In 1610 Sir Arthur Chichester, then Lord Deputy suggested the granting of a substantial parcel of land to Turlough Óg O’Boyle in and around Creeslough, and embracing what became known as Ards Demesne. It comprised some 2000 acres. The proposal was approved on certain stipulations. One was that O’Boyle would desist from involvement in any rebellion. The penalty for violation was the forfeiture of his newly won possession. Having taken over, O’Boyle, eight years later, erected a residence on the estate, using it as a family home. Long since in ruins, it is known by the older generation as “Faugher House”, also as “Wray’s Castle”.
The O’Boyle dynasty was fated to be of short duration. As early as 1641 a rebellion erupted when McSwiney of Fanad sided with his kinsmen against the English, this meant the immediate enforcement of that forfeiture edict. The O’Boyles were driven out and the lands given over to Sir John Steven’s.
There was an early assignment to Hugh Hamill and then to William Samson. Eventually the property came into the ownership of William Wray. That was in 1700. Not much is known about the Wrays except that John Wray, the first to come to live in Ireland, had been in the British Army. Once here he quickly established himself as a man seeking prominence and prestige. He was for a time Alderman of Derry. As usually happened to those who yielded useful loyalty and service to Her Majesty, Wray was generously endowed with valuable lands in not one, but a number of parts of Donegal, including 1000 acres at Carnagillagh, as well as holdings at Muff and Burt.
John Wray died in 1624 and was succeeded by his son Henry, who, in turn was succeeded by his son William in 1666. William married Anne Sampson from Burt but she died shortly after giving birth to their second child. William remarried but was accused of high treason and fled to England with his wife and sons. After King William’s accession to the throne they were able to return to Castlewray where they spent the next ten years. One of the sons, Henry, married in 1700 and inherited the property.
Mrs. William Wray (Henry’s step-mother) decided that her other stepson, Humphrey, would have a place of abode which for spaciousness and elegance would put Henry’s property much in the shade. There was to be no second-best for her much cherished stepson. A lady of some wealth, she commissioned the building of Ards House. Those were the halcyon days of elaborate and sumptuous party giving and Ards House was no exception. Dignitaries of Ards House wined, dined and danced within its ornate walls. The highlights of its socialising jamborees came about the middle of the eighteenth century. Humphrey died about 1733. His son William was the lucky inheritor of what one contemporary observer described as a fine property “with a splendid rent roll”.
At the time he was but a teenager – and destined to be the last of the Wray dynasty to hold sway at Ards. Ards House, at this time, was among the country’s largest and best-equipped mansions in landlord ownership. The centre of the vast estate could be likened to a little town in itself. The far stretching appurtenances included stabling, coach houses, and a variety of workshops for tailors, shoemakers, saddlers, slaters and carpenters. After the manner of Glenveagh Castle of later vintage, Ards House was centred in a mountainous, bog-strewn terrain, far removed from town or village. The dreary landscape was somewhat relieved by considerable areas of forestation. William Wray, the lord of the manor, left no room for doubt that he, and he alone, was the unchallengeable supreme in those parts. In both the domestic and public spheres, as far as his jurisdiction extended, he was an unyielding disciplinarian.
Glorying in his wealth and intent on impressing all and sundry that it was the Wray wit that ran in the parish of Doe. William decided to have a road constructed from Letterkenny to Ards [presumably to give access for his guests coming from that direction]. Having assessed the probable cost, and satisfied that he could afford it, he had this major engineering job set on foot. Of necessity, in those days, when mechanical aids in the building industry were unheard of, progress on the new highway was none too rapid. Wray, possibly to ensure that his workers did not squander time, set a time limit for the completion of the contract. When it looked as though it would not be met, he ordered a high-shift be taken on and that during the hours of darkness they would toil with the aid of torchlights. The plan was such as to facilitate his guests in feasting their eyes on the beauty of his mansion home and surrounding countryside.
As was the custom in those days, the vainglorious Wray had a seat on the local bench of magistrate; an excellent vehicle for the demonstration of his authority. It is recorded that one occasion a small vessel was sheltering close to Ards he boarded it. Discovering what he believed (wrongly) to be smuggled tobacco he seized and destroyed if. The master reported it on his return to Derry. Consequentially there was a court action in Lifford that cost Wray a cool 600 (a tidy sum in those days).
With all that improvident spending on road making and lavish ntertainment, it was bound to happen that the Wray wealth would eventually begin to run out. Which it did! The property was put up for sale in 1781 so that accumulating debts could be liquidated. The new squire of Ards was one Alexander Stewart who parted with 13,000 for the privilege, a sum said at the time to be insufficient to clear Wray’s debt’s. The shock of it all and the sudden calamitous fall from power and glory was too much for Mrs. Wray who died shortly afterwards. Wray himself shorn of the authority and influence he had earlier exercised, often to inexcusable limits, moved to Paris. In but a few years, old, friendless and penniless, he died in a garret in that city.
The new man in Ards House was a brother of the Marquis of Londonderry and an uncle of the ill-starred Lord Castlereagh. He was High Sheriff of Donegal in 1791. One of his sons, John, was later the Lord of Rockhill House, Letterkenny, now a military post. Alexander died aged 85 and was succeeded by his son, also named Alexander who married the daughter of the Lord Chancellor of England. After 20 years he died and was succeeded by his son, again named Alexander.
It was during the tenure of the third Alexander that the Land Acts were passed, the purpose being to give occupiers (known to their superiors as ‘peasants’) an interest in their holdings. As with most landlords, who saw this legislation as usurpation of their over lordship and the thin edge of the edge to have them ousted, this swing towards tenant right found no favour at Ards House, quite the contrary. Here again there was a fiendish show of tyrannical spleen. While not a rack-landlord in the accepted meaning of the term, Stewart was unbending on insistence that he was the boss. Eviction was his answer where tenant right changed hands; common sense of fair play had no place in his makeup. On the paltriest of pretext, he would leave a helpless family on the roadside. When he died in 1904 his tenants had no reason to go into mourning.
Ownership passed to his granddaughter, Ena Stewart, who was popular with the tenantry. She married Sir Peter Bam, a South African, in 1910, and from then on Ards became known as the Stewart-Bam estate. It stayed in the family until 1926 when it was taken over by the Land Commission. The house and demesne was acquired by the Capuchin Order who went into occupation in mid-March, 1930. The house had been vacant for along time, the only occupiers being Paddy and Mrs. O’Brien who shared the care taking duty. In the intense cold, the absence of both heating and lighting offered a cheerless prospect to that first pioneering group of three, Fr. Colman as Guardian, Fr. Andrew and Fr. Carthage.
Ards House was solidly built (some of the walls were 3ft thick) but was not as commodious as exterior appearance would lead one to believe. First priority for the newly arrived Capuchins was an internal restructuring to comply with the needs of community life. What had been a room for dancing was converted into an oratory, where mass was celebrated. Two massive mantelpieces, which had to be removed, were later erected in Glenveagh Castle. Outside the expansive grounds had been neglected for years, resembling a wilderness, and roads and paths had to be cleared of fallen trees.
Ards House, the splendid home of the Wray, Stewart and Stewart-Bam families for some 260 years, was demolished in 1966 and was replaced by a new friary.