The house and its smaller neighbours at nos.2 and 4 College Green were designed in 1870 by James McKinnon for a merchant called Archibald McCollum. It is not clear whether McCollum ever lived here, but by 1880 the house had become a Church of Ireland Collegiate School (traces of the school name can still be seen over one of the corner windows).
In 1890 the house was occupied as a private residence once more, by John MacCormac, physician to the Belfast Institution for Nervous Diseases Paralysis and Epilepsy, and in 1891 it was acquired by John McConnell, managing director of Messrs Dunville & Co, whiskey distillers, who lived there until his death in 1928.
McConnell was a JP and a freemason, and a friend of James Craig, first prime minister of Northern Ireland (whose father owned Dunville’s). He had a car that was kept in the former coach house, and employed a chauffeur to drive it. His five children were brought up at College Green House, and most of them developed liberal views that must have shocked their establishment father. Notable amongst them was his youngest daughter Mabel, who became a suffragette and a committee member of the Gaelic League. For a while after she graduated from Queen’s University she was a secretary to George Bernard Shaw and to George Moore, but then she met and eloped with Desmond FitzGerald, a young English poet of Irish extraction. Although he continued his literary interests, being an acquaintance of Ezra Pound and T S Eliot, FitzGerald became heavily involved with the Irish Volunteers in Kerry in 1913. It is recorded that Mabel and Desmond spent Christmas 1913 at College Green House, before having tea with James Connolly after a republican meeting. The couple also met with Roger Casement on this Belfast visit before going back to Kerry, where Desmond organised and drilled volunteers. He went on to fight in the Easter Rising of 1916 and to become a Minister in the Irish Free State government that ensued.
College Green House must therefore have hosted gatherings of very different political persuasions over the years, particularly as the first Northern Ireland Parliament met in the Assembly College which the house overlooks and it is not unlikely that McConnell would have been visited by his old friend James Craig at the end of the day for tea or billiards. Mabel’s fourth son, Garret, must have absorbed some of this political atmosphere as he went on to become a Taoiseach aware of his Belfast roots as well as his Dublin ones. We are indebted to him for the magnificent photograph of the house as it was about 1890 when his grandfather went to live there.
On McConnell’s death the house passed to new owners, who unfortunately subdivided the house very crudely into flats in 1934. The early occupants of the flats were genteel, including spinsters, academics and at least one man of the cloth. In the 1950s they acquired an artistic neighbour, a civil servant by the name of Alfred Armentières Kitchener Arnold, who hosted many of the local artists of his day from visiting actors and dancers to artists like George McCann and Dan O’Neill and writers like Louis MacNeice. Arnold was a keen amateur actor himself, and when he later retired to the island of Gozo near Malta he is reputed to have translated The Pirates of Penzance into Gozitan. Rumours abound of other flamboyant visitors like the architect Henry Lynch Robinson and Erroll Flynn the film star. The playwright Stewart Parker lived in one of the flats briefly about 1970.
Latterly the house was entirely occupied by young artists, among them Susan Philipsz who organised an exhibition in 1998 called Rev Todd’s Full House, which assembled the work of some fifty artists who had lived or stayed in the house up to that time. (She went on to win the Turner Prize in 2010). The building was used as a location in the film Divorcing Jack during that period. Unfortunately the flats did not meet current fire regulations and the house was closed shortly after that. Hearth negotiated a long lease on the property in 2000, and then sought finance to restore the building to its former glory. The building was unlisted because of the extent of its alterations, but it was listed in 2002 which made an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund possible. During the interim Hearth put in caretakers drawn from the pool of artists interested in the building and provided studio space for painters such as Rita Duffy and Martin Wedge.
Work started as soon as planning permission was granted in 2004. In addition to upgrading the services to the building the main work involved was the reinstatement of the elevation to College Green which had been disfigured in the conversion to flats, with steel picture windows replacing the original round headed windows and stone dormers. Restoration involved considerable repairs to brickwork and stonework as the 1930s windows were in different positions from the originals and many chimneys lacked their stone cappings. Metal finials and the cresting at the top of the roof were reinstated, along with the unusual barley-sugar railings, pillars and gates. The 1930s entrance to the flats from College Green was retained, but the old front door in Botanic Avenue which had become a window has been reinstated as a doorway. A three-storey bay added at the rear of the house was removed to restore the cubical design of the building, and that permitted restoration of the arch linking it to the former coach house. Internally, plasterwork was restored using moulds taken from no.2 College Green which had been part of the same development. The staircase dado was restored using painted and grained Lincrusta, while the flat entrance doors were grained.
Following extensive structural repairs to the outbuildings they have now opened as a restaurant, Molly’s Yard, run by the Hilden Brewery. The house of the former whiskey magnate is now linked to one of the few sources of real ale in Belfast. And as for its Headless Dog brew? If you look carefully at the base of the coach house you will see the silhouette of a headless dog, a symbol of the group of artists who were here in the 1990s: history tends to be circular, but the history of this house is more spherical than most.
Hearth Historic Buildings Trust
Annvale Construction Ltd, Armagh
V B Evans
Heritage Lottery Fund, Architectural Heritage Fund, Northern Bank