Visit Hillsborough Castle and Discover its Pivotal Role in Northern Ireland’s Recent History

A captivating stately home, Royal palace and government residence

Discover the historical treasures of Hillsborough Castle, a fascinating stately home, Royal palace and government residence that has played a pivotal role in Northern Ireland’s recent history. From its elegant interiors to its extensive gardens, this guide will show you why Hillsborough is a top-notch historical attraction.

Hillsborough Castle - magnificent art
A fine art collection

Why Visit Hillsborough Castle

1. Explore a hub of historical deal-making

Guests to Hillsborough Castle have included prominent figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Bill Clinton, and Queen Elizabeth. The house has also witnessed significant historical events that shaped Northern Ireland (see the history box below). The hour-long guided tour of the house will  get you up to date with these captivating stories.

2. Appreciate the Georgian elegance

The guided tour takes you through the elegant Georgian building to see the Throne Room and other state rooms. Of particular interest are the historical photographs of events that took place at Hillsborough, political cartoons that illustrate Irish and local history as well as some fine art including Reubens’s work. The knowledgeable guide will put all you see into historical context.

2. Enjoy the stunning gardens

Hillsborough Castle boasts 100 acres of stunning gardens. Explore features such as the walled garden, Lady Alice’s temple, lakes and streams, picturesque tree-lined avenues, and the intriguing lost garden.

4. Explore Royal Hillsborough Village with its great F&B options

Discover the charming Royal Hillsborough Village that runs through the estate, offering a variety of dining options. Visit quaint cafes, the historic Plough Inn (established in 1758), the rustic Hillside pub, and Joxer, a contemporary F&B outlet. There’s also a cafe within the gardens for a more convenient dining experience.

Hillsborough Castle - The dining room
The dining room – with a seating plan for some of the most famous guests – and one of the drawing rooms

Visiting Hillsborough Castle – Tickets, opening hours and parking

  • Tickets and Entry – Tickets to visit the grounds and take a tour must be pre-booked on the Historic Royal Palaces website: Hillsborough Castle tickets. If you are from, or plan to visit England it is worth considering buying annual membership of Historic Royal Palaces as this gives you free entry to Hampton Court Palace, Tower of London, Kensington Palace as well as Hillsborough Castle and Gardens within opening hours. You also get a small discount off visits to Kew Gardens. Historic Royal Palaces membership.
  • Opening hours – During the winter months (November to February) the grounds are only open Wednesday to Sunday and sadly the house is not open to individual visitors. However it is open to pre-booked group visits (15+ visitors) or you could sign up to one of the few special interest tours. Check the website for upcoming special interest tours. In the summer months you can book tickets to join regular daily tours of the house.
  • Parking and access: As parking is extremely limited in Royal Hillsborough village you are strongly advised to park in the designated car park which is located at the far end of the estate, but conveniently just off the A1 Belfast-Dublin motorway. The estate recommends that you allow 45 minutes to walk through the grounds if you have booked a visit to the house. The car park is set beside The Western Pavillion and the pretty walled garden where you will find a café, a shop and toilets. There is a pedestrian entry from the village through a gate besides the house.
Hillsborough Castle - The Stable Yard Tea Rooms
Hillsborough Castle – The Stable Yard Tea Room offers refreshments on site

Hillsborough Castle’s Rich History – A Summary

Hillsborough Castle - the grounds
Explore the 100 acres of grounds which are open for visitors (tickets required) for most of the year

Early years

The Hillsborough Castle estate was originally the territory of the Gaelic Irish chiefs of the Magennis family. With Elizabeth I of England’s victory over the Gaelic chiefs in 1603, an English soldier and politician, Moyses Hill, was granted the land and the title, the first Marquess of Downshire.

The Hill family (hence the name Hillsborough), built out the estate until it stretched an incredible 130 miles from Larne, north of Belfast, to Dun Laoghaire near Dublin occupying around 115,00 hectares. Guests to the house in those years included Benjamin Franklin.

A royal and government official residence

With the partition of Ireland in 1921 the British Goverment was in need of an official residence for the new Governor of the new Northern Ireland. At that time the Hills family were spending less time at the estate so Hillsborough Castle was sold to the British Government in 1925.

As an official government residence, Hillsborough has been the site of some important historical happenings such the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement 1985; the formal and informal talks that ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement, and it was where the 2010 Hillsborough Agreement was signed. It is also where Queen Elizabeth II met Irish President Mary McAleese, the first meeting on the island of Ireland between a British Monarch and a head of an independent Ireland.

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Other big names that will have walked the carpets before you include Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush, British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, as well as Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern – and of course members of the British royal family.

The guided tour through Hillsborough Castle very much helps to bring this important history alive. Even the dry negotiations and agreements seem so much more vivid when you get to see a photo of key figures deep in negotiation set right beside the chairs where the actual negotiations took place. Helpfully there is an annotated timeline with photos that helps put everything into place.

FAQ and Fun Facts about Hillsborough

Hillsborough Castle - really a big house
Hillsborough ‘castle’ is actually a stately home

Why is Hillsborough called a castle when it is just a big house?

Hillsborough Castle, despite the name, is an elegant stately home rather than a traditional castle. This ‘bigging up’ of stately homes is quite common on the island of Ireland. Other non-castles include Belfast Castle and Castle Coole in Fermanagh. The house you see today originally dates back to the 1700s. It underwent extensive remodeling in the 1830s and 40s, resulting in its current grandeur.

What are all these agreements negotiated and signed at Hillsborough all about?

  • 1985 – Anglo-Irish Agreement: A pivotal agreement which granted the government of Ireland an official consultative role in the affairs of Northern Ireland. This marked a significant development in British-Irish relations.
  • 1998 – Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement): This historic accord brought relative peace to Northern Ireland, emphasizing compromise and reconciliation.
  • 2010 – The Hillsborough Agreement: Enabling Northern Ireland to manage its policing and justice systems. The agreement played a vital role in the endruing success of the Good Friday Agreement.

Some Fun Facts

  • Having sold Hillsborough in 1925, the Hill family seat is now at Clifton Castle, near Masham, North Yorkshire where the current Marquess of Downshire, Nicholas Wills Hill, is based.
  • The late Queen Elizabeth’s Aunt lived at Hillsborough Casle as the  wife of one of the Governors of Northern Ireland.

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