Young, Robert (1822–1917), architect, was born 22 February 1822 in Donegall St., Belfast, third son of James Young (d. 1846) from Dundrod, Co. Antrim, a prosperous presbyterian linen manufacturer and woollen merchant and wholesaler; the firm he founded in Belfast was still in existence in 1997. It is said that James's wife Mary (née Magee; d. 1872) was a catholic, and that they were engaged for ten years before they could marry. They had five daughters and five sons, some of whom died in childhood; the eldest daughter, Margaret, married James Bryce (qv) (1806–77), her son was James Bryce (qv) (1838–1922), Viscount Bryce. James and Mary Young's second son, William John Young (1821–61), travelled widely and was a pioneer Alpine climber and photographer; apparently he took photographs in the Crimea during the war there. The fourth son, Charles Young (1825–1908), became a wealthy landowner in Australia, and minister for mines (1881–3) in Victoria, Australia.
Robert Young attended Belfast Academy, and studied mathematics at Glasgow University, without graduating; he returned to Belfast to be indentured to Charles Lanyon (qv) (then county surveyor for Co. Antrim), and worked for some years as Lanyon's assistant on the building of the Belfast–Ballymena railway line. After designing the Glendun viaduct, he moved to Athlone as resident engineer on the construction of the Dublin–Athlone railway line under William Dargan (qv). By 1852 he had returned to Belfast and started up a civil engineering and architectural business. In 1866/7 he took into partnership his former pupil John Mackenzie, and in 1880 his only son, Robert M. Young; as Young & Mackenzie, the firm became one of the most prominent architectural companies in the north of Ireland; it has continued into the twenty-first century. The company designed many of Belfast's landmarks: the impressive block at the end of Donegall Place for Robinson & Cleaver's department store; a building for the rival shop of Anderson & McAuley, further down Donegall Place; the Scottish Provident and the Ocean Buildings, both on Donegall Square; Belfast Royal Academy; and the fever hospital at Purdysburn.
The firm originally specialised in ecclesiastical architecture, and was responsible for many presbyterian churches throughout the north of Ireland; Robert Young was appointed the architect to the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. As such, he drew up the rubric for an architectural competition for a design for the headquarters of the church in Fisherwick Place; he specified that the whole should cost no more than £30,000. Though there were a number of entrants, none were able to comply with the ‘unusual stringency’ of the conditions (Drew, quoted in Brett, 69), and the church then simply sidestepped the idea of open competition and appointed Young to design the buildings. There was of course a storm of protest, particularly when Young's building cost more than double what he had originally specified. The criticism of Young's design by contemporaries was probably due in part to the disappointment of unsuccessful competitors, and Church House subsequently achieved the status of familiar landmark, though the architectural critic Charles Brett (1928–2005) believed that it was one of the least attractive Belfast buildings of the period. He particularly disliked the copious exterior carving: ‘a number of dragons, apparently expiring in agony, and a very sick eagle in deepest moult, as well as a great number of cherubim and seraphim with coyly drooping eyelids’ (Brett, 70).
Young was a leading figure in Belfast's cultural life; he was a JP, one of the first senators of QUB, and chairman of the Lagan Navigation Co. He was made a privy counsellor in 1907. He was also an antiquarian (FRSAI), a naturalist, and an artist in water colours. Papers read to the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society (of which he was president 1877–8) included notes on local geology and archaeology, as well as appeals for the preservation of historical monuments. He was involved in 1894 with Francis J. Bigger (qv) and others in reviving the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. He was president of Belfast Literary Society and of the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge (1903–13), and gave several important gifts to the Linen Hall Library, notably the minutes of the Belfast Harp Society 1808–40; he was knowledgeable about ancient Irish music, as well as folk music. He was a judge at the Feis Ceoil held in Belfast in 1898.
In an interesting and lengthy autobiographical memoir, partly published in 1971, he described his early life up to his marriage (1850) to Sarah (d. 1870), the only daughter of the Rev. Robert Magill (qv); they had one son and three daughters, one of whom died in childhood. Robert Young died 21 January 1917, and was buried in Balmoral cemetery, Belfast.
His son Robert Magill Young (1851–1925), architect, was born 6 March 1851 in Athlone, Co. Westmeath. He was educated at Dr Reddy's school, Belfast, and at QCB, where he graduated (1877) with a BA degree. He was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Involved with many of the firm's major projects, he designed a number of presbyterian churches, but was best known for his antiquarian researches and publications.
He published papers in the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, of which society he was a fellow and twice vice-president; he was elected MRIA in 1891, and for twenty-six years was honorary secretary of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society. For seventeen years he was honorary secretary of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast. He produced a number of books as well as about sixty historical and archaeological papers; he edited The town book of the corporation of Belfast 1613–1816 (1891), and wrote Ulster in '98 (1898) and Historical collections relative to old Belfast (1896). His Belfast and the province of Ulster in the twentieth century (1908) is one of the most valuable sources of biographical information about many of his contemporaries.
Robert M. Young married (1878) Eleanor, daughter of James Reid of Belfast. They had two sons and two daughters; after the death of his wife (16 December 1924) Young never recovered and died on 19 November 1925. He was buried in the family grave in Balmoral graveyard, Belfast.