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The Story of Drumalis

It is said that when the rabbis met to decide which books would be chosen as the holy books of the Old Testament one of the tests they applied for holiness was that of “usage” - those that the people regarded as holy through their use were declared canonically to be so.  There is something in the place that is called Drumalis that possesses such a quality.  Drumalis -  a hill above the town of Larne that looks over The Irish Channel; Islandmagee; Larne Lough; MaghermoUrNe; The Scottish Coast; the high lands of Kilwaughter - has been regarded as a special, indeed a blessed, place for as long as we have records about it. 

The written records we possess concern the two substantial buildings that have occupied the site - a monastery in the Middle Ages where the monks of the Premonstratensian order offered rest and refuge to the sick and travellers and the beautiful house that still stands today, built in the 19th century as the family home of the great Presbyterian industrialist and philanthropist, Sir Hugh Smiley and which became, by the middle of the twentieth century, a building once again dedicated to offering refuge - a retreat centre run by the sisters of the Cross and Passion order.  The history of the place seen in its full sweep gives a sense of the transitory nature of its ownership - those who occupy it the custodians who pass it on to those who will write the next chapter of that history.

The first written record of the place comes from a sixteenth century calendar which lists lands “adjoining and belonging to the church of the friars called Clondumalis”.  The name referred in Irish to the meadow or religious house - Cluan; on the round hill - Drum;  with the circular mound of earth or embankment  - Lios. It was an institution too small to appear in the records of the dissolution of the monasteries but is believed to have functioned for three hundred years, a sister house of larger institutions at Glynn and Carrickfergus.  No record comes down to us of day-to-day life in the monastery but stories in the folk tradition of Larne tell of a priest or friar who continued to live on the hill years after the house was closed.  The same oral tradition believes  that the Mc Gillifoile chalice presented to the Parish Priest of Saint Mc Nissi’s in Larne in 1901 by Sir Hugh Smiley, who had bought it at auction in Christie’s in London in 1899, may have originated in the chapel on the hill at the time of the imposition of the penal laws.  The chalice is designed for flight - it unscews in three pieces so that a priest can more easily take it with him in times of persecution - and it is thought that Sir Hugh may have wanted to retrieve a piece of Drumalis history when he bought the piece.

Otherwise, archaeology has failed to find any palpable trace of the small monastic institution. When the bodies of six men were unearthed during the digging of a new road, at one of the gates of Drumalis house in June 1895, it was hoped that these might be the  remains of some of the members of the original Drumalis community.  Further excavation though, found that one of the figures was buried on a horse and in the uniform of an insurgent of 1798 and it is now thought these men fought in one of the local battles of the rebellion at Larne or Donegore before being attacked by militia men and buried where they fell.


Later excavations for the building of the Smiley house in the 1870s were said to have uncovered an old coin known as “St Patrick’s Penny” as well as a “rude stone carving” possibly a sile-na-gig, a figure from a pre-Christian time which was often preserved by monks in an act of interpretation whose meaning is now lost to us. By that time certainly the only hint of the once holy nature of the site were “nine old ash trees, crooked and weather beaten, standing round an oblong hollow in the corner of a field on top of Drumalis.”

Of the long period between the end of the monastery and the building of the Smiley house we know that the place lost the monastic reference in its name - the Cluan or Clon was dropped and it became simply Drumalis.  However it retained its status in the lives of local people. Young people would assemble there to celebrate Bealtaine or May Day and Easter Monday - folk traditions which, with the finding of the sile-na-gig, point to the possibility of even more ancient usage of the hill. Gooseberry; raspberry and currant bushes found growing there in the nineteenth century suggest that it may also have been the site of more humble human habitation which left only its garden as a sign.

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 assembled in Drumalis and then marched through the town to the harbour where guns were brought in from Birmingham on the Clyde Valley and then loaded into cars from all over the north in a spirit almost of carnival.  The ‘Larne gunrunning’ - as it came to be known - had been planned in the drawing room of the house. [Need a little more detail/colour here]

By the middle of the 1920s  it became clear to the ageing dowager Lady Smiley that she would have to sell Drumalis.  None of her children had decided to make their lives in Larne but were settled in Scotland and England.  The Catholic religious order which was to occupy the house eventually, did not do so immediately.  In the Larne of the time, the sale of one of the local ‘big houses’ to an order of Catholic nuns would have been unthinkable and so it was a more protracted process. 

The house was first sold in 1927 to a local developer Mr William Crawford, who had started Ireland’s first ever Electric Light Company.  There was talk that he would build houses on the land but the house was sold again in 1929 to a Mrs Magill, the wife of a local JP, who then resold it within a year to the nuns of the Cross and Passion order - its present owners.

This began a new era in the history of Drumalis and thwarted the wish of a friend of the Smiley’s who had written at the time the house was built:


“  I trust I may be allowed, without offence, to express a hope that the two purposes of the respective buildings which have successively occupied Drumalis Hill  [the early monastery and the 19th century house] may not be incongruously mixed; that the spirit of celibacy may not again settle down on this once conceptually holy, but I trust henceforth socially happy knoll”!

