into the fabric of the house itself, most notably in the work of Glasgow designer George Walton who was commissioned to work on its interior.


Unlike the lives of the previous inhabitants of the hill, in this case the plans of the house themselves speak to us of a vanished lifestyle  - at once daunting in its scale but also touchingly domestic in its detail.  There was a photo-room; a milk room; a menservants’ bedroom; a morning room; a boot hall; a butler’s pantry with a safe; a billiard room; a tennis room and elegant bedrooms romantically named after the Scottish islands - Ailsa, Jura and Islay. Still extant is the little night nursery with its tiny stove for warming children’s milk - its pretty blue and white delft tiles retell the stories of Aesop’s fables and must have formed part of the images of childhood for many Smiley babies.  Also visible today are some examples of Victorian plumbing including an early-day version of a jacuzzi for Lady Smiley’s use - formidable in its construction..

But perhaps most striking still is the work of George Walton.  Walton (1867 - 1833) was a Glasgow contemporary of the now hugely popular Charles Rennie Mackintosh and he produced the detail of the house -  it is said that no two doorhandles in Drumalis are exactly the same.  Its gorgeous red and green stained glass inscribes the linkage of Scotland and Ireland in the Kerr/Smiley marriage in lines of poetry written in the windows and images of the red hand of Ulster and the thistles of Scotland.  There is scholarly interest in the house as the most complete “company job” undertaken in Walton’s early period and because the little wooden fitted cabinet in one of the front sitting rooms of Drumalis, with its secret drawers, is the only surviving piece of furniture attributable to Walton from before 1896 which can be confidently dated.

This then, was a grand family home which was bound by the strictures of the social divisions of the time, especially after Hugh Smiley was elevated to the peerage in 1903 as a baronet.  A granddaughter of the house remembers her mother telling her how children were generally not given access to the dining room and how she, on one special occasion when she was admitted, had broken the rules of etiquette.  A footman, familiar to the child from other parts of the house and grounds, asked if she would like more vegetables and she replied, “Thank-you, dear James” and was reprimanded soundly for being over-familiar with a serving man! James would have been one of a veritable army of staff who ran the house inside and out and maintained its magnificent grounds and walled gardens supplying flowers, herbs and vegetables to the table.

By the time of Sir Hugh Smiley’s death in March 1909 it is clear that both house and family occupied a central place in the life of Larne - both as employers and through the benevolence and philanthropy of the family, who had by then built and endowed a cottage hospital in the town and much more.

The day of Sir Hugh’s death was a day of theatre in Larne.  The blinds of Drumalis were closely drawn, as were those on all the shops and businesses of the town.  Almost all the inhabitants lined the streets joined by a great list of dignitaries drawn from political, religious and social life in the North of Ireland and especially from the Presbyterian Church, of which Sir Hugh had been a stalwart member. A special train was laid on from Belfast to bring the mourners, the hearse was drawn by four black horses with silver mounted harness and the principal family wreath was in the shape of an Irish harp composed of Irish violets, orchids and lily of the valley.  Such detail gives us a sense of the wealth and position occupied by the Smiley family at this time.

Larne was to know another day of street theatre which Sir Hugh did not live to see but which would feature his beloved Drumalis House. On April 29th 1914 the entire Larne Battalion of the Central Antrim Regiment of the Ulster Volunteer Force