Bellaghy Bawn, operated by the Northern Irish Environmental Agency, is a 17th-century fortified house and bawn with exhibits on local and natural history, the history of the Ulster Plantation and the poetry of Seamus Heaney. The Bawn as constructed by the English in Ulster was a defended courtyard with walls usually built of stone, but sometimes of brick, clay, timber and sod.
The word "Bawn" is derived from two Gaelic words; "Ba", Irish for cow (or cattle) and "Dhun", meaning "fort", translating roughly into "cow-fort" or "cattle-fort". So the anglicized form of "badhun", was "Bawn".' The Bawn as constructed by the English in Ulster was a defended courtyard with walls usually built of stone, but sometimes of brick, clay, timber and sod. They protected the house, the family, and property of the plantation's principal landlord. The house could be free-standing in the center of the bawn or, as was the case at residences built by the Vintners' Company at Bellaghy and by the Salters' Company in Magherafelt and Salterstown, positioned up against one of the peripheral walls.
These walls usually met at small corner flankers, from which the entries to the complex could be adequately monitored and if necessary defended from the 'wild Irish,' who ... preferred to 'live like beastes, voide of lawe and all good order,' being 'more uncivill, more uncleanly, more barbarious and more bruttish in their customs and demeanures, then in any other part of the world that is known.'"
The Bawn at Bellaghy was started circa 1614 by John Rowley on part of the lands granted to the Vintners Company of London as part of the 'Plantation of Londonderry'. Rowley died quite soon after beginning the project in 1617. In order to keep things moving, the Vintners Company relocated another agent, Baptist Jones, from his previous duty of building Salterstown.
Some accounts have it that he was about to be dismissed from that project anyway for being far too slow. Baptist Jones died six years later in 1623 in debt to the Vintners Company. This time the company appointed a new agent called Henry Conway to take over Jones' affairs. He certainly did that, including marrying Jones' widow and taking over his debts to the company! Conway obtained a new lease for Bellaghy in 1625.
Square in plan, its south-eastern corner is fortified by a stout, rounded flanker tower showing an early use of local red-brick, placed above a stone footing. Excavation has recovered traces of a similar tower at the diagonally opposite corner, and the south end of the west wall was protected by a square tower (picture below). There was a raised platform along the southern part of the west wall, and excavation has uncovered traces of an original house against the west wall north of this platform. In 1622, Sir Thomas Phillips and Richard Hadsor carried out a survey of the Londonderry settlements.
This is from the survey 'Upon this Proporcon, (Standing on a high ground, about half a mile from Loughbegg and ye river of the Bann, and 18 mile from Coleraine) there is a Manner house of lyme and brick 60 foot long, 27 foot broad, 2 stories high, tyled, with a round flacnker, 30 foot broad 2 stories high, with a parapit and foot pace, leaded; and one house of brick opposite to the Former 54 foot long, 26 foot broad, one storie high with the like round Flancker; There is also a Brick Wall, 14 foot high coped with vent, and Crest, with a Rampier of earth 6 foor thick, faced with stone, which wall together with the said houses and Flanckers doe make a court, or Bawne, 100 foot square paved, which Comands the Towne adjoyning thereunto, called Vintners Towne, consisting of 15 Cagework houses, 5 whereof are 41 foot long, 21 foot broad, 2 stories high; 4 houses of 26 foot long, 18 foot broad, one storie and a halfe high; One house of 31 foot long, 17 foot broad, one storey, and a halfe high, and one smale house of 18 foot long, 12 foot broad, one storie high, boarded tyled, and shingled, whereof some are not yet fully finnished; Inhabited with Brittish and 4 smale thatched houses, and 10 Cabbons, Inhabited by poore Brittish people, with a Church newlie built, 65 foot long, 30 foot broad, 15 foot square, shingled, with a Churchyard, 120 foot square inclosed with Sawn Rayles, and Posts; There is also a good Mill house, and 2 Mills therein In which Mannor house the said Sir Baptist Jones, his wife and family inhabites.'
The Original Bawn was virtually destroyed in the 1641 rebellion when the greater part of Bellaghy was burnt to the ground. During the seige Henry Conway brought all his local paying settlers/residents of the Bellaghy village inside the Bawn walls to protect them from the Irish who were rampaging. A local division of Irish troops led by Peter O'Hagan arrived at the gates to take the Bawn by force. Conway went outside to negotiate with the troops and instead made a personal deal with O'Hagan, ensuring a safe escape for himself and his family. Conway was never seen again. He left the local residents to their own devices against the Irish onslaught. The Bawn was subsequently rebuilt in 1643. A completely new house was built in its place around 1791. One of the original flanker towers still remains today. The Bawn and surrounding buildings are whitewashed today and only a little of the original red-brick construction remains visible such as on a small defence tower.
A recent reconstruction of the Bawn under the guidance of Bellaghy Development Association and the Department of the Environment of Northern Ireland is hoping to generate some tourist revenue to the village as well as serve as a focal point for cultural/education activities. Guided tours include a special film by Seamus Heaney while the history and environment of the area are uniquely interpreted through associations with Heaney's poetry. There is a library in the Bawn which is devoted to Seamus Heaney and his work. It contains unique material from the poet together with many of his manuscripts, books and all his broadcasts and television work. Even his old schoolbag is there from his days at Anahorish Primary School.
The modern day Bawn features a beautiful circular carpet in the upper floor of the flanker tower. The carpet has been specially created with the points of the compass and is correctly aligned to the north, south, east and west. Some residents of Bellaghy will tell you that it is at the very centre of Northern Ireland and thus the carpet points outwards to the four corners of Ulster. The truth of this notion is rather debatable and results of course vary by many miles depending on the method of measurement used.
Wheelchair access is somewhat limited. Unaccompanied children under 16 are not admitted. There are toilet facilities on site. There is parking available. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Bellaghy Bawn, Castle Street, Bellaghy, County Londonderry BT45 8LA
Transport: Cullybackey (NI Rail) then bus. Bus Routes : 110b and 127 stop near by
Opening Times : Wednesday to Sunday 10:00 to 17:00
Tickets : Free.
Tel: 028 7938 6812