When Bangor Historical Society’s March meeting was held at the Somme Heritage Centre, members were given an invitation to see Craigavon House in East Belfast. Carol Walker, Director of the Somme Association, was our guide for the visit on 17 April 2014.

Craigavon House was the home of Sir James Craig who was prominent in the Unionist fight against Home Rule and later first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. The main house was constructed in 1870 for his father, also called James Craig, and an extension was added in 1880. The architect was Thomas Jackson. The money for the house came from the family business, Dunville’s Distillery, and no expense was spared. Italian craftsmen were employed.

The family lived here during the Home Rule Crisis 1912-14. Meetings were held in the house and grounds. Edward Carson, the Unionist leader, stayed here regularly as he had no house in the North of Ireland. In 1915, during the First World War, Craig offered the house to a trust for Ulster Volunteer Force soldiers. The first patients were admitted in July 1917.

It continued as the UVF hospital until the late 1980s when it was bought by the Somme Association. Meanwhile the Somme Nursing Home was built in the grounds. The Somme Association used it as their headquarters, but later moved to the Somme Heritage Centre. The house is listed, but in need of repair. It is to be hoped that eventually money may be found to restore the house and enable it to be used again.

We were privileged to have a tour of some of the rooms on the ground floor as the building is not open to the public. We first saw the loggia where Lady Craigavon kept plants. The floor is the same as that of the Ulster Reform Club where Italian craftsmen were also employed.

The loggia leads to the Billiard room which was once a large drawing room. One of the main features is the stained glass windows depicting such figures as Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Mozart. It was here that the first provisional government of Northern Ireland met. When the hospital occupied the house this was used as a day room for patients. We were then taken to the entrance hall where we saw the main staircase and rooms leading off it. The gun running of 1914 was orchestrated from one of these rooms.

Among the features which we were not able to see was the family wine cellar which was used as a morgue by the hospital. The kitchens lay at the back of the house. There was also a nursery with a nanny’s room for the Craig children.