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County Down, Northern Ireland

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Mount Stewart House, Co Down, Northern Ireland.

County Down is the south-eastern of the six counties that make up the region of Northern Ireland. It is 2,448 square km (945 square miles) and is home to 454,000 people or approximately one-third of Northern Ireland's population. The average price of a house in September 2005 in the county was £150,625.

At the northern end it is bounded by the River Lagan as it flows into and through Belfast and then out in to Belfast Lough. To the west lies County Armagh, home of the Catholic and Anglican Churches in Ireland. To the east lies the Irish Sea and County Louth lies to the south, largely across Carlingford Loch.


County Down has the highest peaks in Northern Ireland; both the River Bann and River Lagan, Northern Ireland's two main rivers, rise in the Mourne Mountains. But this is a coastal mountain range and, as Percy French sang in his famous song, south of Newcastle 'the Mountains o' Mourne sweep down to the sea'.

County Down's highest peak, at 850m (2,796ft), is Slieve Donard, which it is possible to climb from the Newcastle beach to the top in the space of a morning. It is named after St Domhangart, a contemporary of St Patrick.

North of the mountains, the plain is covered in one of the best examples of a drumlin landscape in the world. The drumlin fields of Ireland stretch from Down to Mayo. Drumlins are small egg-shaped hillocks left by glacial moraine. They can appear like a basket of eggs, and the result is the interesting network of roads through Down which follow the rise and fall and twists of the drumlins they encounter.

The drumlins also feature in another of Down's great geographic features, Strangford Lough1. At the narrowest crossing point between Strangford and Portaferry, it is only 500m across. Behind this point are 150 square kilometres of shallow salt lough. One third of this area is exposed at low tide, revealing mud flats and some of the alleged 365 islands, water-covered drumlins in the lough.

All the glacial deposits in the plains and the fact that they are in the rain shadow2 of the Antrim Plateau and the Mournes means that the rich soil is ideal for agriculture, with just the right amount of rainfall for a variety of crops. The Ards Peninsula on the seaward coast of Strangford Lough is the market garden of Northern Ireland, producing a wealth of fruit and more fragile vegetables.


The county is full of sites of archaeological interest, from stone circles to hill forts and settlements along the river valleys. The rivers and low-lying plans are resources that have long been utilised by settlers.

Two of Ireland's major ancient tribes are known to have inhabited Down from around 6000BC. The Érainn definitely occupied land that stretched from mid-Down to the Glens of Antrim. Also, the Cruthin3 may well have come from across the sea, inhabiting similar areas and giving their name to the Crown Mound (Áth Cruithean) just to the north of Newry.

The Celts came to Ireland in around 500BC. There is evidence of Celtic hill and ring forts in Down, such as the ring forts at Castle Skreen and Dundrum. Also, their intricate metalworking has been found.

Ptolemy includes Dunum — present-day Downpatrick — in his 130AD list of Irish towns. Bangor has had an Abbey since the early Celtic Christian days and, therefore, appears with Downpatrick on the oldest Mapa Mundi4.

Many of the place names along the coast — Strangford, Carlingford, Bangor — show the Norse influence on coastal Down. The Vikings used bases in Ireland to attack the Britons and thus established some settlements in Ireland. Down has many sheltered bays which made natural harbours for the Vikings to moor up and rest before launching attacks on the west coast of Britain.

The Normans also fortified much of Down to defend their claim to the English crown. There are Norman motte-and-baileys or their remains at Ardkeen, Ballynarry, Ballyroney, Clough and Dromore. Greencastle, overlooking Carlingford Lough, was a stone-built royal castle built in the 1230s, with an eventful history — it was besieged by Edward Bruce, Robert's brother, in 1316. However, it was abandoned in the 17th Century.

Later, there was a large amount of migration across from Scotland, primarily from the group of Scottish Protestants in the agriculturally rich province of Ulster. Ulster-Scots, a derivation of the lowland Scots language5, is still spoken in areas of Down, most especially in the Ards Peninsula, where many street signs are bilingual.

There is a tree trunk in the grounds of Bangor Castle which was a mustering point for men before the march south to the Boyne in 1690 to support William of Orange in his fight against James II.

