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August 2nd - Lissan House, Cookstown

Thirty-four members of Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club were taken on a conducted tour of Lissan House, the historic home of the Staples family for over four hundred years. The last of the family to live here was Hazel Radcliffe Dolling, daughter of Sir Robert Staples 13th Baronet. Hazel died in 2006. Many people were impressed by her passion for “ This Golden Place” when she appeared on the BBC 2 Restoration Programme of 2003 in which the house came second in the whole of the UK, a huge achievement. A Charitable Trust of volunteers, set up before Hazel’s death, now run the property and are doing an excellent job in restoration without changing the character of this unique property.

A young Thomas Staples from near Bristol arrived in the small Drapers’ Company village of Moneymore about 1615, no doubt hoping to make fame and fortune which he did in double quick time. By marrying a rich heiress he purchased the lands at Lissan and many other townlands especially at Unagh where there were iron ore deposits. In 1628 King Charles 1st created him a Baronet. Sir Thomas used the oak trees from his estate to smelt the ore in a furnace which was part of the house he built. Weapons and farm tools would have been forged.

The present house and 5 acre walled garden was mainly built by Sir Thomas’ third son Sir Robert, during the 1640’s. The nineteenth century additions were a magnificent ball room for entertaining built in 1830 by Sir Thomas, 9th Baronet and Catherine Lady Staples. The porte-cochère, the amazing staircase and the clock tower were added by Sir Nathaniel, 10th Baronet about 1870/1880.

Looking around the “Arts and Craft” style hall with its gargantuan staircase can be seen many family portraits, some painted by Sir Robert Ponsonby Staples,  “the Barefoot Baronet”. Apart from his eccentricity he was an exceptionally talented artist, a close friend of King Edward 7th and of the Café Royal set.  His work included portraits of every important politician, actor, churchman, and monarch in England. Sir Ponsonby returned to live at Lissan in 1912.

The tour of the house includes the Blue Drawing Room with Catherine Lady Staples’ portrait and its eerie effect on Sir Nathaniel’s portrait! The ballroom has strong connections with the house in Merrion Square Dublin also owned by Sir Thomas QC, 9th Baronet, who was Queen’s Advocate in Ireland. Next comes the library with the Staples family tree on which are some surprises not least of which are the Great Great Grandparents of Clive Staples Lewis.

On the second floor are bedrooms with dressing rooms adapted as kitchens in the 1940’s by the estate manager Harry Dolling in an effort to make some income from letting apartments. The landing is supposed to be the walk of the ghost lady, but Hazel never saw her. Sir Ponsonby’s room and the old bathroom are no longer graphically decorated since Vera Lady Staples, Hazel’s mother, had Sir Ponsonsby’s murals painted over.

Hazel’s life is  featured on an information board, first in her WRNS uniform in WW2, then as Purser on the Cunard liners crossing the Atlantic and finally marrying Harry Dolling who was thirty years her senior.

Finally down the spiral wooden staircase in the clock tower and into the Victorian kitchen with its massive range, stone tiles, dresser and cold room.

So through the history of the Staples family with its family fall-outs over inheritance, daughters married into all the important families in Ireland and Baronets members of the old Irish House of Commons in Dublin, we have a microcosm of Irish social history. Very important also were all the local young men and women who worked the estate and kept the house running. Many were born in the estate cottages and often call at the house to tell their story. One man arrived with the first Thomas in 1615 and his family were the gardeners at Lissan until the 1970’s.

We wish the Charitable Trust every success in their efforts to preserve this historic house as a part of our inheritance.

Patricia Rutherford


Round-leafed Sundew