The ‘spirit of celibacy’ would indeed settle down again well in the old house but the arrival of the nuns there on March 19th 1930 was, what their annals describe as, a ‘Red Letter Day’ in its excitement.  Moving in was almost a military operation because of the apparent need of secrecy!  The women were told to be on the veranda of the house for 6pm and to enter the grounds in pairs and at different entry points. One sister tells in a letter how they had taken apart their iron bedsteads that morning before going to the school where they taught, labelling each of the three parts so that they would be able to put them together again that night.  They dined “al fresco” at the school after the children had gone home and then trundled little hand-carts with their bed and bedding up the hill to the big house at dusk.  As they walked up the driveway a limousine, more reminiscent of the previous owners, announced the arrival of  Dr Mageean, bishop of Down and Conor, who had come to oversee their first night in their new home.  But it was after he had left that the fun began as each sister was granted the freedom, for that one night only, of choosing any one of the many grand bedrooms to sleep in, the proper allocation of rooms being left to the following day. The nuns had chosen the feast of their founder as the moving day and the feast is kept special still, commemorating both Mother Joseph and their ‘going up’ to Drumalis.

Like the original owners of Drumalis the new occupants also originated in England, the order having come to Larne in 1906 - their purpose, to teach children and to provide spiritual care to morally vulnerable young women.  This work had grown since their arrival occasioning moves to bigger premises.  The head of the order visited Larne in 1929 and declared Drumalis “designed by heaven” for a Retreat House and so retreat work began almost immediately upon the move into the house. Transformation happened when on June 22nd 1930 , “Fr Mangan gave Benediction at the temporary altar in the Ballroom” and the first retreat for  “thirty ladies” began the following day. One set of house ritual was replaced by another.

It would be easy to romanticise the life of the nuns who ran these early retreats  - now in such beautiful surroundings and in a massive house - the beauty of which was remarked upon repeatedly by its early visitors.  Indeed Dean Crolly, visiting with the bishop in the first autumn of the nun’s residency, expressed his fear that the sisters might “become luxurious”!  He needn’t have worried - it was a life of very hard work.  These were days when religious orders were semi-enclosed, the women gave up the right to see their family for the first years of entry.  An inventory of what they brought with them on that cold March evening, an institutional list which included “eight chipped good glasses” and “two cracked water jugs”  gives a poignant sense of the paucity of their possessions.  They were themselves replacing that  army of gardeners, maids and cooks who had departed with the Smiley household..  One sister, Sr Joan Kirby, who cooked in the house for seventeen years, remembers how in the early days there was neither hot water nor modern sinks, and dishes for hundreds of retreatants had to be washed in cold water.  Jam jars were placed  at the end of long wooden tables in which people put their cutlery to steep. There was no help, no mod-cons and it is a measure of the harshness of the early experience in the house, that the Christmas Day treat of a day spent in a warm room with a roaring fire and warm food is written of as a  novelty in their lives.

To the women coming on the retreats, however,  Drumalis seemed like “something you’d read about in a book” and to go there they needed things they had only ever read about also!  One woman who remembers arriving at Drumalis for the first time in the 1930s is May Brownlee, interviewed at the time of its seventy year celebrations in  the year 2000.  She first heard of the place from a new primary school teacher who told her that it would cost half a crown to go. Even more worrying than this was the list of other accoutrements she was instructed to bring but did not possess  - a towel; a night-dress; soap - all things she had to gather up from her granny and her aunts.  The journey down to Larne by train was itself an adventure.  Her vivid memories of the house itself are of “small nuns in crinoline”; chamber pots under the beds; beautiful candlewick bedspreads; wonderful food  (but the children watching one another to work out the use of knives and forks )...and soldiers - she had arrived just at the beginning of the war.

While both the first World War and the armistice had passed without mention in the convent annals of 1914 to 1918, the second World War impacted directly upon the life of the house.   Gas masks were distributed amongst the inmates of Drumalis on September 1st 1939.   May Brownlee vividly remembers the forty to fifty army tents pitched in the driveway and on the slopes at the front of the house that rolled down to the sea and American soldiers strolling in the grounds.  Dr Mageean, the bishop, handled the negotiation with  the Military over the requisition of parts of the house for Military use.  Details of what was agreed were sent to the Reverend Mother in August 1940.  Major parts of the building were requisitioned including the ladies’ chapel and 

sacristy, confessional and bedrooms while the main avenue, by this time,  was placed out-of-bounds to the military.

Despite this extraordinary  presence, retreats continued throughout the war and military chaplains  often provided the nuns with a daily celebrant for mass in the community chapel.  There were inevitably some minor adjustments in time to accommodate the “black-out” and the traditional Christmas Eve Midnight Mass had to be cancelled for the war’s duration for the same reason. For almost all of the month of May 1941 the sisters were taxied each night to a hotel, about six miles down the coast, for their own safety, following the Belfast Blitz and fears that Larne would be similarly targeted in return raids.