Saintfield is probably most famous for the battle that took place there in June 1798, between the United Irishmen and the York Fencibles and local yeomanry during the Irish Rebellion.

Craigivad is the home of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum. Part of the museum shows the history of Ulster transport, from animal-drawn carts and carriages through shipbuilding, railways and aeronautics. The other section has transported houses and places of work and worship from both urban and rural settings from a mixture of periods to show how Ulster men and women have lived through the ages.

Principal Towns

Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, lies across the boundary of Counties Down and Antrim and, as it merits an entry of its own, will not be discussed in detail here. However, below are listed the principal towns wholly within County Down, in order of population size.

Bangor6 is the largest town wholly within County Down. This seaside town on the south shore of Belfast Lough was listed as having 52,437 inhabitants in the 1991 census. It sits at the other end from Belfast of the busiest four-lane road in Northern Ireland. This road and the railway carry a large number of commuters to Belfast daily. It is the seat of the North Down Council and is the home town of both the Liberal Democrats' Northern Ireland spokesperson, Lembit Öpik, and former Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble.

About 11km (7 miles) away is Newtownards, the second-biggest town in Down. Newtownards sits at the northern end of Strangford Lough and the skyline is dominated by Scrabo Tower, which was built as a memorial to the 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. The remains of Movilla Abbey, an Augustine monastery, lie on the hills to the north of the town.

On the outskirts of Belfast, about 8km (5 miles) from the city centre, is Dundonald. The name means 'Fort of Domnall' and probably referred to a rath7 built on the Moat Hill, which can still be seen near the centre of the town behind St Elizabeth's Church. Dundonald's motte is one of the largest in Ireland and was enlarged by the Norman fort and castle builder John de Courcy towards the end of the 12th Century.

Newry is the next-largest centre of population and, with Lisburn in County Antrim, became one of Northern Ireland's new cities to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee in 2002. It is in one of the most southern areas of Down and straddles the main Belfast-Dublin road and railway just north of the border.

Next in size is Banbridge, which, as the name suggests, is a bridging point over the River Bann. It grew as a milling town, utilising its greatest asset — the river itself.

The county town is Downpatrick8, which is overlooked by the mound of Down Cathedral whose graveyard contains the tomb of St Patrick; St Columba and St Bridget are also buried in the grounds. It is fairly central to the entire county. It grew as a market town and also houses the county's criminal court.

Other major towns include Holywood, to the east of Belfast; Comber, just south of Newtownards; and Newcastle, which nestles on the shore at the foot of Slieve Donard.

Royal Patronage

James II established the Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders in 1685 and the first Down Royal racecourse was established near Downpatrick. It moved to its current site at the Maze near Lisburn in the early 1700s. William III, on his way to the Battle of Boyne, was informed that the Royal course was not subsidised and so issued a racing prize of £100 annually, known as the King's Plate. George II issued a similar amount for a Royal Plate in 1750.

The Royal County Down Golf Course is a magnificent and testing links course which lies on the shore of Dundrum Bay. It has two courses: the Championship, which was designed in 1889 by Tom Morris; and the Annesley. The famous golfer Tom Watson has said of the course, 'It is a tremendous test of golf and the outward half especially is as fine a nine holes as I have ever played.'

County Down is the only county in Ireland to boast two Royal Golf Courses, the other being Royal Belfast at Craigivad, Holywood. The present course was designed by Harry Colt in 1925 and is one of the finest parkland courses in Ireland. The Royal Patronage was first bestowed by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, in 1885. Prince Andrew is the current Royal Patron.

Bangor's former promenade, Queen's Parade, which now fronts the marina, was named in honour of the visit of Queen Victoria.

Hillsborough Castle, the monarch's official residence in Northern Ireland, is also situated in County Down, although the day-to-day occupant is the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It is not a true castle but an 18th-Century Georgian mansion.

Prince Andrew, Queen Elizabeth's second son, was created Baron Killyleagh at the time of his marriage in 1986. Killyleagh9 lies on the shores of Strangford Lough.

Famous People from County Down

David Trimble, former leader of the Ulster Unionists and Nobel Prize winner, comes from Bangor, as do Lembit Öpik, the Liberal Democrats' Northern Irish spokesperson, and Zóe Salmon10, Blue Peter presenter.

The racing driver Eddie Irvine comes from the village of Conlig, just to the south of Bangor. Viscount William James Pirrie, who replaced Edward Harland as Chairman of Harland and Wolff, was also raised in Conlig. Had he not become ill, he would have been on the Titanic's maiden voyage.

Captain Crozier, who attempted in vain to lead Sir John Franklin's doomed crews to safety following Franklin's ill-fated mission to discover the Northwest Passage, was born in Banbridge.

Patrick Brontë, the father of writers Charlotte, Emily and Anne, was born at Emdale, between Banbridge and Rathriland. The writer Seamus O'Neill was born in Castlewellen in 1910.

Pat Jennings, Northern Ireland's most capped international footballer, was born in Newry. He made his international debut as goalkeeper on the same day as George Best.

SAS hero Robert Blair 'Paddy' Mayne was born in Newtownards.

Harry Ferguson,, one of the pioneers of the tractor who patented the tractor and plough as one unit, was born in Dromore.

Places of Interest

There are three National Trust properties in Down:

Mount Stewart sits on the east shore of Strangford Lough, near Greyabbey. The 18th Century mansion is set in 98 acres of gardens. It is the home to the family of the Marquess of Londonderry. The bedrooms in the house reflect the family's travels and are named after European cities.

The gardens contain a large collection of rare and unusual plants, as well as many stunning vistas. The sunken garden is a glow of yellow and orange when the azaleas are in bloom. In late spring, scarlet blooms form the Red Hand of Ulster in the Shamrock Garden. Later in the year, the Italian Garden's symmetrical beds come alive with roses and herbaceous planting.

Rowallane Gardens near Saintfield has many exotic species, much of the gardens making the most of the natural landscaping. There is an impressive rock garden with primulas, alpines and heathers. The walled garden has mixed borders and houses the Royal Horticultural Society's National Collection of Penstemons. There are also majestic azaleas and rhododendrons as well as some areas given over to wildflower meadows.

Castle Ward near Strangford, like Mount Stewart, is an 18th Century Mansion built in 1760. It has one Classical and one Gothic facade because Bernard Ward11, 1st Viscount Bangor, and wife Lady Anne Bligh, daughter of the 1st Earl of Darnley, could not agree on a style for their new home. Set in 700 acres it offers spendid views over Strangford Lough.

The current Castle is actually the third property on the site; the first, a fortified tower house, was built soon after the Ward family arrived in area around 1570. The Tower House can still be seen in the grounds today. In 1710, Bernard's father Judge Michael Ward replaced this with a new mansion to the northwest. The house no longer stands, but the formal landscaping — most notably the Temple Water — show the location.

Other Places of Interest

  • The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Craigivad
  • Down Cathedral, Downpatrick
  • Down County Museum, Downpatrick (just down the hill from the cathedral)
  • Saul, first Church of St Patrick, near Downpatrick
  • The Mountains of Mourne, South Down
  • Castle Espie Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre, Strangford Lough, South of Comber
  • Exploris and Aquarium, Portaferry
  • North Down Heritage Centre, Bangor Castle, Bangor

The h2g2 Guide to the British Isles

Explore other counties in Northern Ireland.

1The name 'Strangford' is Norse and means 'strong inlet'. It is so called because of the strength of the tidal current caused by the narrow entrance to the lough.2An area in the lee of mountains which has less rain and cloud cover.3A Gaelic version of the word 'Briton'.4Mapa Mundi is Latin for 'map of the world'. The earliest such map centres on Jerusalem, shows the centres of Chritianity across Europe and the silk road to China and has no America or Australia.5Scots and Ulster-Scots are directly related to neither Gaelic or English, although there is obviously some crossover.6'Beannchar' in Irish.7A rath is a circular ring mound, the remains of an Iron Age fortification.8'Dún Phádraig' in Irish.9Cill Ó Laoch in Irish.101999's Miss Northern Ireland, who beat 2005 Big Brother Contestant Orlaith McAllister into second.11One of the descendents of this family is Lalla Ward, who played Romana II one of Tom Baker's Doctor Who assistants.

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