Just before the end of the war a party of twenty Belgian soldiers came for their own retreat called a “Day of Recollection” and said it was the happiest day they had had since joining the army and when the war was finally over the convent joined with people all over Europe in a special day of prayer in reparation for war crimes.

In the post-war years the popularity of retreats grew and a wider range of people began to be catered for in separate retreat groupings  - Woolworth’s Girls; Civil Servants; Telephone Girls;  Nurses;  Legion of Mary;  Chemists and, in the age that was in it, Doctor’s Wives.  It was in response to growing numbers that an extension was added to Drumalis in the late sixties.  Work began in the autumn of 1967 and the new retreat house was opened in the Spring of 1970.  The new building was designed by Neil Shawcross and Ray Carroll and consisted of fifty-five single bedrooms as well as a dining room, library, lounge, servery and a large chapel  with stained-glass windows by Neil Shawcross and stations of the cross by local craftsman John Haugh.  By the end of 1970 three thousand people a year were coming to make retreats in Drumalis.

In all of this there is a sense of the house coming more and more into relation with the rest of the world.  The nuns visited dressmakers in the ‘60s to have their first dresses made instead of habits and the elaborate rituals of daily prayer were simplified.  Most significantly a TV set arrived in 1962 which was not to see the coronation of a Pope and receive a plenary indulgence at the same time but was, for the first time, purely for enjoyment during the Christmas holidays. The same set allowed the nuns the following year to watch the funerals of Ireland’s twin icons - Pope John XXIII and Kennedy.

The mainstay of work in this period continued to be with women from the poorer parishes of West Belfast and when civil unrest broke out in Belfast in 1969 Drumalis became a place of increasing significance for many people affected.  Often in the early years of the Troubles refugees would simply arrive at the door having been burned out of their homes seeking a place of shelter for the night.  One child was brought to Drumalis having been found wandering the Ormeau Road in the middle of a riot - she was picked up by her father the following day.  The night nursery was used for refugee children in 1972 and in 1973 police requested “night protection” for two girls who were also put in its comforting surroundings for their own safety.   This was refuge work resonant with that of the early monks on the same site.

Inevitably retreats were affected and for the first time, at the height of The Troubles, some had simply to be cancelled completely, so dangerous was it for people to try to travel up from Belfast when rioting was at it height.  In the retreats that did happen, people left early to try to arrive home before riots began and as a direct result of the Troubles a major change occurred in retreat format.

Until the 1960s, retreats in Drumalis had been silent - except for prayer and scripture readings during meals.  It was in this period that all that changed, not, as might be thought, for any doctrinal reason but because of something much more visceral and basic - the need of people to speak out of pain.  The nuns working with the women at the time realised that they were bringing too much with them to keep silence - they had to be allowed to speak of their experiences, their terrible losses.  And so the walls of Drumalis heard a new kind of discourse and its accommodation of this was the seed for a new direction into reconciliation and cross-community work of the ’80s and ’90s.

A major change took place in Drumalis in January 1988 with the formation of a new retreat team whose mission was to lead the centre into a new millennium with a new vision and energy.  The team was headed by Sr Margaret Rose McSparran who arrived the following September.  This was an exciting time of change.  The first open day was held in 1989 with over a hundred visitors.  A submission was made to the Opshal report in 1992 with radical suggestions for strategies to reduce religious segregation in Northern Ireland. Retreats began to address issues of Women’s Spirituality and ecology.  In response to the IRA ceasefire of September 1994  an invitation was made to Ministers of the four main churches in Larne to come to a coffee morning in Drumalis - there was no agenda set - the idea was simply to improve relations.  This was the beginning of the inter-church group, the Tuesday Club, which continues to meet and which has been involved in all kinds of local anti-sectarian activity in Larne and in the setting up of the Larne Millennium Initiative -  an inter-church organisation promoting dialogue and co-operation and funded by the Community Relations Council.


In all of the years of change a constant has been continued contact with members of the extended Smiley family.  The first return visit was of the widow of the heir to Drumalis who came in May 1932 and said how sorry the family had been to give the house up.  Grandsons of Sir Hugh and their children, neices and nephews have come more than once to a place which clearly occupies a very special place in their own history - even for those who never actually lived there.  David Smiley wrote after a visit in 1995,  “For all look upon Drumalis as the old family home, even if we have not lived here for generations....As the last living male of my generation and well into the evening of my life, I had always wanted to make the trip to Larne before I died and this last trip has been the acheivement of my ambition”.  This affectionate link continues with a new generation being brought back but it was established very early when, with the death in Scotland of the first Lady Smiley, Elizabeth Kerr, only  five months after the nuns moved into the house, her body was brought back to Larne for burial and a wreath of Drumalis roses was placed on her coffin by her old butler.

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